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A Few Tricks for Halloween Treats

Think back to the Halloweens of your childhood. What do you remember most? Sure, there were costumes and parties, but the most exciting part was peering into your bag to see what types of goodies you had accumulated. When you got home, you sorted them by category: Chocolate-peanut butter cups were the favorite, perhaps, followed by lollipops with the gumball middles, and last, black licorice. You were absolutely mortified to learn that your mother had handed out those chalky candy wafers.

These days, many parents are steering away from the traditional, sugary sweets and trying to promote healthier eating in their little witches and scarecrows. The "trick," they say, is to encourage good eating habits, while allowing kids to enjoy the fun of the holiday.

It's only once a year...

"Halloween is a unique, special time of the year," says Alice H. Lichtenstein, D.Sc., senior scientist and director of the Cardiovascular Nutrition Laboratory at Tufts University. "It only comes once a year, so beware of making Halloween candy a 'taboo' subject. It's more important to be cognizant of how eating habits are handled on a day-to-day basis."

As long as kids are getting sufficient nutrients during the day, Dr. Lichtenstein says, a little bit of indulgence won't hurt them.

A mother of two, Dr. Lichtenstein has had years of experience in monitoring her kids' Halloween haul. The majority of the goodies, she says, are individually wrapped candies, although some parents have started giving away non-food treats: glitter stickers, temporary tattoos, erasers, rubber worms, and colored pencils.

Still, kids amass all sorts of goodies, typically sweets, and tend to overindulge on Halloween night and for several nights thereafter. Experts recommend that treats be doled out sparingly, perhaps one for dessert each night for a week alongside a healthy food such as a piece of fruit.

Dr. Lichtenstein says she has heard of some schools that have created programs in conjunction with local homeless shelters to help disperse extra candies. "It's a great idea," she says, "because it not only avoids overconsumption, it helps teach kids charitable lessons of giving." If your school does not have such a program, organize one, Dr. Lichtenstein suggests.

Food safety

Many parents are wary of trick-or-treating for safety reasons; they worry about their children wandering into unknown neighborhoods, and are wary about treats that come from unfamiliar homes. Parenting groups suggest having private parties to diminish some of these concerns. Invite your child's friends into your home, and offer them healthy Halloween goodies such as popcorn balls, fruit and low-fat cookies made into spooky shapes. You can find several Internet sites with clever home-cooking ideas.

If you're making homemade treats to send to school, wrap them well and include a small label that identifies what the treat is made of. Include your name and address, so parents can rest assured that these treats are safe to eat.

Finally, keep in mind that kids aren't the only ones who tend to indulge in Halloween treats. To reduce the chances that you'll "sneak" a piece (or two) before the big night, buy treats just before the holiday—and buy candies that you don't care for, even if your kids do.

Dr. Lichtenstein advises that the best way to have a healthy Halloween is for parents to set a healthy example, placing the most importance on making costumes and visiting friends.

"De-emphasize the food aspect," she says, "and emphasize the fun!"

Non-candy treat ideas

  • Cheese and cracker packages

  • Sugar-free gum

  • Cheese sticks

  • Packs of dried fruit

  • Small packages of nuts or raisins

  • Packages of instant cocoa mix