Teaching kids to be healthy and generous.
This year the Halloween festivities will most likely be celebrated differently because of the pandemic. You may choose to amend your plans by participating in a masked socially distanced scavenger hunt in your yard or around the neighborhood, engage in a trick-or-treating outing accompanied by hand sanitizer with instructions for everyone to sanitize before reaching for the bowl of candy, or choose to celebrate at home. There are creative COVID-friendly ways in which people are making the best out of the holiday.
Whatever way you choose to participate with your family, candy always takes center stage. As much as you appreciate seeing your children’s joyfulness, you may also be exasperated with the amount of candy that is accumulated and overindulged in.
I thought knowing about what kids genuinely appreciate about Halloween, I could make some suggestions on how to make it more enjoyable for all. Based on a poll I took of thirty kids ages 6-16, kids reported that the primary reasons they looked forward to Halloween was to spend time with friends and dressing up. The second was the competition of accumulating candy, and last, though what one would expect to be most important, was because they get to consume the candy.
During Halloween and in general, it’s important that we’re mindful about the way we communicate regarding candy and understand the way in which it physiologically impacts our children. Also, integral to the festivities is candy selection, consumption, and finding the best methods to deal with leftover candy so that your children can learn valuable lessons about their health and about being generous and charitable.
Communication Regarding Candy
When you use the terms “bad” food or “junk” food, kids are left feeling bad or guilty for selecting to put “junk” and “bad” foods into their bodies. It is also confusing to kids. They may question why it’s so “bad” if it tastes so good. It perpetuates cycles of guilt and shame. Stick to the notion that all food choices are fine in moderation and it does not need to be lectured on, worried over, or obsessed about.
As a parent, you want to build up your child’s self-acceptance, self-love, and self-compassion. To avoid the cycle of shame and self-loathing, mindfulness around language needs to be considered and practiced. Being mindful of the way you use language to refer to, categorize, or frame food and eating will help facilitate healthier thinking around food and eating behaviors.
Recognize and Help Your Kids Realize That They Cannot Help but Overeat Candy
Very much in the way you may have difficulty fighting your sweet tooth so does your child. Research shows that 90 percent of the dopamine receptors in the reward center of the brain are activated in response to food cues. This compels us to want more and more hyperpalatable foods. These are foods layered in salt, fat, and sweet flavors which are all proven to increase consumption when we eat them. Food manufactures know this and use it to keep you and your children hooked. Because young people are sensitive to the notions of justice and autonomy, when they are made aware of this, they often make wiser choices.
Research also shows that when given a choice rats were more attracted to sweetened water rather than cocaine or heroin. At the neurobiological level, the neural substrates of sugar appear to be more robust. In order to understand our biochemistry, when we consume glucose, a type of sugar, it spikes the blood sugar and creates a high insulin reaction. High insulin then blocks leptin, our appetite hormone, so our brain does not get the “I’m full” signal and instead thinks we are starving. Our pleasure-based reward becomes activated which drives us to consume more sugar. This explains why your child may have difficulty controlling their urges, especially during Halloween, when they are continuously exposed to candy and foods containing high levels of sugar.
Because most traditional Halloween candies have artificial flavors, artificial colors, partially hydrogenated oils, and various types of sugar content (corn syrup, dextrose, sucrose, etc.), consider making your own or selecting snacks with healthier ingredients. These ingredients include dark chocolate, almond, cashew or sunflower seed butter, oats, quinoa, chia seeds, unsweetened shredded coconut, coconut oil, honey, dates, pure maple syrup, agave or stevia, peppermint oil, and vanilla extract. You can make healthier alternatives for your kids to indulge in.
Provide Direct Guidance About Consumption
Keep in mind that kids tend to enjoy the socialization and competition aspects of Halloween, even more so than the actual consumption of candy. Candy consumption can be managed mindfully and you can proactively direct them toward making independent healthful choices regarding their eating. For example, following their expedition, give them the option of selecting any three mini snacks for a period of three days, or you can have them decide how they’ll split up the nine candies that they selected. You can help them put it into snack size zip lock bags (it will appear fuller and more substantial), and for younger kids, you may opt for them to label and decorate them.
Find Something Charitable to Do with Your Child to Make Effective Use of the Leftover Candy
Present research reports that adolescents will be more likely to improve their health and engage in healthy behavior if the healthy behavior aligns with values that adolescents care about. This includes them feeling like a socially conscious, autonomous person worthy of approval from their peers. This is scientifically known to be effective motivation for adolescent behavior change.
You can explain to your child when they eat snacks riddled with sugar, salt, and/or fat, that they’ll have a hard time tapping into when we’re satiated which often causes them to want more and eat more than they intended to. You can use the example of never seeing them overdoing it on carrot sticks or apple slices, but you may very well see them overeating potato chips, chocolate, cupcakes, and Halloween candy. You can provide them with an overview around their hunger cues and how they can be more conscious of when they are hungry or thirsty.
You can additionally inform your child that food is a lifeline for their health and provides them with energy for which they can participate in sports, learn, and go trick-or-treating with their friends. Also, that there’s a difference in the types of foods they eat, and that although all foods provide them with energy, the healthier unprocessed foods are the ones that best supply them with vitamins, minerals, and other compounds that directly help them to achieve and maintain health. Other non-essential foods like candy is fine to eat if it’s eaten sparingly and in moderation. Also ensuring that it does not crowd out essential nutritious healthy foods, which are far more important and necessary to achieve and maintain their health.
Be Cognizant of the Types of Candy You Choose to Give Out and Receive
Opt for bite size portions whenever possible. There is a big difference between a mini and regular size bars. A Snickers mini has 42 calories and 8 grams of fat, whereas a regular bar has 278 calories and 14 grams of fat. Also, always be careful of food allergies. As for some kids, any mistake, even a minor one, can prove to be fatal.
Before Halloween, you can express to your children that winning “the competition,” which seems considerably important to them, can benefit those that they will be donating their candy to. If they are dressed up in a costume of a positive role model, you can ask them what their character would do with all the leftover candy signifying their thoughtfulness and generosity.
You can make suggestions to their school that they accumulate all the leftover candy and donate it to military and first responder heroes at Soldiers’ Angels or Operation Gratitude, local soup kitchens and shelters, etc. You can also sell them in your neighborhood or at a sports event and ask for 25 cents per candy as a charitable donation and donate all the proceeds to a cause of your child’s choice.
With this, kids tap into their intrinsic values and do something that is meaningful and purposeful while they are celebrating. They transition from being solely self-motivated to being socially conscious, autonomous, and charitable. It becomes a great opportunity to further connect with your child and teach them about health, nutrition, and generosity.
For more information regarding this topic, feel free to check out my book, which is helpful for practitioners, parents, and kids: Free Your Child from Overeating: 53 Mind-Body Strategies for Lifelong Health.
Blog as posted on Psychology Today.