With Halloween – and all that candy – fast approaching, we sat with Amanda Jacob RD, LDN, a registered dietician with TriStar Southern Hills.
In addition to being an expert on healthy eating, Jacob is a marathon runner, so you know she lives and breathes healthy, delicious, nutritious foods.
Before we get into Halloween specific ideas, can you briefly discuss the impact of too much sugar on a child’s body, including how it can impact things like behavior, sleeping habits, etc.?
Although Halloween is such an exciting time for children and certainly a time where treats are expected, just like anything, moderation is key. Candy, in the forms that we know it, contains very little nutrients and lots of excess sugar. Overindulging in sweets can have a short and long term effect on overall health.
Immediately following the intake of candy or any sugar-sweetened food or beverage, the body breaks sugar down into glucose which is absorbed by the bloodstream. As soon as our bodies are able to recognize this increase in blood sugar, insulin is released to allow the body to utilize the sugar as energy or to store it. When eating just sugar alone, this process happens very quickly.
What we often see in children is a “Sugar High” where quick bouts of energy, excitement or fidgeting occur. As soon as blood sugar decreases, we will see this energy decrease along with the possibility of a low blood sugar, which can cause confusion, distraction, tiredness, and irritability. As soon as blood sugar becomes low, cravings for more sugar return, and we see our children searching for the next sweet snack to restart the cycle.
In the long term, frequent and abrupt changes to blood sugar levels can cause dysfunction in the ability for insulin to work properly to bring blood sugar back to normal ranges, as well as consistent overindulgence in sweets and other foods low in key nutrients children need for growth. This can also lead to unhealthy weight gain.
Sugar is not the enemy however, and does not need to be completely avoided. Sugar can be placed into the category of “carbohydrates” which all will break down into glucose in the bloodstream. Other foods containing carbohydrates (naturally and by additional added sugar) include fruits, breads, cereals, and milk. While we think of many of these options as healthy, they are best consumed with other forms of nutrients as well. These other nutrients are fiber, protein and fat. While fiber is still a carbohydrate, it acts similarly to protein and fat. These nutrients can be combined with carbohydrates in a meal and help to prevent spikes in blood sugar. Insulin is then better able to work slowly and efficiently, allowing for a more steady rise and fall in blood sugar and energy levels. This allows the body to process what foods are going in and utilize all the nutrients it receives. This also helps the body feel fuller, longer, allowing us time to plan meals between our kids’ cravings instead of having to break out constant sugary snacks between meals or for desserts.
Kids want the sugary sweet taste of candy. What are some good alternatives that will hit the sugar cravings, but not send the kids spiraling out of control?
Worrying about avoiding sugar all together might upset your child, especially at a time when the holidays come around. The best way to keep your kids’ habits under control is to provide snacks that include a source of carbohydrate and protein. This will help combat against constant rise and falls in blood sugar. If candy is around, to avoid prohibiting you child from indulging, allow them to choose one treat after a well-balanced meal.
Ideas for snacks and treats that are healthy options to keep around the home:
- Pretzels or graham crackers with peanut butter
- Whole wheat crackers with cheese
- Cereal bars with protein (examples: Clif Z bars, Kind Snack Minis, Lara Bars)
- Trail mix with nuts and raisins (nuts contain carbohydrate, protein, and fat)
- Fruit and granola yogurt parfait
- Chocolate milk (milk contains carbohydrate, protein, and fat)
Are there fast and creative – and healthy – Halloween treats that can be quickly and affordably prepared for those homes that are just overrun with trick-or-treaters?
As much as we would love to be able to provide snacks prepared at home for trick-or-treaters, it is best to hand out individually wrapped snacks for safety reasons.
If you decide to provide candy, some healthy swaps include:
- Dark chocolate instead of milk or white
- Bite size instead of full size candy bars
- Granola bars with protein/fiber instead of candy bars
- Prepackaged fruits such as mandarin oranges, raisins or other dried fruits (without added sugar)
- Small popcorn packages
- Mini water bottles or 100% juice
Families can opt to provide non-food treats as well. “The Teal Pumpkin” is an organization that aims to make trick-or-treating easier for kids with food allergies. Participants will put out a teal pumpkin on their doorstep indicating the treats provided are non-food items that all children are able to enjoy. Some examples:
- Costume jewelry (such as necklace or spider rings)
- Bouncy balls
Without concern for time constraints, what are your favorite one or two Halloween treat recipes?
A few easy and fun snacks include:
- Mini pumpkins (peeled mandarin oranges with ½ green apple jack for the stem)
- Banana Ghosts (1/2 peeled banana with nuts or chocolate chips for eyes and mouth)
- Mummy Toast (toast covered with marinara sauce, with scattered cheese cut into strips with olives for the eyes)
- “Candy corn” fruit cups (small clear cup filled with 1/3 pineapple, 1/3 mandarin oranges, topped with light whipped topping)
What advice do you give parents who might want to help their children enjoy the food and treats of holidays (Halloween, but also Thanksgiving and Christmas), but want to keep them on a relatively healthy diet? Is there a good balance?
Keeping your children’s meal and snack habits consistent can help with cravings as well as overindulgence. As mentioned above, avoid skipping meals and allow for small treats only after healthy food has been offered. Allowing your kids to take part in meal and snack preparation can help with their willingness to try new and healthy foods. Keeping healthful foods such as fruits and vegetables for snacks at hand can help encourage your child to reach for better options.
Other advice for Halloween treats?
Create fun and healthy treats with your kids. Bring them shopping with you and explain why one snack is a better option than another, and allow them to choose one brand vs. another on certain items. This will help your child understand the “why?” behind the decisions we make as parents. Soon kids will begin to know what foods are healthy and able to be chosen more often vs. foods that are “special occasion” foods.
Finally, any general advice on what a good healthy diet for children consists of, and how parents can teach their children to enjoy healthier foods?
Consistency! Starting kids out with balanced meal each morning has been shown to have lasting effects throughout the day including better school performance and behavior.
Offer healthy meals or snacks every 3-4 hours. Keep your kids involved in their meal planning and preparation. Look to USDA’s MyPlate Method for Kids (https://www.choosemyplate.gov/kids) for suggestions on serving sizes and balanced meals.
Include carbohydrate, lean protein, and healthy fats at meals. Try to include veggies and fruits as often as possible. Include dairy products such as milk, cheese or yogurt for calcium. Look for whole grains vs. white versions (such as whole grain bread vs white).
If you want to reward your child for good behavior, look to do so in a way that is not based around poor eating habits. Offer to take your child to the playground, toy store, or to a friend’s house instead. Exercise is also important in a child’s lifestyle for healthy well-being: aim for 60 minutes total per day.