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The Common Halloween Candy Mistakes That Parents Make

The challenge for parents is learning how to set limits without imposing too many food restrictions that can backfire.

A large body of research shows that children who grow up with a lot of food restrictions (particularly children of parents who diet) develop unhealthy eating habits. In one study at Pennsylvania State University, children were given unlimited access to fruit cookies on a plate. Another batch was placed in a clear cookie jar, and the children were forbidden to eat them. When the children were finally allowed to open the cookie jar after 10 minutes, they binged, eating three times as much as when the cookies were freely available on plates.

Other studies show that overt food restrictions — like putting sweets and sodas on a high shelf and controlling when a child can have them — just make children want the foods more. Children who grow up in homes with highly restrictive food rules are more likely to overeat, develop preferences for high fat and sweet foods and be overweight.

Avoiding food restrictions doesn’t mean parents should give children unlimited access to whatever foods they want. Parents can create limits that don’t feel restrictive to children. To start, keep less healthy foods out of the house when you can. (Birthdays and holidays can be an exception.) Buy healthy foods and snacks and give children free access to the food cabinets. If you have Halloween candy in the house, put it in a basket with other snacks, like whole fruit or grain bars, to make it seem less special and more like the other foods they’re allowed to eat.

Scheduling regular meals and snack times creates structure and can help you regulate a child’s food without the child’s noticing. Encourage children to always eat in the kitchen, rather than in other parts of the house or in front of the television.

“When you put food on a table, even if it’s candy, the food is just like any other food,” said Katherine N. Balantekin, a clinical assistant professor in the department of exercise and nutrition sciences at the University at Buffalo. “If you do put limits on something, just make it clear that the child is going to get the food again later. If you give them a piece of candy and they ask for more, you might say, ‘We want to save enough candy for tomorrow so you can have it again.’”

Studies show that children react negatively when parents pressure them to eat certain foods, even if parents offer a reward. In one study, researchers asked children to eat vegetables and drink milk, offering them stickers and television time if they did. Later in the study, the children expressed dislike for the foods they had been rewarded for eating.

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