Treat horror: How to manage the sweet fest that is Halloween

Instead of trying to control the sweet-fest that is Halloween, encourage your children to self-regulate the amount of treats they consume, says dietitian Aoife Hearne

Treat horror: How to  manage the sweet fest that is Halloween

Instead of trying to control the sweet-fest that is Halloween, encourage your children to self-regulate the amount of treats they consume, says dietitian Aoife Hearne

LAST week I was lucky to get away with my parents and the kids to Portugal for the last hurrah before maternity leave is officially over. Of course, in reality, it’s just moving the chaos to a sunnier climate. All the same, it was lovely to get away.

With Halloween coming up, no better time to talk about the importance of having a flexible policy when it comes to sweets and treats.

In my opinion, the majority of parents are often overly concerned when it comes to treats for children and limit access almost completely. Remember, children are hard-wired to prefer sugar — this is why breastmilk is sweet. But if we completely restrict treats from children we are also restricting the opportunity to teach them how to self-regulate with these foods. This can often have the opposite of the desired effect and turn children into sneaky eaters.

No one wants their child to be the one filling their pockets with treats at the party so it’s time to consider a different approach.

Experts in this area suggest that from the age of two or so, we embrace a flexible treats policy with children. This does not mean having a candy cart in your kitchen, mind you. It is still really important to offer nourishing meals and snacks regularly and consistently throughout the day. But keeping treats within this structure is something that is recommended.

When children know they have permission to enjoy treats on a regular and consistent basis they are less likely to overeat them. Remember, as the parent you are still in charge of how often, how much and when these treats happen. Adopting this approach will help create the best possible environment to nurture a mindful eater.

Anytime I talk about this at seminars, parents always worry that their children will go crazy and overeat these foods at every possible opportunity. However, research shows that children who are unrestricted from treat foods actually eat less and have a reduced desire for sweet things.

Of course, if this is something new with your older child, they may indeed overeat initially. But give it time, be persistent and you will see that when children know they can have as much as they want of something it reduces the power these foods often hold.

The next question is nearly always, How often and how many of these foods should I give my child?’. Unfortunately, there is no detailed research to guide you on this, so you need to see what treat rules work best for your family.

The key thing here is to be consistent with whatever policy works best for your family. In our family, my flexible policy is something small once a day and never before 12pm. This can go awry when grandparents are involved, but you can’t control it all.

Here are some ideas of what experts in this area suggest as possible options when it comes to treat rules:

  • Pick one day each week as treat day;
  • Serve a small portion of dessert with dinner each day;
  • One small treat every day.

With Halloween on the horizon, I know there are parents up and down the country wondering what is the best plan of attack when it comes to all the sweets that will descend on the kitchen/living room floor on October 31.

For Halloween and parties, I believe children should be allowed to eat freely. Look on them as a learning opportunity to help children learn how to manage their own stash of sweets. Help set them up for success by ensuring they have a good meal before they leave. Sending them out trick or treating or to a party on an empty stomach will be a recipe for disaster.

When it comes to dealing with a avalanche of sweets collected during trick or treating, it’s best to allow children to eat freely when they come home from trick or treating, picking out their favourites to eat.

The next day you have two options: Get rid of the rest of the stash completely, or relegate the remainder to treat time — desserts or as treat snack that fits with your families policy.

With the smaller ones you may need to stay in control of this stash, but as they get older you can hand over control as long as they play by the rules.

Despite what many think, research does not back up the notion that sugar has a negative effect on a child’s behaviour when consumed within a regular meal and snack structure. The real problems arise when sugar/treats /processed foods are consumed in place of nourishing meals/snacks. This is why relegating the leftover Halloween stash into that structure rather than a free for all is important.

Whatever your sweet policy, the cardinal rule is to never ever reward or punish with food. I can’t emphasise how important this is in creating a healthy relationship with food and treats.

With the best will in the world, there will be times when children overeat sweets. Rather than look at it as a failure, use it as a learning opportunity to help the child connect the dots between eating too much and feeling unwell. Likely when they figure that out, they won’t be too keen to do it again.

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