Happy Halloween! But What About All That Candy?

October 31, 2007

by Jean Saunders, HSC School Wellness Director

Happy Halloween! The big day has arrived!

At my house, Halloween marks the time of the year when we dust off the sewing machine, pull out the art supplies, rummage through the recycling bin and visit our local art supply stores to gather what we need to make my son’s costume. This year, our efforts focused on creating an  iPod costume (exactly seven times larger than an actual iPod!) for the Halloween parade at school and for neighborhood trick-or-treating this evening with my son’s friends. I love Halloween!

Well, maybe I don’t love everything about it.

October 31 marks more than the height of creative costume-making and pumpkin carving—it can also represent the pinnacle of candy consumption by kids. School parties, trick-or-treating and other related festivities often focus on candy, sugar cookies, cupcakes and other sweet treats.

Teachers and  parents alike are faced with the dilemma of trying to balance the demands (and traditions) for candy, pumpkin-shaped cookies and sugary drinks with more healthy food and beverage offerings that are consistent with the messages about wellness we hope to pass along to our kids. 

So, what’s a grown-up to do? Ban the sweet treats entirely (like these schools did), or turn a blind eye to the goodies that make their way to school? Should wellness policies require that there be no edible treats at Halloween celebrations?

I participated in several heated debates on this topic at our school district’s wellness committee meeting and at my son’s school. 

The solution that worked for my son’s school community was that our celebration wouldn’t require giving up all the treats, but would keep the quantity reasonable and would not make candy and sweets the focus of the events. We decided to keep in mind the multiple celebrations that many of the students participate in with their sports teams, in after-school care, in the community and at friends’ houses.

I applaud my son’s principal’s efforts to navigate this potentially divisive minefield. She set the tone for moving to a more healthful Halloween celebration by meeting with teachers and parents (together) to gain their support in limiting the sweets.

Classroom teachers were provided with resources for creating more healthful celebrations in their classrooms, like these ideas [pdf] from Center for Science in the Public Interest.

Room parents were given specific guidance for bringing in healthy options such as fruit kabobs, 100 percent juice drinks and just one sweet treat. Any candy brought into the classroom will be sent home in a sealed bag, so parents can decide when and how much candy their children consume.

This approach reflects the recommendations that the National Alliance for Nutrition and Activity (NANA) provides in their model wellness policy regarding school celebrations that involve food:

Schools should limit celebrations that involve food during the school day to no more than one party per class per month. Each party should include no more than one food or beverage that does not meet nutrition standards for foods and beverages sold individually. The district will disseminate a list of healthy party ideas to parents and teachers.

During our annual debate about what to give to trick-or-treaters who visit us on October 31, my son advocated for “something that kids like because I don’t want them to think that we don’t like Halloween.” In the next breath, he said that he thought it would be better if the pumpkin I’d carved had been scarier. I like to think this means that he really does believe Halloween isn’t about the candy!

P.S. Next year my son will be 11 years old — I wonder if he will still want my help with the costume construction?