I hear this question a lot this time of year, “as a mom and dietitian, how do you handle Halloween candy with your kids?”
People are surprised when I answer, “I don’t handle it, I let my kids handle it.” They are often confused too, so allow me to explain what I mean. Please note that I am sharing my perspective as a nutrition professional who works with individuals with disordered eating patterns as well as a mom of three little Halloween lovers.
In the nutrition culture we live in, it’s really easy to adopt an all-or-nothing mentality with food. As parents, we run the risk of creating that environment at home. If so, our kids will quickly learn to eat in response to perceived restriction ahead, sneaking or hiding food, or eating all the foods at school, parties or friends' houses they can’t have at home. This prevents them from honoring their natural, biological signals of hunger and fullness.
My recommendation, and what I practice at home, is to teach a more moderate approach in a structured environment. Eventually our kids will leave home, and instead of raising uber-healthy eaters, a far more effective goal would be to raise competent, confident eaters who trust their own intuitive signals.
In order to do so, we’ve got to give our kids more responsibility with food. Instead of micromanaging their food experiences, I encourage you to give them room to explore and learn. Kids need boundaries too, so it might be helpful to think of this as a flexible structure, with you and your children each having different responsibilities.
The Division of Responsibility is a feeding model developed by registered dietitian Ellyn Satter. Essentially, there are different responsibilities for a parent/caretaker and a child at mealtimes.
Too often parents overstep their boundaries, which can lead to a power struggle. In return, children aren’t able to develop a healthy relationship with food — one where they are offered a variety of foods and then able to listen to their own innate hunger and fullness signals; an essential part of being a competent eater through adulthood. Below, I will quote from the Ellyn Satter Institute to give you an idea of what the DOR looks like:
Parents’ feeding jobs:
- Choose and prepare the food.
- Provide regular meals and snacks.
- Make eating times pleasant.
- Step-by-step, show children by example how to behave at family mealtime.
- Be considerate of children’s lack of food experience without catering to likes and dislikes.
- Don't let children have food or beverages (except for water) between meal and snack times.
- Let children grow up to get bodies that are right for them.
Children’s eating jobs:
- Children will eat.
- They will eat the amount they need.
- They will learn to eat the food their parents eat.
- They will grow predictably.
- They will learn to behave well at mealtime.
You as the parent are responsible for providing a variety of foods, establishing appropriate meal and snack times, and monitoring where food is eaten (ideally in the kitchen, not in front of the TV or in bedrooms, etc). Children are responsible for deciding what and how much they want at meal and snack times. You aren’t a short order cook, and the kitchen doesn’t have a revolving door for kids to grab something anytime they please. For more information on the Division of Responsibility, I would recommend the book "Secrets to Feeding a Healthy Family" by Satter.
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So how does this relate to Halloween candy?
We trust our kids to trust themselves in how to handle their candy, within a certain structure. They will likely eat more than usual or necessary on Halloween, because that’s totally normal. In the days and weeks to follow, they can include some candy along with meals and snacks (within the meal and snack times you decide), preventing the need to have it all right now before the candy gets donated or sold or hidden or thrown away.
If you feel a child isn’t taking care of responsibilities, you are encouraged to have an honest discussion with your child about your concerns.
For example, let’s say your child complains of a stomach ache each time he includes candy at snack time. You could express concern that he isn't listening to his own fullness levels and remind him he is in charge of knowing when he has had enough (since you have no idea when he feels full). Remind him you want to keep candy (or any treat or food he loves) in the house, but he is responsible for connecting with his body to know what it wants and needs. Help him get curious as to why he feels the way he does and help him solve his own problem.
The question isn’t whether candy is healthy or not. The question is what approach is effective and helpful. Don’t get too caught up in results and instead focus on a process that works to help your child become self-directed, honest, responsible and trust-worthy.
To be honest, there are many times I would much rather see my kids eat something else, but to tell them what to eat just doesn’t achieve what I hope for them. Parents controlling their child’s food intake only teaches the child to rebel against the rules. Setting a structure for balanced meals and snacks, with treats at meals or as part of snacks if your child wants them is what I feel is the best approach for our family, and my general recommendation to you.
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