‘Tis the season for sweets and treats right? With Halloween just around the corner, at this time of year, our children are privy to more sweets than usual, so how as parents do we balance this out?

Rather than limiting sweets and feeling guilty about how much children are eating, here is what we should be doing as advised by award-winning Registered Dietitian Sarah Almond Bushell from The Children’s Nutritionist.

Stop feeling guilty

As parents we want our children to be healthy and well and too many sweets can often feel like we’re doing just the opposite, we ask ourselves questions like:

Should I be firmer at saying “no more”?

Should I bribe them into eating a piece of fruit for every 10 sweets they consume?

Maybe I should slave for hours over healthy winter casseroles or sauces stuffed full of hidden vegetables to make sure they get their vitamin fill?

Trick or treat season might be upon us but my advice is to ditch the parent guilt. It’s better not to trick your kids with hidden veggies and instead allow them freedom with treats this Halloween. Let them gorge on sweets and chocolate if they want to. It’s ok if they eat till they make themselves sick!

This experience will be an important lesson for your children and stand them in really good stead for a future with a positive relationship with food.

Let me explain.

Why it’s ok for children to overindulge

Sweet foods are highly desirable to children, it’s an evolutionary thing. Babies are born with mature sweet taste buds to help them seek out the breast for survival, and this sweet desire stays with them right throughout their childhood. Allowing your kids freedom with sweet foods will teach your children that these foods are just food, like pasta or carrots.

When children are restricted from highly desirable foods, they learn that those foods are ‘special’ and this makes them all the more desirable. They also learn that restriction means ‘forbidden’ or ‘bad’ and so whenever the opportunity arises, children will overindulge, they just can’t help it. And because they have learned that these foods are forbidden or bad they will feel bad, guilty and shameful after eating them.

We also know that children who are restricted from eating sweets and chocolate tend to carry more weight as adults and they also lose their internal appetite regulation. They don’t sense when they are full. And those feelings of guilt and shame can also lead to disordered eating in vulnerable young people.

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What happens when you restrict sweets at Halloween and give healthy options like satsumas and celery instead

At Halloween, I often see this problem arise because children who aren’t allowed to join in with the sweets and treats feel even more restricted and isolated.

They are not immune to others eating those foods and can feel resentful of their parents when they can’t join in. I’ve seen this lead to parent-child battles in the food/feeding relationship.

I love the idea of creating spooky healthy snacks for Halloween parties like apple monster teeth or banana ghosts, but in my experience part of the fun is door-to-door trick or treating and getting fun-size chocolate bars and sweets.

Children love to come home, check out their haul of goodies and eat them. I don’t think there would be quite as much fun with satsumas or homemade healthy snacks.

But isn’t restricting sweets and treats just part of healthy eating?

It’s up to parents to decide when is the right time for children to eat foods like chocolate and sweets. One night of overindulgence isn’t going to lead to any huge health problems, but if this was encouraged on a daily basis, that would be a different story.

Parents should come up with what their family’s routine ‘sweet strategy’ is. For some it might be a small portion with dinner every night as dessert, for others, it might be after school on Fridays.

I’d encourage parents to regularly include sweets and chocolate in their kids’ diets so that they don’t feel restricted, but to do this in a managed way.

A good rule of thumb is the 10% rule so 90% of the time kids get healthy wholesome meals and snacks and 10% of the time is for those ‘fun foods’.

Change your language around sweets

It’s best not to call sweets ‘treats’. A treat suggests that sweet foods have a higher value than other foods and we don’t want children to grow up placing a higher value on sweet, less healthy foods.

For kids to grow up having a healthy relationship with food, they need to learn that there is a time and place for all types of food. And of course, the word ‘treat’ suggests it’s special or rarely given, which of course makes it highly desirable.

One night of overindulgence won’t lead to obesity

There is no doubt that our body shapes are changing and that over time children are getting heavier, but there are many factors involved and one night of switching sweets to homemade healthier snacks isn’t really going to solve the issue.

We know that children carrying additional weight is not just about food or activity levels. And in fact, the impact of restricting sweet foods makes them more desirable to kids and so could actually make the obesity problem worse in the long run.

How my children enjoy Halloween

Charlie 15 and Maisie 13 go trick or treating with their friends, they come home and sort through their piles of sweets on the lounge carpet and then eat them. We’ve practised not restricting foods their whole life and so they will often swap what they don’t like with their friends and eat as many as they want, saving the remainder for another day.

They understand now how to self-regulate but they didn’t at first and we did end up with some tummy aches from overindulgence.

I believe that our role as parents is not to coddle our children but to let them face the natural consequences of life, but in a safe and supported way.

Article by Sarah Almond Bushell, Registered Dietitian & Children’s Nutritionist Childrens Nutrition.

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