Sweet Treats

How to handle the onslaught of sugar during Halloween

By: Shannon Dean

It’s no wonder that Halloween is among the most eagerly-anticipated of family holidays. What kid doesn’t love dressing up and visiting vibrantly decorated places where happy people hand out candy? Who can resist a parade of adorable trick-or-treaters? However, even the most fun-loving parent can’t help but cringe when kids dump all of their collected candy onto the living room floor. Although there have been numerous scientific studies which claim that children’s behavior is not affected by excess sugar, anyone who has witnessed a roomful of kids jazzed up on sweets would certainly disagree. No one can argue that candy is both nutritionally void and full of sugar (which contributes to obesity and tooth decay). According to the USDA Agricultural Research Service, some kids already consume an average of twenty-one teaspoons of sugar per day. Fortunately, there are many steps parents can take to make Halloween fun for everyone—without allowing harmful amounts of sugar to overshadow the fun.


Susan Nitzke, PhD, a longtime professor of nutritional sciences at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, suggested that caregivers make a conscious effort to create alternative Halloween traditions that focus on the activity, not on the treats: “Children caught up in the excitement of other Halloween activities are less likely to be focused on the candy,” she said. Some suggestions for fun activities are: hosting your own Halloween costume or craft party; coordinating a scavenger hunt (with toys, not candy, for prizes); participating in candy-free carnivals that are offered by many communities; spinning spooky tunes in the front yard to entertain passing trick-or-treaters.

A recent Halloween study found that many children were just as likely to choose toys as candy when given both options, so don’t sweat offering alternatives. Non-food Halloween items like pencils, stickers, and temporary tattoos are great choices. You can also offer healthier food options, like individual packages of graham crackers, mini-boxes of raisins, or sugar-free gum.


No matter how conscious you are about how you spend Halloween, it’s inevitable that your child will be exposed to at least some candy. You’ll just need a plan to dispose of any excess. Some parents allow a few small pieces per day until most of the candy (or the interest) is gone. You can also offer to trade most of the candy for a bigger, more desirable prize, like a coveted game or toy. Even offering five dollars for all but a few handfuls of candy is cheaper than filling a cavity, and less painful than a toothache. Dentists suggests letting children eat candy after a meal because the body will produce more saliva to help neutralize the acids that attach to tiny teeth. The worst time to eat candy is right before bed.

Have kids rinse out their mouths and brush thoroughly after a candy feast, no matter what time of day. What do dentists consider the worst candies for teeth? Anything that sticks to the teeth and stays there—items like Dots, gummy bears, suckers, and hard candies. The best choice for “oral clearance” (i.e. that which spends the least amount of time on teeth) is chocolate, because it melts quickly.

If fat and calories are a concern, some popular candies are better choices than others. Licorice only contains thirty calories per serving, and Hershey’s Kisses only have twenty-five. Some chocolate candies like Peppermint Patties, Junior Mints, and Three Musketeers are significantly lower in fat than other choices. Snack sized portions are also an option.


Once you’ve convinced your child to give up the extra candy, get it out reach so that it’s no longer a lingering temptation. Freeze some chocolate bars to melt for s’mores, brownies, or fondue. Consider cutting up the rest to use as chocolate chips for baked goods intended for military personnel, teachers, or anyone special to your heart. Packaging up homemade goodies for others will place the focus on service instead of on consumption.


Halloween is a great time to talk to children about the importance of making good nutritional choices, but you may not want to portray that message as one of overwhelming sacrifice. Once you’ve come up with a workable game plan that allows everyone a little indulgence, explain the limits, but don’t dwell on them.

“If you get too restrictive, they tend to hide food or snack secretly. Most of the Halloween feeding frenzy is in the first few days and then it will settle down,” reassures Linda Davenport, a dietician at Norwood Hospital in Massachusetts. And Idaho dental director A. Riley Cutler says, “Gathering and eating Halloween candy can be a lot of fun for kids and caregivers alike. You can’t raise a child and take away everything that is fun. The key is moderation.”

So offer your little Spider-Man or Wonder Woman plenty of alternatives, but when they savor their hauls, know that treats in moderation are part of the thrill. Then help them learn to make good choices and figure out a useful way to share or purge the excess.



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