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Eating Smart

A Few Tricks to Help Avoid an Excessive Amount of Treats

Halloween doesn't have to be a candy fest. Try hosting a party or dispensing healthier foods.

October 09, 2000|SHELDON MARGEN and DALE A. OGAR

It's just about that time again--the official start of the holiday season. Thanksgiving used to be the beginning, the clue that Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa and New Year's were only a month away. But now Halloween ushers it all in, and according to the store managers in our hometown, the pre-Halloween season starts as soon as the back-to-school stuff comes off the shelves.

Halloween is an interesting holiday, and most of us don't really know what it's all about. Witches? Goblins? Haunted houses? Pagan rituals? No! It's about children roaming the streets begging for candy--the same children whom we force to eat fruits and vegetables and brush their teeth and tell never to accept candy from strangers. But on Halloween, not only do we send them out there with our blessings, we dress them up in outrageous costumes to do it.

To make matters worse, every year we hear about the crazy people, the ones who put razor blades in apples and think up a hundred new ways to injure innocent children. Hospitals will routinely agree to X-ray everything your kids collect, for free, using the same machines they charge us hundreds of dollars to use when we twist an ankle.

So what's a parent to do? Keep the kids home? Good luck! Kids really seem to enjoy this holiday (as do a lot of their parents). They love to dress up and act scary, and they especially enjoy the candy, more or less in direct proportion to how much they are normally allowed to have.

Nutritionists are tempted to do some serious candy-bashing around this time of year, telling you that homemade bran muffins covered in plastic wrap and tied with a pretty ribbon would be so much better to hand out than Snickers bars--but let's get real. First of all, parents are continually warned not to let their children eat anything that isn't commercially sealed. That bran muffin, which you worked so hard to make, will probably just get tossed in the garbage. The same is true of popcorn balls, apples, oranges, homemade cookies and anything else resembling a good, nutritious treat. Boxes of raisins were in vogue for a while, but now dentists tell us that because they are so high in sugar and so sticky, they may be as bad for the teeth as candy.

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So here's the dilemma: On the one hand we don't want kids to eat too much candy, and on the other we are afraid to let them have anything else that might be given out for treats.

But fear not. If you want to keep Halloween intact as a fun holiday, here are some hints that might make it safer--and a little less traumatic from a nutritional point of view. (You can add these to the list that covers dangerously long costumes, crossing the street at night and setting things on fire.)

* Dispense with the trick-or-treating completely. Get together with some other parents and organize a party for the kids. It could move from house to house, taking advantage of spooky decorations, weird music and even videotapes of scary movies. The menu can include some sweets, but this type of a celebration will allow you to also serve juice, cookies, fruit and other foods. Be sure to include goody bags to take home.

* Organize your neighborhood. Start well in advance and suggest that anyone who wants to pass out special, homemade treats or fruit, put a note on it saying where it came from. For instance, it could say, "Happy Halloween from the Addams Family." Be sure that your kids go only to places where you know the people. Doing this kind of preparation may also help you get to know your neighbors better, which is especially good if you are new to the area.

* Look around for prepackaged snack foods that have more going for them than candy does. Nuts, cheese, sugarless gum, peanut butter and crackers, trail mix, pretzels, popcorn and many others are now available in small packages. The big discount stores often sell these small sizes in large quantities. Make the same suggestions to your neighbors so that wherever your kids go, they will get more healthful snacks.

* Don't worry about a little bit of candy. Candy is not poisonous. It does not cause cancer. Eaten in moderation, it is usually just a concentrated source of fat and calories. Eating a lot of candy over a long period of time may become a problem, but a little bit around Halloween is probably not going to permanently damage anyone.

If your kids get a lot more goodies than they can or should eat within a few days, take some of the excess to a homeless shelter where the children may not have any at all. Let your children participate in this process.

* Don't put a candle inside of your jack-o'-lantern. Pumpkin is actually a healthful, edible squash, and, cooked and pureed, is just like the stuff in the can (only better). It is entirely possible to make pumpkin soup, pumpkin pies, pumpkin bread and, yes, even pumpkin cheesecake out of fresh pumpkin--unless, of course, it is full of melted wax and carbon residues.

So, happy haunting one and all.

Dr. Sheldon Margen is a professor of public health at UC Berkeley; Dale A. Ogar is managing editor of the UC Berkeley Wellness Letter. Send questions to Dale Ogar, School of Public Health, UC Berkeley, Berkeley, CA 94720-7360, or e-mail to daogar@uclink4.berkeley.edu. Eating Smart appears the second and fourth Mondays of the month.

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