In a Halloween nightmare of its own kind, parents can only watch as their kids collect and eat as many candies as they can on their trick-or-treat adventure. Although what happens during this once-a-year occasion may not have major consequences on children's health, what kids learn during the memorable holiday may affect their future behavior.
But there are sneaky steps parents can take to make Halloween a healthier day for kids — without resorting to replacing all the candy with nuts and fruits.
For example, parents might host craft parties where kids can use the candy to make things.
"I'm a big fan of making candy haunted houses," said Heather Mangieri, a nutrition consultant and spokeswoman for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. "Use the different shapes, sizes and colors of the candy to see who can build a bigger haunted house. The kids have a lot of fun doing this craft, and a few days after houses are built, the candy gets tossed."
That said, there's no need to make Halloween a sugar-free day. Candy is part of a Halloween tradition, and kids can enjoy the fun and candy, Mangieri said. "Just don't let that one-day holiday turn into a three-week celebration."
Parents can discard extra candy, or keep it in the freezer, and out of sight. Children can send candies they have gathered to Operation Gratitude to be shipped to U.S. soldiers overseas, Mangieri said.
In any case, setting family guidelines before Halloween for how much candy is reasonable to eat in one day, and what to do with the leftovers, may help avoid a candy overdose, said Vandana Sheth, a registered dietitian based in Los Angeles and a spokeswoman for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. "I believe that Halloween is the perfect time to reiterate the importance of moderation."
While children should be allowed to enjoy their earned candy on Halloween, parents should also use the opportunity to introduce healthier snacks to kids, by using attractive presentation. Kids may like a banana, but they would love a spooky banana ghost.
"Be creative, and try to incorporate a variety of healthy Halloween-themed snacks and nonfood treats," Sheth said.
Using creative decorations, almost any food can be turned into a spider, witch or vampire. For frozen treats, such as mini ice pops or frozen yogurt, using a cooler filled with dry ice can give a spooky, smoky effect, enticing kids to choose the treats. [Halloween's Top 10 Scary Creatures]
Mangieri suggested chocolate-covered strawberry ghosts, or Jack-o'-Lantern fruit cups for party treats. "Pinterest makes it easier than ever to find creative ideas so that healthy and fun can coexist at the holidays," she said.
Both Mangieri and Sheth suggested that parents make sure children eat a meal before going trick-or-treating. When children enjoy a healthy and balanced meal, then they will eat fewer pieces of candy afterward.
"Allowing kids to skip dinner is asking for candy calorie overload," Mangieri said.
Nutritionists suggest choosing smaller "fun size" candies, and looking for the healthier dark-chocolate versions. Parents should consider also including some more wholesome treats in candy collections prepared for trick-or-treaters.
Whole-grain crackers, sugar-free gum, mini rice cereal treat bars, cereal bars made with real fruit, mini 100-percent fruit-juice boxes and low-fat pudding cups are among healthier options for treats, Sheth said. [10 Ways to Promote Kids' Healthy Eating Habits]
Mangieri suggested including crunchy snacks, such as mini pretzel packs or bags of 100-calorie popcorn that can be packed as part of a school lunch. Her other favorite treat is lollipops. "Lollipops keep kids' mouths occupied, which means less opportunity to shovel in endless amounts of sugar," she said.
Don't forget toys
If given a choice, children may prefer toys over candy. Having a couple of toys and nonfood items in your basket is especially important and considerate for kids with food allergies, Sheth said.
Halloween-themed notebooks, bouncy balls, coloring pencils and small containers of modeling clay could be good nonfood treats.
"We forget how much kids love toys and trinkets," Mangieri said. "Stickers, mini packs of playing cards and pencils or Halloween-themed erasers are all items that kids can enjoy weeks after Halloween night is over."
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