Halloween candy doesn’t have to be a point of conflict between parents and children. Dr. Nanika Coor explains how you can help your child learn to independently regulate their candy intake by providing structure and granting your child some autonomy when it comes to food.
Halloween for many American families means creepy costumes and candy consumption overload. I’ve mediated a whole heap of heated discussions between parents about children’s sugar intake on all of the other days of the year. So you can imagine how intense the swirl of parental emotions around Halloween candy can be!
While there are some parents that have difficulty setting any boundaries around sweets, they are more rare. More commonly, parents are convinced that regular intake of sweets will doom their child to obesity as an adult or that they’ll never learn to eat healthy. Parents worry their child will get addicted to sweets, or that eating sugary foods means they’ll ruin their appetite for "real" food. Some parents are even convinced that sweets should be earned—solely given as a reward for good behavior, and otherwise banned.
Many parents themselves grew up in homes where treats were strictly controlled. I’ve heard stories about playdates at friends’ houses where coveted junk foods—banned at home—were abundant and unrestricted by their friends’ parents. It’s unsurprising that the desire to go to friends’ houses can become more motivated by food than by the friends themselves!
External restrictions don’t help a child develop self-control.
The thing is, the more parents restrict and vilify certain foods in their home, the more likely the child is to whine and beg for them and even try to get them in sneaky ways. Children will resist control, and when that control isn’t present, it becomes a free for all where kids don’t know how to put on the brakes.
As a parent, you’re hoping that control coming from you, which is external control, will create internal motivation in your child to eat healthy. But external restrictions don’t help a child develop self-control. So what can parents do instead? Nutritionist and family therapist Ellyn Satter, the creator of Satter Division of Responsibility in Feeding (sDOR), offers some great tips for parents anxious about Halloween candy.
6 tips for helping kids learn to regulate their Halloween candy intake
1. Unlimited candy on days 1 and 2
Hear me out. Ultimately, you want your child to be able to manage their candy intake independently and responsibly. Kids learn new things by doing those new things, not by you doing it for them. So let them be in charge of their own Halloween candy. When they come home from trick-or-treating, let your kids sort and trade and eat as much of their candy as they wish. Let them eat as much as they want the next day as well.
2. Two pieces of candy for dessert
In Satter’s sDOR model, meals are defined as times when the family sits down to eat the same food at the same time. Dessert is served at the same time as the family meal, and all are free to eat their dessert before, during or after the meal—no seconds. After those first 2 days of unlimited candy, your child will need to put the candy away, but they can choose 2 pieces for dessert with their meal.
3. Unlimited candy at sit-down snack times
In sDOR, snacks are served at set times midway between meals and include 2 or 3 foods. At snack times, make sure your child is sitting down, and allow your child to have as much candy as they want. If they can follow the 2 pieces at meals rule and as much as they want at snack times - they can maintain control of their own candy stash. If it’s too hard for them, let them know you’ll help them regulate it for meals and snacks yourself, but only until they’re able to manage it on their own.
4. Everything consumed in moderation
All year round, you can help your child take a matter-of-fact and relaxed attitude toward all foods, including junk food and treats, if you don’t forbid any kind of food, treat, or drink. Show neutrality about all kinds of food rather than describing some food as "good" and other food as "bad." Serve all kinds of foods and drinks and treats that your family enjoys at sit-down meal times or sit-down snack times. Periodically at snack time, offer an unlimited amount of food or drink that you consider a treat. The more you restrict these foods, the more likely your child is to crave them and not be able to regulate their consumption of them when they do have unrestricted access. Eating these foods-to-avoid during meals and snacks renders them more ordinary and less taboo.
5. No grazing between designated eating times
You won’t need to worry about your child "ruining" their meals with candy if you make sure they’re showing up to meals and snacks hungry. That means no eating or drinking anything but water between meals and snacks. Make sure your meals include a protein, a vegetable and/or a fruit, something starchy, and whatever dairy your family prefers. For snacks, try a combo of a protein, a fat, and a carbohydrate to keep everyone sated until the next meal.
6. Be mindful of the parent-child feeding relationship
The sDOR model helps balance your responsive parental leadership with your child’s autonomy in eating. Instead of managing your child’s eating by manipulating it in some way in order to achieve your own personal nutritional or growth standards, trust your child to eat as much or as little as they need to. Even subtle pushing of your agenda for what kind of foods your child should eat and how much can interfere with your child’s self-regulation of eating habits. Your child’s eating times should be pleasant, relaxed, and enjoyable rather than tense!
Take the sDOR challenge!
Here’s a 30-day challenge: Starting on Halloween, divide the responsibilities of feeding your children. You take responsibility for the when, where, and what related to meals and snacks, and your child takes responsibility for whether or not they will eat and how much. Allow children to have autonomy over their Halloween candy if they are able to stick to 2 pieces of candy at meals and unlimited candy at snack times. Don't allow grazing between meals and snacks except for water. During family meals, make sure there are at least one or two familiar side dishes that each eater at the table enjoys. Everyone chooses foods and serves themselves from what is on the table—no special orders or substitutes. No restricting "bad" or "junk" foods—instead, eat them in moderation with snacks or meals. And finally, no pressuring children in any way to eat more, less, or differently than they already are. Prioritize structure, family togetherness, and meal sharing over specific foods and quantities of food.
Trust in your child’s competence to follow your model of eating a variety of foods that are good for their bodies and enjoyable to eat.
Learning to self-regulate around Halloween candy in particular and eating in general is a learning process that may take several years. With structured meal and snack times, plus permission to eat as much or as little as their bodies and taste buds desire from the choices you provide, your child will one day become a competent eater. Trust in your child’s competence to follow your model of eating a variety of foods that are good for their bodies and enjoyable to eat.
Along the journey to independent regulation of food intake, kids will eat inconsistently, sometimes refuse unfamiliar foods, tastes, and textures, and might eat more or less depending on their emotional or physical state. Using sDOR helps you let go of expectations around your child’s eating. You stick to your responsibilities of deciding the what/when/where of meals and snacks and let your child be responsible for the if and the how much. Then holiday candy hauls will become ordinary food your kids eat in moderation just like anything else!
Let me know how you did with the challenge! Did you find it easy? Hard? Did you see any change in you, your child, or your relationship with your child when it comes to eating? Tell me about it! Leave me a message at (646) 926-3243 or send an email to email@example.com.