Visions of Sugar Plum Fairies: Helping your Kids Navigate the Sugary Waters of the Holiday Season

By: Ann C. Meyers, RD LDN at Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC

It’s the time of year when I often read articles about making healthy alternatives to holiday treats.  I’m a pediatric dietitian and all for “lightening up” a recipe but it seems to me that we are missing the point of a holiday when we focus only on healthy food recipes. It may seem a bit obvious but holidays are special because we celebrate them once a year and they are the basis of many of our family traditions.  Holiday foods?  Delicious. Holiday traditions? Priceless.

Sociologists tell us that traditions are an integral part of a loving family.  Children learn early on to identify with their own family’s unique traditions.  This identification helps them form an identity and a sense of their place in the family.  Of course, many of these traditions are centered on food.  Candy at Halloween, pie at Thanksgiving, cookies with Santa, more candy on Valentine’s Day etc.  But what about the calories and all that sugar? Can this be healthy for our children?

As a parent, it’s difficult to know how to set reasonable limits on all of these treats yet maintain the spirit of each holiday. Obesity is a real and present danger to the health of our nation’s children, so much so that it has become a “cause celeb” from Michele Obama to Jamie Oliver.  How can we help our children to stay on the path of healthy eating without depriving them of happy, family memories?

First, a little reality check and them some common sense to address this problem.  While every holiday has some special foods it also has other traditions which mark the day.  Take Halloween, for example – now here’s a holiday which celebrates the power of sugar!  But there is also the tradition of dressing up and visiting your fellow neighbors. Yes, most of your neighbors will hand out candy to your kids but why not start a few traditions unique to your own family? Instead of trick or treat, you can make it trick for treat.  This slows the process down a bit and makes them do a bit of “work” for these treats. Ask your kids if they have a “trick” that is a joke, a song, a little poem, etc., that they can tell the adult opening the door to them on Halloween.  Or perhaps, you don’t even wish them to celebrate the candy part of the holiday.  You can still let them dress up and have a party where they play games and decorate pumpkins.  The important thing to kids is that there is recognition of the day within their own family.  Traditions are what your children will remember years from now, not how many pieces of candy they ate.

This common sense approach to the holidays can make a big difference in how our children relate to food in the future.  We need to refocus their attention on all of the loving traditions families celebrate, not just the holiday foods.  Undue attention on good foods versus bad foods just sets up our kids for failure because all foods in moderation are good for you.  Banning holiday treats or making them so “healthy” that they lose their flavor just places undue emphasis on the foods themselves.

Demonizing foods gives them a mystique they don’t deserve. This means you have some tough parenting to do by controlling what you bring into your house.  Because once you do have these treats in the house, you’ve already given your children the message that these foods are okay to eat.  Telling them that they are unhealthy only confuses children and often increases their desire to overeat.  Setting a limit on when and how much they can have lets your kids know that these foods are special foods to be eaten and enjoyed occasionally. Like the holidays themselves, your kids will be happy to know that these foods will appear from time to time in your house just like all of the other foods you buy and prepare.

So go ahead and enjoy some holiday foods with your children but just make sure these foods are not the main focus of the day. It is the act of your family gathering together to share an event that makes a holiday special not what particular foods were served that day.

Loving family traditions are the best reasons for the season!