- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 15, 2008

It wasn’t the gruesome costumes or gory masks turning up at Lisa Bruno’s front door that spooked her on Halloween. It was the pudge lurking beneath the costumes. “The kids were just so huge,” Miss Bruno says.

So, five years ago, she was scared into changing her holiday handouts, giving out toys instead of candy. Other households do the same, offering stickers, pencils, Play-Doh or glow sticks, to mixed reviews from candy-loving children.

“I thought, here I am trying to take care of my health,” says Miss Bruno, of Des Plaines, Ill. “I felt a responsibility to my community to take care of the kids around me.”

Still, there’s no doubt that come Halloween, millions of princesses, sports stars and other costumed children will scamper from house to house, dropping fistfuls of candy into their plastic pumpkins and pillowcases and trying to open those wrappers faster than they can yell “Boo!”

Despite the heightened awareness of health and nutrition, the fact remains that children (and adults) are tempted with sweets at almost every corner even without a holiday devoted to sugar. About 30 percent of children ages 2 to 19 are overweight or obese.

As the average amount expected to be spent on Halloween candy is rising — to $20.39 per person, according to the National Retail Federation — some parents are finding creative ways to keep their children from gobbling it all in one stomachache of a night.

Halloween is the one night when Jennifer Taggart’s 5-year-old son and 3-year-old daughter get to eat whatever treats they want. Then they decide what’s going to be left for the “switch witch,” who comes at night like the tooth fairy and takes the children’s candy, leaving toys in her wake.

“The more candy they put out, the bigger the toy,” says Mrs. Taggart, of Los Angeles. “So far, my son has put out all of his candy every Halloween to get the biggest toy.”

The candy goes to Mrs. Taggart’s office, so there’s no risk of her or her husband eating it or the children finding it. “It’s just way too much sugar,” she says.

Another tactic has parents buying back the candy for money or books.

After her children enjoy some candy while trick or treating, Julie Schoerke of Nashville, Tenn., buys back as much of it as she can, offering a nickel for each piece of candy they like, and a dime for each piece of something they love.

“They could decide how much to keep,” says Mrs. Schoerke, whose children are 12 and 15. “Both would rather have the money, so they kept very little candy.

“I didn’t want them to have as much candy as they would get,” she says. “They got huge amounts, and I knew they’d consume it until it was gone.”

Rationing is also an effective method.

“If I’d let them, they’d have a free-for-all,” says Shannon Nelson of Lake Ariel, Pa., who gives each of her boys a piece a day. “They’ve understood the boundaries and limits, so when I place them, they don’t argue with it.”

A one-night candy splurge won’t make a child fat, and doctors and nutritionists say everyone can enjoy a little Halloween candy in moderation, regardless of his or her weight.

But experts do suggest turning the night into a teaching moment about portion size and limits, lessons can that can be reinforced all year.

“It’s important that we as parents help them find the balance between that very traditional fun activity and a healthy lifestyle,” says Connie Diekman, past president of the American Dietetic Association.

The government’s food pyramid allows about 10 percent of the day’s calories for most children to come from extras, which includes candy, Miss Diekman says.

“That’s going to allow every child to have some candy on a daily basis, and it really is OK,” she says.

To make that work, it might mean that dessert gets taken out of the lunchbox on Halloween to make room for a nighttime candy splurge.

Telling children they can’t have any candy probably will backfire.

“Some families say no, they don’t allow it, and some families have no restrictions and it’s a free-for-all,” says Dr. Sarah Armstrong, a childhood obesity expert at Duke Children’s Hospital. “Both are equally poor approaches.”

She suggests families offer candy and nonedible treats, to allow children who come to the door to make the choice. Some kids like the alternatives because they have something to play with that lasts beyond Halloween night. For others, candy is still king.

“They’reafter candy,” says April Callis of East Lansing, Mich., of her girls, ages 7, 12 and 14. “They’re not really interested in sunflower seed coupons.”