This past Saturday, I took my 8-year-old to dance class. When the music stopped, and the kids shuffled out, she had an ear-to-ear grin … and a chocolate bar in each hand. The teacher had given them out to the class in honor of the pending arrival of Halloween.
Each and every day, it seems the world thrusts junk food into my three little girls' ever-welcoming, outstretched hands. So when people ask me what I think about Halloween, I tell them that Halloween's not the problem. A single day of treats isn't worrisome. It's the 364 other treat-filled days of the year.
As a society, we've normalized the consumption of junk food. Worse, we've normalized its provision to our children. No one seems to bat an eyelash when it's handed out in schools and our friends' homes, in extracurricular activities and city-run summer camps. At my kids' after-school sporting activities—and I'd wager that this happens at your children's events, too—junk food is given out from nearly the moment my children begin to move a single muscle.
While there's no doubt that junk food can be fun to eat, our society has gone wrong by equating, and reducing, fun to the consumption of candy. No need to actually plan a fun party—just make sure there's lots of junk. Want to keep kids coming back to the sports field? Forget about working hard on developing team spirit; all you need is ice cream at the end of each game. Want kids to behave in school? Instead of skillfully working on their behavior problems, promise them candy for acting nicely. Want your kids to drink their milk? Don't fight for the white stuff; simply stuff it full of sugar, and put a cartoon character on the box.
How we got to this place—that's a discussion for another day. But if you're reading this, perhaps you can do your part in trying to de-normalize the use of junk food to parent and please children. Try taking these three simple steps:
• For your children's birthday parties, give out enlightened loot bags. Your local dollar store will have plenty of crafts you can hand out in place of candy, and the kids will be just as pleased.
• When it's your turn to provide a snack for the sports field or the classroom, make fruit your friend. Jazz up the offerings by putting pieces on skewers, and aim for lots of color.
• Don't teach your kids to associate junk food with love. Reward them with praise, warmth, and special time with you.
I'll also give you some simple guidance for tonight. In my home, our kids are allowed to eat any three items of their choosing. Half of their haul goes to the local food bank, and the rest is doled out, one piece per day, until it's gone (and unbeknownst to them, after they're snuggly in bed, mom and dad help make the stash disappear faster).
Make Halloween a one-day affair!
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Yoni Freedhoff, MD, is an assistant professor of family medicine at the University of Ottawa, where he's the founder and medical director of the Bariatric Medical Institute—dedicated to non-surgical weight management since 2004. Dr. Freedhoff sounds off daily on his award-winning blog, Weighty Matters, and is also easily reachable on Twitter. Dr. Freedhoff's latest book Why Diets Fail and How to Make Yours Work will be published by Simon & Schuster's Free Press in April 2013.