Trick-or-treating dilemma: What to do with the Halloween candy?

The very first time Shaina Olmanson took her oldest child trick-or-treating, she saw the holiday — and its chocolaty, sugary spoils — in a new light.

“You walk around and they get a giant bag of candy,” says the mother of four, who lives in St. Paul, Minn. “Then what do you do? Just let them have at it, or what?”

This question will be on the minds of millions of parents Monday night after their kids collect candy bars, lollipops, peanut butter cups and other goodies from well-meaning neighbors: The National Confectioners Assn. estimates that 93% of children younger than 13 will go door-to-door this Halloween, asking for treats.

It’s hardly health food, but there are ways to blunt the effect of all those empty calories.

Parents can start by making sure their little pirates and princesses don’t try to eat all of their loot right when they get home. The key, says Dr. Elizabeth Prout Parks, a nutrition specialist at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, is to dole it out in limited quantities over the course of several days or weeks.


An appropriate amount is “not more than the size of the palm of their hand, which should not be more than about two or three pieces,” depending on the type of candy, she says. Too much candy in a short period of time can not only make kids feel sick to their stomach, it can cause blood sugar to spike, leading to a crash later on.

If parents are willing to count calories — which can be a challenging proposition, since nutrition information is usually printed on bags of Halloween-sized candy rather than on individual pieces — a reasonable target would be to give kids no more than 100 calories of sweets a day, Parks says. Ideally, those calories would be offset by cutbacks elsewhere: skipping the bag of chips at lunch, for instance, or the extra roll with dinner.

She adds that candy should be considered a treat, not a substitute for food with actual nutritional value: “As parents, we want to make sure kids still have their regular snacks so they’re not getting hungry and going for that candy.”

That’s a strategy that Los Angeles mother Jessica Gottlieb has adopted in order to reduce the temptation for her 10-year-old and 13-year-old to gorge themselves on Halloween night — and she finds that it works.

“I pump them full of protein all day long — eggs for breakfast, hamburger for lunch, chicken for dinner,” she says. “I plan so that my kids aren’t hungry come trick-or-treat time, and then they kind of self-regulate.”

But parents’ concerns aren’t limited to their children’s appetites. For Angie McGowan, a former dental hygienist in Orlando, Fla., the primary worry on Halloween is the condition of her 4-year-old son’s teeth.

“I used to have nightmares about having cavities and bad teeth,” she says, “and now I have nightmares about him having cavities and bad teeth.”

Sugary foods damage teeth by generating acid that wears away at them, says Dr. Rhea Haugseth, president of the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry. “Every single time you have any type of sugar in your mouth, the bacteria take that sugar and produce acid, and it starts a 20-minute acid attack,” she says.

To prevent damage, Haugseth suggests that kids be allowed to eat their sweets for a short period of time — no more than 30 minutes — then brush their teeth immediately to stop the acid attack in its tracks. (Haugseth notes that the 30-minute limit addresses dental concerns, not nutritional ones.)

Another way to go is to dole out one or two pieces of candy immediately following a meal. Since the sugar in the meal has already prompted acid growth, she says, “you are not making it any worse.”

Parents should set rules for consuming Halloween candy and explain them to their kids well before the holiday so that they know what to expect, says Dorian Traube, an assistant professor at the USC School of Social Work. Kids should know in advance how long they will be allowed to trick-or-treat and what will happen to their candy once it enters the house; children who are old enough to understand should also be told why those rules exist.

“Any time you have an expectation for your child’s behavior, you need to prepare them for that,” she says.

Traube warns parents to avoid some common traps on Halloween. One of the biggies is allowing their children to trick-or-treat until they have massive pillowcases full of candy if they intend to throw most of it away. That sends mixed messages and gives candy an aura of mystery, she says. Plus, it overlooks the fact that confections don’t grow on trees.

“It’s important to remind kids that candy is not free,” she says. “If it gets wasted, that’s wasting people’s money. It’s a social responsibility thing.”

Another pitfall is allowing kids to negotiate how much candy they should be allowed to eat after they’ve brought it home.

“That negotiation might start to bleed into other areas” and give children the impression that they can make deals about homework time or hanging out with friends, Traube says. “It’s very confusing to children.”

Parents will need to decide for themselves when it’s time to rid their homes of superfluous sweets, Parks says, but after a week or so, “it’s probably reasonable to start putting it away.”

And when that day comes, there are creative options for disposing of leftover candy.

A growing number of dental practices, like Dr. Matt Zander’s Westend Dental in Chicago, are offering to buy candy from kids and send it to the troops. “We buy it at a dollar a pound and ship the candy to [a company in] Van Nuys, Calif., and they send it overseas,” Zander says.

With a few Halloweens under her belt, Olmanson has settled on a strategy of having her husband take their kids’ leftover candy to his office. (She works from home.) If she’s feeling creative, she might bake some of it into brownies or other snacks. “As ridiculous as it sounds to add more sugar, when they don’t have this huge bag they aren’t as apt to overindulge,” she says.

Traube says she has been preparing her own 2-year-old daughter for the holiday by emphasizing the traditions that don’t involve sweets.

“She knows Halloween is coming, and we have talked about how you get to dress up and see your friends in costume,” she says. “We have minimized the candy aspect of it.”