Family Meals Focus

The Ellyn Satter Institute Newsletter

The sticky topic of Halloween candy

by Ellyn Satter, Nutritionist and Family Therapist

For a PDF of this issue, click here.

Your child will learn to be relaxed and matter-of-fact about sweets, the same as other food, when you routinely include them in family meals and snacks. Children who have regular access to sweets and other “forbidden foods” eat them moderately. Children who don’t have regular access load up on them when they aren’t even hungry.1 If you have a treat-deprived child, you know they also beg, whine, and sneak to get high-sugar, high-fat foods.

A learning opportunity

For many children, Halloween is their very favorite holiday. “This advice should be in every parents’ magazine every year. . . . so many kids have Halloween ruined for them when parents are over-concerned about sugar.”

Halloween candy presents a learning opportunity. Work toward having your child be able to manage his own stash. For him to learn, you have to keep your interference to a minimum. When he comes home from trick-or-treating, let him lay out his booty, gloat over it, sort it and eat as much of it as he wants. Let him do the same the next day. Then have him put it away and relegate it to meal- and snack-time: a couple of small pieces at meals for dessert and as much as he wants for snack-time. If he can follow the rules, your child gets to keep control of the stash. Otherwise, you do, on the assumption that as soon as he can manage it, he gets to keep it. Offer milk with the candy, and you have a chance at good nutrition.

Wise use of sugar does not affect behavior

Despite what most people think, studies show sugar does not affect children’s behavior or cognitive performance.2 My own observation is that children go on sugar highs, that is, show “deficits in behavior and cognitive performance,” when they have had sugar-only food to satisfy their hunger. Those sugar highs are often followed by lows when the sugar-only energy injection wears off. Why not prepare for Halloween all year (as well as for the many other times kids are given quantities of candy) by following the Satter Division of Responsibility in Feeding? Make sugary foods a regular part of meals and snacks. Put a serving of dessert at each place at mealtime and let your child eat it before, during, or after the meal. No seconds. Then make up for mealtime sweets scarcity at snack time, by periodically offering unlimited sweets. Put a plate of cookies or snack cakes on the table with milk, and let your children eat as many as they want. At first they will eat a lot, but the newness will wear off and they will eat a few and lose interest.

Preserve the joy of Halloween

Ann Merritt, reviewer, experienced parent and pediatric dietitian, makes an observation about this important topic. ”This advice should be in every parents’ magazine every year. I have seen so many kids have Halloween ruined for them when parents are over-concerned about sugar.” When you consider that for many children, Halloween is their very favorite holiday, that is a serious concern.”


1. Birch LL, Fisher JO, Davison KK. Learning to overeat: maternal use of restrictive feeding practices promotes girls’ eating in the absence of hunger. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 2003;78(2):215-220.

2. Wolraich ML, Wilson DB, White JW. The effect of sugar on behavior or cognition in children: A meta-analysis. Journal of the American Medical Association. 1995;274(20):1617-1621.

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