It is a cultural norm in various countries to give children candy for Halloween. While I don’t have kids or generalized advice on controlling their candy intake around this holiday, the flip side are the ethics of doling out junk if you allow them to come to your house. The simplest choice would be not to allow them (but traditions are difficult to break, and adults enjoy seeing the pleasure the children get out of it), or healthy alternatives could be given instead (packages of nuts for example), though they would still amass a large amount of calories in a short time. When searching for research on Halloween, I found another option: give them toys instead. According to one study, they are almost just as likely to take a toy as a piece of candy when given the choice.
The authors discuss lingering concerns in the literature that indirectly suggest children may not self-regulate calorie intake after consumption of sweets like they do with more nutritious foods. Therefore, exposure to large amounts of sweets during Halloween may lead to metabolic perturbations and weight gain. Combine this with other holidays during the the year that revolve around food and sweets and there is a high risk for permanent weight gain. Targeting the root of the problem- the handing out of candy- may be effective if the adults see that children enjoy alternatives.
The study took place at 7 households in Connecticut and included 283 children ages 3 to 14. The children were offered a toy (stretch pumpkin men, large glow-in-the-dark insects, Halloween stickers, or Halloween pencils) or candy (name brand lollipops, fruit-flavored chewy candies, fruit-flavored crunchy wafers, and “sweet and tart” hard candies) on 2 plates when they approached the houses.
They found that 135 children chose toys, and 148 chose candy. The average ages of the children who chose toys versus those who chose candy was not significantly different.
These findings suggest that even if given the option of candy, nearly half (if applicable to other populations) of children prefer a toy. If in general children place as much value on a toy as the candy, it shouldn’t matter if you only give the option of a toy, as the reverse is for the most part true now.
Now, obviously this does not mean the consumption of sweets was curbed in these children. The households were spread out among different towns so the children may have picked the toys just because they were only given the option of candy at other houses. The authors acknowledge this:
…it is possible that children chose toys in our study because they were novel. However, rather than using that as a reason to revert back to candy as the standby, this suggests that children respond positively to novelty and places the burden on adults to be creative in thinking of treats other than candy. It may be unrealistic to disassociate Halloween from candy entirely, but any decrease in the amount of candy eaten is a step in a healthy direction.
Maybe if children can learn to associate Halloween with nonfood treats, it would facilitate a cultural change. Neighborhoods could mediate this by getting together and agreeing to handout something beside candy. Feel free to brainstorm in the comments below.
Regardless, if you want to participate and clear your conscious, make your handout treats toys, or another nonfood item from now on.
Schwartz MB, Chen EY, & Brownell KD (2003). Trick, treat, or toy: children are just as likely to choose toys as candy on halloween. Journal of nutrition education and behavior, 35 (4), 207-9 PMID: 12859885