Should Parents Regulate Halloween Candy?

by Tara Saltzburg October 27, 2017

Hey There,

Halloween is just around the corner and it seems that candy is a bit of a sticky topic amongst the mom community. I’m a mom to a two year old boy so I’m just learning that Halloween candy consumption, among many other things, is quite a divisive topic:

(Mom #1) Max is allowed one fun-sized piece then the rest is hidden and I eat it when he goes to bed. 

(hehe) 

(Mom #2) I only allow Cameron to pick the pieces that are egg free, gluten free, & peanut free. He’s not allergic to any of that - we’ve had him tested - but you can never be too careful. 

(yeah, true that, girlfriend)

(Me) My son eats whatever kind he wants. And as much as he wants. 

(crickets)

Truthfully, I’ve never really thought about Halloween candy. Growing up, my goal was to acquire as much as possible, eat the good stuff, then leave the puffy peanuts and Mike & Ikes for my dad. I don’t remember my parents stressing over how much I could have or if I was capable of self-regulating my intake. Their goal was just to keep me alive by ensuring the candy was sealed and there weren’t any needles poking through my Butterfinger

My son is two this year. He participated in Halloween last year but wasn’t overly excited since I forced him to dress in overalls and wear a fake mustache. (It's me, A-Marioooooo!)

child-dressed-as-Mariomario-costume

Now that he’s a bit older and more aware of his love for sweets, I began wondering what is actually recommended when it comes to kids and Halloween candy. Really, what is recommended when it comes to kids and “junk food” in general?

Food Restriction

Researchers Leanne Birch and Jennifer Orlet Fisher first examined the effects of food restriction in 1999. They found that restricting access to certain foods focuses children's attention on those foods, while increasing their desire to obtain and consume them.

In a 2014 New York Times article, Tara Parker-Pope examined “The Lure of Forbidden Food”. She references two Penn State University studies: one in which preschoolers “work” for food (by clicking a computer mouse) and another in which those same preschoolers were shown enticing, yet “off-limits” treats, at snack time.

The first experiment showed that certain children were more highly motivated by food, working harder to continue receiving treats. Those same kids also showed more interest in the “off-limit” treats in the second experiment, and once the treats were available, they took and ate more than their counterparts. Researchers have coined these children “reactive eaters”.  

What Does This Mean?

“The message is that restriction is counterproductive — it just doesn’t work very well,” said Brandi Rollins, a Penn State researcher and lead author of the study. “Restriction just increases a child’s focus and intake of the food that the parent is trying to restrict.”

According to Ms. Birch, senior author of the Penn State studies and now a professor at the University of Georgia, said “additional research has shown that parents who impose highly restrictive food rules, such as putting desirable foods out of reach, tend to have children who are the most reactive to food in the laboratory.”

Ellyn Satter, a registered dietician, family therapist, and leading authority on eating and feeding, says it’s best not to restrict “forbidden foods”:

"You might be able to keep 'forbidden food' away from your child when she is little, but not when she is older and out on her own. The idea is to allow your child to feel relaxed and be matter-of-fact about all kinds of foods. Then, even when you aren't around to supervise, she will eat moderately of high-calorie, low-nutrient foods, the same as other foods." 

So, Candy?

In her book, Your Child’s Weight: Helping Without Harming, Ms. Satter states:

''Halloween candy presents a learning opportunity. Work toward having your child be able to manage his own stash. For him to learn, you will have to keep your interference to a minimum. When he comes home from trick or treating, let him lay out his booty, gloat over it, sort it and eat as much of it as he wants. Let him do the same the next day. Then have him put it away and relegate it to meal- and snack-time: a couple of small pieces at meals for dessert and as much as he wants for snack time. If he can follow the rules, your child gets to keep control of the stash. Otherwise, you do, on the assumption that as soon as he can manage it, he gets to keep it. Offer milk with the candy, and you have a chance at good nutrition.”

I’m no dietician and certainly no doctor, but I am a mom. I have one very happy little boy who indulges in his share of chips, cookies, and Fruit Roll-Ups. Although we may be more lenient with snacks and treats than other parents, our son eats a well-balanced diet and every meal we put in front of him; that includes shrimp, vegetables, chicken, rice, potatoes, salmon, and fruit. So I’m going to stay the course, let him enjoy Halloween, and just make sure all the candy is sealed before he eats it.

XO, Tara