Do you wonder how you should handle Halloween treats for toddlers or preschoolers?
Last year, at an innocent 2-½ years old, my son didn’t even really know what candy was. After getting his first handout at the zoo trick or treat, he promptly dumped his bag out onto the ground. He left the candy scattered about and filled the bag with leaves instead.
When our neighbor gave him a sucker (lollipop), he – logically! – flipped it upside down and tried to suck from the stem like a straw.
Of course once he realized the sweet goodness that candy is, he got more interested.
It felt like my first real test as a dietitian-mom. How do I balance my goals of building healthy habits and eating healthy now, plus building a positive relationship to food, which includes normal childhood experiences and candy consumption?
I wanted candy to be a non-issue and live up to my ideals of never treating food as good/bad. I didn’t want to suck the fun out of it or give a single food too much power.
Still, I found that my instinct was to control how much he had. I also wanted him to unquestioningly accept the rationed portions and not want more (so realistic!).
However much I hate to admit it, I was a little bit afraid that once we opened the door to the world of candy that it would be so difficult to keep him from wanting too much. That he’d never want to eat anything else, and that we’d end up in power struggles. But I KNEW that caving into these fears is more likely to make things worse than better in the long run.
I think I handled it ok.
Happily, I was able to control my urge to control. To a point. I mean, he was 2, he needed SOME guidance. I let him eat a piece or two with meals and snacks whenever he asked. Some days he asked at every meal, especially at first. Yes, it made me nervous at times, and sometimes we did have small battles about how many pieces.
But I could tell he was really, truly enjoying those treats (a win for mindful eating!) And then some days, he didn’t ask for candy at all. Eventually he quit altogether, I think even before the candy was gone. The situation certainly did not live up to any fears I had. His taste preferences were not ruined forever and he didn’t start begging for treats all the time.
Treat talking points
I try to hold back from nutrition lessons; at this age, I only give the most simple messages, and only when he asks. So when he would ask why we only have candy sometimes, these are my common responses:
- These are a fun food. They don’t do much to make our bodies grow stronger, but they taste good.
- Eating too much at once can make your tummy hurt (although, can you ever truly learn this without experiencing it? As he grows and can connect those dots I’ll be letting him have the freedom to learn that lesson).
- We eat all different kinds of foods to feel good and grow stronger.
And that’s it. Older kids might benefit from deeper discussion, but toddlers and preschoolers? They’re not ready for that.
Ready for round two…
A year has gone by. A year of ever-increasing independence, of more exposures to sweets and treats, and of normal toddler mealtime
battles conflicts reminders for mom to back off. My son’s temperament leads him to push back hard against any sort of being told what to do, including eating pressure. I’ve learned that lesson well. And here we are at another Halloween.
My goal this year is to back off even more, let him enjoy and learn. If he’s choosing in a way that seems problematic, I’ll give him my thoughts (mostly repeats of the points listed above). Imagine how you would feel if someone put a bunch of rules around your candy eating. Say your partner was counting how many pieces you had and telling you when you’ve had enough, how would that go over?
When I catch myself worrying, I tell myself to trust my child. He might not do candy eating “perfectly.” Quite frankly, neither will I. Sometimes I overdo it (and candy isn’t even usually my thing. I’m a brownie type of girl). The world doesn’t end. I’ll realize how I feel and naturally choose what makes me feel better as time goes on. That’s a skill I want him to build too.
To keep candy from becoming a fixation, I have a few basic strategies:
- Focus not just on getting candy, but giving it too.
- Enjoy the non-food parts of the holiday – decorations, costumes, etc.
- Don’t knock on a million doors. A limited haul is easier for everyone to manage. Related, try not to over-buy candy for handing out. It’s harder to eat it moderately when you have a more-than-moderate pile leftover.
- Don’t treat candy as bad or forbidden. Acknowledge that it’s fun, but it’s generally just a small part of what we eat.
- Apply the above all year long! If candy is demonized all year long, it’s tough to reduce it’s power on Halloween.
My son is excited it’s Halloween again. It’s not because of the costumes (I’m not sure he remembers dressing up last year, and this year I’m phoning it in and just having him wear Halloween pj’s…). Or the candy, which of course he likes but maybe he doesn’t realize yet that he’ll be getting some. He likes decorating. Pumpkins and things that light up enthrall him.
Mostly he just asks when we’re going to “sit out on the driveway again.” Which is funny to me because, being from the North as I am, I’d never imagined that people would grab their lawn chairs and sit in the driveway with their buckets of candy. I guess it saves wear and tear on the doorbell.
Really though, it just tickles me how much fun the little guy had passing out candy, and that the memory of that overshadows “I get to eat candy!”