Jane Says: A Little Halloween Sugar Rush Is No Big Deal

There's a world of moderation between gorging on candy and all-out sugar prohibition.

(Photo: Henry Horenstein/Getty Images)

Oct 29, 2014· 3 MIN READ
Jane Lear is a regular contributor to TakePart and the executive editor of CURED, a magazine devoted to the art and craft of food preservation. She was on staff at 'Gourmet' for almost 20 years.
Halloween trick-or-treating is a big deal in our neighborhood, but Im concerned about my kids overdosing on sugar. Any tips on how to navigate the holiday?
Manuel James

The relentless marketing of Halloween candy starts earlier every year. This fall, I think supersized bags of little candy bars jostled for space with notebooks, backpacks, and other back-to-school supplies. That said, a holiday is a holiday (finally!), and Attention Must Be Paid—fake cobwebs and all.

But what do I know? I’m not a parent. I won’t have to test my kids’ haul for THC the way some Colorado parents will, or dutifully check out the calorie and sugar comparison done by UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital, in Oakland, California. (I’m sorry I looked! Butterfinger—my favorite—shoehorns 100 calories and 10 grams of sugar into a “fun-size” bar.)

Thank goodness for Bruce Feiler, New York Times family columnist and best-selling author of, most recently, The Secrets of Happy Families, a modern-day playbook as relevant for children (that would be us) as well as parents. Instead of interviewing the usual array of “family experts,” Feiler asked some of the country’s top creative thinkers, including Silicon Alley entrepreneurs, elite peace negotiators, cutting-edge researchers, the creators of Modern Family, and Green Berets for what strategies they used with their families, and then tested those ideas with his wife and nine-year-old twin girls.

“High-functioning families have three things in common. They adapt all the time. They talk. A lot. And they go out and play,” Feiler explained in an email. “All families have conflict. The research clearly shows parents should spend less time worrying about what they do wrong and more time focusing on what they do right. If you make positive memories, all the things you struggle over will go down easier. I would put Halloween in the ‘play’ category and relax the rules for one night. What’s next—no birthday cake? Even the strictest dieter has go-crazy nights every once in a while. My advice: Put your energy into carving pumpkins and decorating the front door, and if you’re really worried about sugar overload, start the trick-or-treating early.”

I also reached out to Nicolette Hahn Niman, whose book Defending Beef appeared in last week’s column. Hahn Niman is just as passionate about the ill effects of sugar as she is about the ecological case for eating grass-fed beef. But not on Halloween.

“We make the costume ourselves, every year. We love Halloween!” she said. In her family, the rule or agreement they have with five-year-old Miles is that he’s only allowed to eat one or two pieces while trick-or-treating, and he can have another one or two at the end of the night. Then the bag gets turned over to Mom. “If he eats his dinner, he gets the bag back every evening and can select one larger or two smaller pieces of candy as his dessert (until the candy runs out). He's totally fine with this system, and it actually helps me get him to eat dinner for the two months following Halloween.”

What Hahn Niman calls a rule or agreement (she’s a lawyer as well as a parent) might just as easily be called a tradition, and children are great sticklers for tradition. A special Halloween dinner before making the rounds, for instance, helps prevent kids from stuffing their faces with candy because they’re hungry. It should be casual—all the easier to work in last-minute costume adjustments—and revolve around something homey, familiar, and delicious.

Meatloaf is always a good bet. It’s excellent hot or room temperature, and lends itself to being decorated with ketchup blood. Roast chicken or a store-bought rotisserie bird is another idea. Serve either with roasted butternut squash and a green salad garnished with sweet, nutty roasted squash or pumpkin seeds, and you are goldenespecially if you have the time to dress up the table with black plastic spiders and cute Jack Be Little pumpkins. I wrote last year that these Mini-Me’s of the jack-o’-lantern world are more than decorative: Bake them whole, cut a lid and scoop out the seeds, add a little chunk of butter and maple syrup, and you’ve got a post-Halloween breakfast or snack.

A tradition in more and more families is giving away much of their excess candy once the initial excitement palls. Shelters, food pantries, churches, nursing homes, and Ronald McDonald House Charities gratefully accept donations; just remember to call first to find out any guidelines. There are also a number of ways to send leftover candy to our troops overseas, including Operation Gratitude, which requests that Halloween candy be sent by Nov. 15. Dentists have even gotten into the act by offering a Halloween Candy Buyback. Kids can exchange candy for cash and prizes, and participating dentists then send it, along with toothbrushes, to Operation Gratitude.

And let’s not forget repurposing. Candy corn crafts has its own page on Pinterest, for example, and crushed Heath bars are a fabulous topping for ice cream. Who knows, the kids might have fun turning some of their loot into dessert for your next dinner party. Dulce de leche and Snickers terrine, anyone?