You won’t be surprised to learn that Halloween is not my favorite holiday. In fact, it used to be the holiday I always dreaded because I knew there would be battles and bargaining over candy with my children for weeks afterward. I tried to restrict access, but each year as we slid into November, I felt like I was losing an ever-escalating war.
What might surprise you is how I finally dealt with it.
One Halloween, when my boys were about 9 and 6, I surprised them when they came down for breakfast. Their plates were covered in candy. They looked at me wide-eyed, but my only response was “It’s Halloween! Today you get to eat candy all day. In fact, eat as much as you want!” Candy for breakfast, lunch, and dinner? Yes, I said. Anything goes.
I was, of course, banking on the assumption that eating Skittles for breakfast, Twizzlers for lunch and Kit Kats for dinner would eventually lose its appeal. I just wasn’t sure how long it would take.
The first year, my children thought I was THE BEST MOM EVER!! They happily trotted off to school with their lunch bags full of candy. And their friends also thought I was THE BEST MOM EVER!! Dinner was candy too. But after we went out trick-or-treating and came back with giant bags full of goodies, my 9-year-old asked if he could have an apple. I told him absolutely not! It’s Halloween!! Candy only.
The day after, I noticed my children were not fighting over the bigger bars or hoarding their favorites. Most of the candy just sat there. A week or so later, I took the candy away without much protest.
A year later, my children didn’t look nearly as excited when they saw plates of candy on the breakfast table. Do we have to do that again? Of course! It’s Halloween. Candy day! They begrudgingly took their treat-laden lunch bags to school, ate little for dinner and still collected a lot of candy from our neighbors, but their only goal was to compare who scored the better haul. Not much was eaten. And interest was lost the next day.
Year three and we were done. And ever since, neither of my sons craves candy bars or opts for junky sweets. They still enjoy dessert – but only if it’s specially prepared or part of a tradition.
I share this story not because I presume to tell you how to raise your children (or that my approach would work for any children other than my own) but to remind all of us that completely restricting an entire category of food often backfires. Restriction can instead lead to obsession about the forbidden food, which in turn, can lead to binge behavior. My children were obsessed with candy - until I stopped restricting it.
If right about now you’re thinking “This is why diets don’t work!”, you’re reading my mind. Diets usually rely on restricting specific foods or whole food categories - setting up an obsession/binge cycle. No wonder most people regain all the weight they lost when a diet is over.
I never advise my patients to diet. I advise them to make realistic adjustments to what they’re consuming, typically finding easy wins with eliminating calorie-laden beverages or modification of proportions of the foods that land on their plate. In the end, it’s about realizing that whatever you are doing today isn’t working and finding ways to do it better – for the long haul. It also means not beating yourself up when you slip up, but also not throwing in the towel when you do.
So maybe it’s not about force-feeding your children candy, but simply setting a timeline for when those Halloween candies will be available. And then not restricting intake during that time. At my house that window lasts around 24 hours after the sun sets on the 31st. Pretty hard to cause irreparable harm in that amount of time.