It’s OK. Limiting candy won’t ruin childhood.

Christina Le Beau is a journalist and blogger who writes about raising food-literate children at Spoonfed: Raising kids to think about the food they eat. Her goal with Spoonfed (and its companion Facebook page) is to raise awareness of our food system, make kids part of the conversation and, importantly, encourage people to rethink their assumptions about kids and food.

Clementine Jack o' Lanterns
Clementine Jack o’ Lanterns make for a fun Halloween party treat

My almost 9-year-old trick-or-treats. She roams the neighborhood with friends. She collects candy. She eats a couple pieces. But after the fun is done, we have another Halloween tradition: Divide and conquer. Anything with artificial colors, fake sweeteners, trans fats, high-fructose corn syrup and chemical preservatives gets tossed. Right in the garbage. (Or saved for gingerbread houses.) What’s left (and there’s not much) goes in a candy jar. And that’s often the last we see of it. Out of sight, out of mind, and all that.

When Tess was in preschool, and we visited just a few neighbors’ houses, we’d let her pick a piece, dump the rest and call it a night. Now she helps me sort. We talk about why the ingredients are bad, how they affect our bodies, and how there are better (and tastier) alternatives anyway. We do the same with birthday-party goody bags.

Some people rely on Great Pumpkins and Halloween Fairies and Switch Witches and other magical creatures that come in the night and swap candy for toys. But I’d rather have Tess involved in the process than avoid the conversation by letting some nighttime sprite do the deed. I want her to understand why we make the food choices we do. I want her to know that we can participate in cultural experiences like Halloween or state fairs or amusement parks without the obligatory bad food. I want her to know that the tired phrase “everything in moderation” is meaningless in a world of ingredients that shouldn’t be consumed at all.

Kids can enjoy Halloween without stuffing their faces or making it all about the candy. Their childhood won’t be ruined. They won’t turn all binge-y and weird and scarf every multicolored sugar nugget the minute they get the chance. Really. They won’t. That’s a myth.

What if Tess wants to eat something we’ve put in the toss pile? We let her. Because the surest way to get a kid to appreciate real food is to let her taste the opposite. The only chemical candy that has ever survived this test is Smarties, which I give a pass for food dye because they’re so pastel I figure it can’t be that much. And she eats, what, like a roll a year?

And what about the candy we toss? Isn’t that wasteful? Shouldn’t we just skip trick-or-treating altogether? Yes, it is. And no, we shouldn’t. Childhood is short, and I’m not going to deprive my daughter of this fun tradition with her friends. We don’t canvass the entire town or collect a huge haul. And we not only use some candy for gingerbread houses — we’ve also done candy experiments. But, in the end, if it’s a choice between trash in the can or trash in her body, well, there’s no question for me. (Which is also, BTW, why we won’t donate candy to food pantries.)

Now. Wait. Listen. Someone, somewhere, is saying some variation of this: “Sheesh. It’s Halloween. It’s one day a year. Lighten up and let the kids have their candy, already!”

But, see, that’s the problem. It’s not just one day a year. It’s Halloween night and class parties and community events and then the winter holidays and Valentine’s Day and Easter and birthday parties and swimming class and soccer games and the bank and the shoe store and restaurants with kid menus and the grandparents’ house and anyplace else kids set foot, including, of course, school. The sugar culture is so strong, the highly processed foodstuffs so epidemic, that we no longer have the luxury of viewing these things in isolation. It’s not just a few Halloween treats or one blue cupcake. It’s a crushing pile of chemical-laden pseudo food. And at some point we just have to make it stop.

So yes, I say boo.

And what say you? How do you handle Halloween at your house?

A photo of Andrew Wilder leaning into the frame and smiling, hovering over mixing bowls in the kitchen.

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October 28, 2012 1:16 pm

When I was young and trick or treating, people actually handed out, gasp, apples(it is October after all), homemade cookies or candies, little boxes of raisins etc. Yes, some candy too of course but no where near the horrible, dyed, preservative-laden stuff my kids bring home these days. In the last couple of years, though, my kids have been coming home with stickers, marbles, erasers etc. I like the non-food items and so do my kid. Dollar stores make it easy to hand out small inexpensive items rather than candy.

Charles B
October 28, 2012 1:01 pm

Any suggestions on how to handle halloween as one of your neighbors who doesn’t want to a) skip the tradition, b) buy or give away candy, and c) wants to give something healthy but acceptable to the safety concerns of parents? I’d love to see an unprocessed answer to this if there is one!

Reply to  Charles B
October 28, 2012 2:06 pm

I recently saw a suggestion to hand out glow bracelets. I checked and they are sold in bulk. Kids LOVE glow bracelets.

Reply to  Michele
October 28, 2012 2:55 pm

oh i love that idea!

Reply to  Charles B
October 28, 2012 6:02 pm

Charles: An organization called Green Halloween has this terrific list of non-candy ideas:

Reply to  Charles B
October 29, 2012 1:25 pm

One of my parents’ neighbors used to give homemade popcorn balls – in plastic cling-wrap, with a return-address label attached so that a. any food allergy questions could be settled with a phone call and b. everybody knew who had made them – “Aunt” Dolly and “Uncle” Gene held open-yard for kids after school and ran the Vacation Bible School and were trusted by everyone – so if you don’t have that kind of neighborhood, this might not work for you, sadly.
Yeah, the popcorn balls were sweet, and probably made with corn syrup, but at least it was “normal” rather than high-fructose corn syrup, and no food coloring or artificial flavoring.

Reply to  Sandy
October 29, 2012 1:28 pm

‘Course, this was 40 years ago. Does anybody still have neighborhoods like this?

October 28, 2012 12:59 pm

I used to buy my kids’ candy after sorting. I’d make an offer, they’d make counter offers, we’d negotiate. In the end I’d be out a few dollars (not much, really) and they’d have more spending money and less candy. We were super-broke at the time as I was a single parent going through college, so the extra cash for the kids was nice.

October 28, 2012 12:33 pm

As a retired psychotherapist who had a practice of children and families, I think it is terrific that you consciously and actively involve your daughter in the entire process of sorting and discarding candy. And you are right, kids are in a culture where sugar is king. Teaching them about healthy and unhealthy ingredients is not punitive, but, rather, empowering. My husband and I volunteered at a local kindergarten for several years. We were shocked by the kinds of treats and snacks parents either packed for their children to eat or brought for the entire classroom to consume.

October 28, 2012 12:30 pm

Where we live Smarties are made with natural colors (but I don’t live in the US so maybe our Smarties are different than yours).

I also explained to my kids at a very early age (they are now 11 and 8) why we eat some things and others we don’t and what the ingredients in them do to our bodies and minds. They totally get it and people they meet are shocked when the kids themselves start to explain why some foods are good and others aren’t.

And it is so true that kids get candy and snacks at every celebration and it’s really not “once in awhile” but way too much!

Reply to  Elle
October 28, 2012 6:00 pm

Elle: Unfortunately, yes, companies use different formulations in different countries.

As I wrote on Eating Rules’ Facebook page earlier: European countries have more stringent requirements regarding things like food dyes and GMOs, so American companies often use more natural ingredients for their overseas products while continuing to use chemical ingredients here at home. Nice, huh?

I wrote a long piece about that here:

Rachel Amanda
Reply to  Elle
October 28, 2012 6:32 pm

Hi Elle – not sure where you are, but American “Smarties” are what Canadians call Rockets. They don’t have Canadian Smarties as far as I know.

October 28, 2012 12:18 pm

Very well written. I am happy to share this with my readers!

October 28, 2012 10:23 am

“trash in the can or trash in her body” – right? It’s not where the candy goes that makes it wasteful – the creation of the candy is where the waste happens. If instead of taking the energy to create that candy, we used that energy to transport fruit and veggies to places that never get these luxuries, that would be a far wiser way to expend energy. So for you to throw the candy away? That’s simply just doing a little right for the mounds (no pun intended) of wrong that have already been done. Right on my friend!

October 28, 2012 8:20 am

We let him eat almost whatever he wants while we are trick or treating. We let him pick 5 pieces of candy when we get home. We give him $ for the rest (10 bucks or so).

And I take the rest to work.

Destiney Yates
October 28, 2012 8:12 am

I am guilty of the candy fairy deal. sort of my kids get some candy the night of and then we dump all the candy together and get rid of about half honestly because my kids know that candy is mostly all junk then we stash all the candy in a bad and it is alot with 4 kids. then every now and then i go threw n get rid of a tun of it in small doses here n there so they really wont notice its evaporating quicker than they are eating it. Also we are lucky and live in a ridiculously small town and we started a “healthy treat” program at school and we send out healthy alternative lists from school I was shocked to see just how many of these suggestions showed up in the candy bags! Things like snacks instead of candy. which in my opinion… Read more »

October 28, 2012 7:57 am

When my son was small, the candy would just disappear. I suppose it should have been a more educational process, but so be it. Now that he’s 13 I have less control. The good news is that he really only likes dark chocolate! Something worked somewhere… Now, I only have to worry about myself.

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