Published on in Health Tip of the Week
Valentine’s Day, like Halloween and other candy-focused holidays, can present a quandary for parents. How much sugar is too much for a child? How do you encourage healthy eating habits when your child has a stockpile of candy?
We spoke with Katie Lockwood, MD, MEd, primary care pediatrician at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, for ideas on how to manage children’s holiday candy consumption in healthy ways.
Don’t make a big deal of it
“As you consider your kids’ candy intake on holidays like Valentine’s Day and Halloween,” Dr. Lockwood advises, “remember that holidays are meant to be fun. It’s OK to indulge a little on special days.” It’s important to keep the big picture in mind and remember that these holidays are just a few days in the year.
Strict limits on candy intake on these holidays, on the other hand, tend to backfire. Restrictions can make candy even more desirable to children while injecting unnecessary conflict into what should be a happy celebration. By allowing your children control over their candy consumption on the holiday, you give them a chance to listen to their body and notice signs of both hunger and fullness. You’re helping them learn to self-regulate, a skill that carries over into other aspects of their life.
Sugar does contribute to tooth decay, Dr. Lockwood adds, so be sure your child’s teeth are thoroughly brushed before bedtime.
Set expectations in advance
It’s hard for a child, emotionally, to learn about limits when they have a pile of candy in front of them. They’re likely to see suddenly imposed restrictions as arbitrary and unfair. To avoid this, talk in advance about how you’ll expect your child to deal with an abundance of sweets. That might be to enjoy the candy without limits, for example, or to have a few pieces at a time. Find an approach that works best for your family and agree upon the rules before the holiday. Talk, too, about how you’ll resume your family’s normal eating patterns after the holiday.
Consider alternatives to sweets
While candy is a customary part of some holidays, it doesn’t have to be the central feature in your family’s holiday tradition. Consider ways to make the celebration fun for your child with other kinds of gifts and activities, such as bubble solution, books, toys, crafts or an outing to a favorite place. Be creative, tapping into your child’s special interests.
Balance candy with healthy meals and snacks
On the holiday itself, eat regular meals as a family, make sure your child is drinking plenty of water and offer nutritious between-meal snacks, like fruit slices. The goal is to keep your child comfortably well-fed with your family’s normal mix of foods so they won’t have as much room for sweets. That way, your child won’t turn to candy to curb hunger pangs.
Keep screens out of the situation
Mindless eating is more likely while a person — child or adult — is watching a movie or otherwise engaged with screen entertainment. Limit your child’s screen time on holidays when candy is abundant. Encourage other activities, like playing outside, drawing, making something, playing a board game or reading books.
Make it social
Sit with your child as they sample their candy on the holiday, just as you might sit with them for meals and snacks. Make a game of it, with a taste-test or cookie-decorating competition. With older children, make a scavenger hunt. Engage with the sugary treats socially, so it’s not just about the eating.
Model healthy behavior yourself
Show that you can enjoy candy and sweets in moderation yourself on the holiday. Take pleasure in having a piece of candy or two after a meal, then stopping because you feel full. Children learn a tremendous amount from observing the adults in their lives.
Stay neutral in your talk about candy and sweets
Don’t frame candy and other sweets as “bad.” Don’t present them as unhealthy and addictive or as temptations that must be banished from your home or kept well hidden. That will only increase their allure for your child.
Don’t use candy and sweets as rewards either. That will also make them more attractive.
“Relax and enjoy the holiday with your child,” Dr. Lockwood advises. “Try to keep the tension out of it. On special occasions, sweets can be a fun treat for the whole family to enjoy together.”
Contributed by: Katie K. Lockwood, MD, MEd
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