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.

Welcome to Eating Rules!

Hi! My name is Andrew Wilder, and I think healthy eating doesn’t have to suck. With just three simple eating rules, we'll kickstart your journey into the delicious and vibrant world of unprocessed food.

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October 29, 2012 1:59 pm

I’m impressed! We allow our kids to keep it but it gets doled out so slowly, it’s usually Easter by the time it’s gone. Sometimes it lasts longer.
Since I have diabetes, we talk a lot about our food and our food choices. We’ve made the decision to do a meat CSA coming up, we grow many veggies in the summer, and I am always talking to my kids about sugar and gluten and the need to limit both.

October 29, 2012 1:45 pm

Great post! My kids are too old to care about trick or treating anymore, but I still get frustrated that every party or event they’re invited to has candy galore! Enough already.

October 29, 2012 5:16 am

is there a website that lists all candy and what is in them? most candy does not have ingredient lists on the individual pieces.

Reply to  Debra
October 29, 2012 7:13 am

Debra: There are several websites that list ingredients for many different products, but none for candy alone (not that I know of, anyway!). I’ve actually found that many small pieces of candy do list ingredients. But if one doesn’t, I have good luck googling the name of the product + “ingredients.” I almost always find what I’m looking for. And of course, any candy with fake food dyes is usually pretty apparent to the naked eye. And if it has artificial colors, there’s a good chance the rest of the ingredients are inferior, too.

October 28, 2012 6:05 pm

Thanks so much, everyone, for reading and sharing this post. Love your ideas and strategies! If we keep this up, we’ll have a Halloween revolution on our hands, LOL.

October 28, 2012 4:53 pm

Thank you for this. Now I want to send the link to every single one of my friends with kids. 😉

Amy P
October 28, 2012 4:01 pm

I handed out glow stick bracelets last year. They were met with some disappointment, although I noticed some of the kids already had glow sticks on them and thought they were cool. I found that one glow stick had been broken and shaken on my car – I guess it wasn’t a hit with that kid. I suspect it was one of the teenagers at my door. Thankfully it washed off. I got them for 25 cents each so it wasn’t a bad price at all compared to candy. Not that these are any better in the chemical department, but at least they’re not being ingested…I hope 🙂

Summer Hansell
October 28, 2012 3:20 pm

You are so right that it’s not “just one night”: if you start making exceptions, you find, as I did, that there is almost never a time when your kids aren’t eating toxic sugar crap daily!

this year, we are giving out homemade honey caramel corn (still sugary, but not toxic!) and apples, all tagged with a note including our address and phone # and ingredients. I hope it will catch on in our neighbourhood. I think using my son’s surplus “candy” for math and science activities, and tossing most of it after a few days will be the plan. Thanks for the post.

Mommee fit
October 28, 2012 1:57 pm

Our son is four. He gets excited about dressing up, looking at all the spooky things, watching The Great Pumpkin Carlie Brown. But he has never been trick or treating. We have passed out goodies these past few years, but it’s always playdough and puzzles. This year, we are all dressing up and headed to see The Red Priest. One day, when our son is older and he wants to venture the neighborhood, that will be fine, but I don’t think he will be into the candy, (poison) even then. 🙂

Leslie Hoglund
October 28, 2012 1:46 pm

My dentist does a candy buy back the day after, so my kids view collecting candy as a money-making venture. We do not give out candy and typically, I let them pick 10 selected pieces each (4 kids) and the rest gets tossed. Sometimes we can’t even find 10 pieces that make the cut. But, the kids (ages 9, 8, 7, and 6) aren’t even affected by this. They know why we don’t value candy and would rather sell it back or trash it than eat it. Great post!

October 28, 2012 1:18 pm

I am so glad you posted about this! Seriously, we are not going Trick-or-Treating. Why go to the trouble collecting the “trash” when it gets thrown away! PLUS, I would rather spend $8 on some Organic candy without the “junk” in it for her to enjoy while we carve pumpkins and sip on cider, than contribute to the passing down of ANOTHER consumerized holiday. I so admore the explaining to your daughter about the ingredients, and their harm, and alternatives! Children are SO smart, give the credit where its due! You are exactly right about the line of &*%$ that is fed through media on the “in moderation”! Really…..It is okay to feed my child Genetically Modified, Mercury containing, Petroleum Colors, as long as it is a little??? When more parents wake up to the slow poisoning that is happening, and HAS been happening for 30+years, then ALL of their… Read more »