If Halloween was truly just one day of the year, there'd be little need for discussion about making it healthier. Gorge yourself on candy for a day, feel ill and be done with it. But the truth is, Halloween isn't just a day. It's an entire pumpkin-laced, candy-coated season that starts in mid-September when pumpkin lattes and giant iced pumpkin muffins and scones appear in our cafés.
It builds up in October with pre-Halloween fall festivals (caramel apples, anyone?) and peaks on October 31 with trick or treating. Leftover candy lingers around homes and offices for several more weeks, leading seamlessly into chocolatey, baked and boozy Thanksgiving-, Christmas- and New Year's-themed indulgences. Alas, Halloween isn't really a sweet sprint – it's the first leg of a sugar-fueled marathon.
[Read: 365 Days of Halloween.]
In other words, when we get swept up in Halloween season, there's a good chance we're embarking on a four-month bender that only ends on January 1, with a hangover and an extra few pounds around the middle. Still, there are ways to emerge reasonably unscathed from Halloween season while still partaking in the seasonal festivities. Here are some life hacks I use to make it through the month:
• Take pumpkin savory rather than sweet. No one loves pumpkin season more than I do, but when those sweet pumpkin caramel coffee drinks, pumpkin cookies and pumpkin muffins become a daily habit, the calories add up quickly. You can have your pumpkin and eat it too by populating fall menus with pumpkin entrees rather than pumpkin desserts. This time of year, I love to rotate into our family's dinner rotation a good smoky pumpkin soup, meatless pumpkin and black bean enchiladas and kid-friendly pasta shells stuffed with pumpkin ricotta. Savory pumpkin recipes are a great way to squeeze in your favorite fall flavor – and an extra serving of veggies – without undoing your diet.
• Not all treats come in a wrapper. If Halloween just isn't Halloween for you without some sweet treats, then consider thinking outside the wrapper. Forego that iced pumpkin pastry in the morning and spike a whole-grain pancake mix or bowl of oatmeal with one-fourth of a cup of canned pumpkin puree and half a teaspoon of pumpkin pie spice instead. Or make a special black and orange dessert of Thai-inspired black rice pudding with mango. If frozen treats are your thing, try my easy recipe for 60-calorie pumpkin paletas (popsicles) – it's like pumpkin pie on a stick.
• Reduce trick-or-treat temptation. Personally, my sweet tooth only itches for chocolate; I could walk by a bowl brimming with licorice or Smarties without the slightest twinge of temptation. Which is why these are precisely the candies I've chosen to give out to trick-or-treaters in years past. (Though these days I've traded in these candies for treats of the sugarless variety; see below). If leftover Halloween candy is your undoing, dish out a variety you don't like to eat. Better still, leave your candy outside for trick-or-treaters to take on the honor system; with any luck, the late night ghouls and goblins will clean out your stash before dawn.
• Organize a sugarless trick-or-treating co-op. Families with kids not yet of school age may be able to avoid the candy conversation altogether as I did last year by providing non-edible treats for Halloween celebrations and trick-or-treaters. If you've got neighbors with young kids – or belong to a local parents group – consider organizing a sugarless trick-or-treating circuit for likeminded families.
All you need to do is create a centrally located or online sign-up sheet with addresses of families who agree to provide age-appropriate alternative holiday surprises – like temporary tattoos, stickers, trinkets and special pencils – to the pre-school set. This year, I scored an 80-count Play-Doh Halloween Bag at my local warehouse club store to give out to young trick or treaters; online, the Oriental Trading Company offers lots of inexpensive Halloween toys for this purpose as well.
A sugarless trick-or-treating circuit works especially well in urban areas, high-rise apartment buildings and multi-unit condo complexes. If you expect some older or teenaged trick-or-treaters as well, consider offering sugarless gum. Leftover toys and trinkets can be repurposed for birthday goody-bag fillers later in the year.
• Set realistic weight goals. Starting in October, many of my patients shift their near-term goals toward weight maintenance rather than ongoing loss. Focusing on losing weight through the holiday season at your usual rate – while certainly not impossible – can often result in feelings of guilt and deprivation that dampen the holiday spirit and isolate you from partaking in meaningful family traditions.
Recognizing that there will be some degree of increased indulgence in the final stretch of the year, I often emphasize increasing exercise and following workweek eating plans more vigilantly to offset some of the additional calories that creep in at office parties, family gatherings and on weekend social gatherings. Simply avoiding your usual 1- to 5-pound gain over the holidays is a huge leg up come January 1, allowing you to pick up the weight-loss journey right where you left off in October, rather than having to make up lost ground.
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Tamara Duker Freuman, MS, RD, CDN, is a registered dietitian whose NYC-based clinical practice specializes in digestive disorders, Celiac Disease, and food intolerances. Her personal blog, www.tamaraduker.com, focuses on healthy eating and gluten-free living.
Please note that the author cannot offer individualized medical advice to readers who contact her via email.