Deciding how to approach Halloween candy is an opportunity to think about how we approach what we say around our children for all the foods we think of as “bad” or “unhealthy” during this season, and beyond.
WithAll’s What to Say Initiative is dedicated to preventing disordered eating and eating disorders by giving parents and caregivers actionable tools to support children’s healthy body image and positive relationships with food.
Decades of research tells us that what adults say to children about food, body, and exercise hugely impacts how a child feels about these fundamental, life-long topics.
On the one hand, this is great news, as we have the power to influence our kids’ thinking on such important issues that will be with them for their lifetime.
On the other hand, almost all of us have grown up in an all-consuming “diet culture” –with extreme emphasis on an impossibly thin (for girls) or muscular (for boys) ideal that has led us to disordered eating (i.e. a lifetime of dieting, making decisions about food and exercise from a desire to change our bodies) and eating disorders. For that reason, it serves us (and our children’s health) to pause to think about how we talk about food, body, and exercise–to choose our words carefully. By doing so, we give our kids an opportunity to live with their bodies and with food with a focus on health and well-being.
If this seems like a tall order, we get it. But it can be simple (if not always easy). Deciding to try is what matters most.
So what can you say about candy this season? Here are four insights from What to Say’s Halloween Guide for parents and caregivers. We hope these tips make this sugar-packed time of year less spooky, for kids and caregivers alike.
Tip one: Pause.
Start here: This Halloween, consider a pause before speaking to/around your kids about food, body, or exercise (theirs, yours, or others’). Decide if your words will focus on HEALTH and WELL-BEING, instead of weight, size, shape, and appearance. If you use your words to emphasize health and feeling good, you are supporting your children’s inherent appreciation of their bodies and food. You are letting them experience life outside the “diet culture” and use their brain for things that really matter– not their weight or size (which changes throughout life anyway).
However, this does not mean kids should be allowed unfettered access to Halloween candy (or any other food)! This leads us to tip number two.
Tip two: Set limits without morality.
As a parent or caregiver, it’s your important job to guide your child in their food choices and teach them about balance and variety. Again, it’s okay (and actually good!) to set expectations or limits on how much candy they can have during a given time (download our Halloween Guide for practical ideas on how to do this from dieticians and pediatricians). But what you’ll want to avoid is putting morality into the picture.
You get to decide what the menu looks like. Focusing on this instead of saying “you’ve had too much tonight” or that they’ve had enough “bad food” can reduce feelings of shame or even guilt when your child does choose to enjoy candy or sweets in the future.
Learn more about avoiding “good and bad” food talk here.
Tip three: Avoid spooky self-talk.
It’s important to be kind to yourself during this time of the year, too!
Even if it’s light-hearted, kids will apply to themselves what they see modeled. For example, if you talk negatively about your body or your weight, a child will often start to judge those same things about themselves. The same applies to how you talk about your food consumption. If you say, “I ate too much, I’m going to get fat,” this fear-based thinking may show up for your child (it may surface in adolescent or teen years). And, of course, these are the kinds of thoughts we don’t need filling our kids’ heads! Instead, let’s empower them to focus on science, friendships, art, and other things that really matter.
Tip four: Avoid connecting candy or food to exercise.
Movement is an important part of your child’s mental and physical health, but positioning exercise as a means to “make up” for calories consumed or as a way to “earn” the opportunity to eat more candy or treats can create unhealthy views of food and physical activity for kids.
Encourage physical activity you see they enjoy without correlating it to what they eat or needing to burn calories! Make movement about movement–not a means to address something else. (As this kills the joy and perpetuates diet culture nonsense.) If they like climbing, if you are able, find time to go to playgrounds. If they like hopscotch or similar, buy sidewalk chalk and take 15 minutes to play with them. If you’re stuck inside due to weather, can you set up a pillow obstacle course? Focus on the “fun” part of physical activities–and highlight how movement makes you feel good, too.
WithAll is committed to helping children and their families navigate healthier discussions about food and body. That’s why our What to Say initiative created a Halloween Guide featuring these tips, as well as research-backed insights and advice from parenting and nutrition experts who have been in your shoes.
And remember: these principles apply beyond just Halloween! Whether it’s about candy, cake, sugar, or any other food item that can be enjoyed in moderation, the way adults choose to talk to kids or around kids has a real impact – each and every day.
Click the link below to check out our Halloween Guide and additional resources. We hope they help you – as a parent, caregiver, or adult role model – navigate food and body conversations positively and purposefully.