The Way Parents Talk about Halloween Candy Is A Harmful, Toxic Mess

It’s that time of year: Pumpkins and skeletons adorn lawns and stoops, costumes are being ordered and assembled, and kids are already plotting trick-or-treating routes that will bring them the biggest haul.

Halloween season is upon us, with bags of candy lining grocery store shelves and bowls of miniature candy bars popping up along receptionists’ desks. We’re surrounded by sweet treats well before the 31st, when comments about “too much sugar,” “being bad” and “cheating” reach their peak.

How many of us have heard someone say they buy their least favorite Halloween candy to hand out to trick-or-treaters so they won’t be tempted to eat it all themselves? Our kids are hearing all of this, too.

The truth is, one day filled with sweet treats won’t do any long-term harm to our kids (absent certain medical conditions and provided they brush their teeth). But hearing adults bad-mouth the candy integral to a holiday they look forward to all year does impact the way they understand food and their growing bodies.

The days leading up to Halloween offer us a chance to choose our words mindfully and allow our kids to experience different foods with joy instead of anxiety — perhaps in a way that we didn’t get to ourselves at their age.

Below, experts offer tips about how to frame this sweets-centered celebration in a way that will help kids have fun and maintain a healthy relationship with food.

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It’s okay for kids to enjoy their candy.

How should we talk about Halloween candy?

No matter the time of year, use terms that are value-neutral when you talk about candy — or any other food. Chocolate bars aren’t conniving. Kale isn’t virtuous.

Alexandra Altman, a therapist in Maryland who specializes in issues related to food and eating, advises against talking about candy with words like “bad” and “evil.”

“This can shame kids for loving candy and really moralizes it, when the truth is it’s just a food that happens to have sugar in it,” Altman said. “The more power we give it, the more our kids tend to obsess over it or feel guilty for wanting or eating it.”

Ideally, kids will approach any food with curiosity, instead of thinking of it as “bad” or “good.”

“There’s nothing wrong with enjoying sweet foods ― they’re delicious and fill us with quick energy,” said Alyssa Miller, a nutritionist who runs the Instagram account nutrition.for.littles.

“In the end, we want to raise conscious eaters, who know how foods affect their body and how to eat all foods in a way that makes them feel good,” she continued.

We can model this by saying things like, “All foods do something for our bodies. Candy is sweet and gives us quick energy. Let’s pick out some of our favorite pieces to have with our dinner tonight,” Miller suggested.

If you need to pick through the loot to remove allergens or choking hazards, she recommended the phrase, “Let’s look through and take out anything that isn’t safe for our bodies.”

And rather than warning them that they’ll be sick if they eat one more Twizzler, Miller suggested being honest and using our own experiences to help them make connections about the effect different foods have on their bodies.

You might say, “My belly gets a little upset when I eat too much candy, I think I’ll have a few tonight and save some for another day,” she said.

Alissa Rumsey, a registered dietician and the author of Unapologetic Eating, suggested allowing kids to eat as much candy as they want while encouraging them to check in with their bodies in a judgment-free way.

“Asking questions like ‘How does the candy taste?’ or ‘How does your tummy feel?’ — without any expectation of it changing their eating decision right then — can help kids begin to identify their body sensations and notice how certain foods make them feel,” Rumsey said. “This can naturally help them self-regulate over time.”

Talking about the positives, such as your own favorite childhood candies, is another way to connect with your kids around the holiday.

“Sweets and desserts help form memories and feelings of comfort,” Miller explained. “This makes sense because our bodies feel safe when there’s plenty of quick energy available.”

Rumsey advised against bargaining using other foods, as in: “You can have candy if you finish your dinner.”

“This reinforces disconnected eating, and elevates certain foods as ‘good’ and others as ‘bad’ or ‘forbidden,’” she said.

Sarah Herstich, a trauma, body image and binge eating therapist in Pennsylvania, warned against labeling candy as “addictive” or otherwise communicating to kids “that they can’t trust themselves around candy, or that you can’t trust yourself around candy, that candy can’t be kept in the house, that it will make you gain weight.”

Such talk can lead to “guilt and shame during and after eating experiences with these food groups,” Herstich said.

While your kids likely won’t notice how many pieces you eat — unless you’re stealing them right from their bucket — they will hear your self-judgment in phrases like, “I shouldn’t be eating this,” “I’m being bad tonight” or “I’m going to have to go to the gym tomorrow.” They may internalize what they hear and begin thinking those thoughts about their own body.

But if we let them have at it, won’t they just eat it all?

Probably not, it turns out.

“If kids are taught to think about candy from a neutral perspective, they will generally lose interest in it after a few days,” Rumsey said.

Herstich noted that “allowing our kids to experience feeling overly full” is part of helping them “get to know their bodies and what feels good.”

Experts warned against hiding candy, throwing it out, or otherwise being restrictive about it. If kids know the candy will still be there for them tomorrow, they’ll feel less of a need to eat it all on Halloween night.

“I can’t tell you how many moms tell me when they were kids they weren’t allowed to eat their Halloween candy, or their parents dumped it all in the trash, and now as parents, they can’t stop eating it when they buy it for trick or treaters or out of their kid’s bags after bedtime,” Miller said.

Altman agreed that this kind of restriction can backfire.

“Parents tend to get so caught up in the idea of trying to control their kids’ food and candy consumption around a holiday like Halloween, and while their intentions may be good, this type of food policing typically only tends to drive food and candy obsession and fixation in children,” she said.

“In my experience — and with all of the clients I see who struggle with eating disorders — this leads to kids feeling cheated and frustrated, and makes them more likely to hide or hoard candy,” Altman continued.

Adults often experience the same thing when they go on restrictive diets, longing to indulge in precisely the thing they aren’t supposed to eat, Rumsey noted.

“This is biological — we are wired to react to any type of restriction with increased cravings and binge/binge-like behavior,” she said.

“Many parents worry that if they give their kids free-range to eat candy, that they’ll only ever choose sweets when given the opportunity,” Rumsey added. “But actually, the research shows the opposite — kids who are given access to a variety of food, including candy, end up naturally responding to their intuitive body cues and eat a variety of foods including fruits, vegetables, grains, protein, and sweets.”

Candy — even in huge quantities — won’t hurt our kids. But fat-shaming and negative body talk will.

“Parents have a lot of power in terms of influencing how their kids’ feel about food and their body,” Altman said. “The ways we talk about food and bodies and weight and appearance growing up can plant seeds for years to come.”