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Nine tips for keeping Halloween as healthy as it is fun

Many children have been looking forward for months to Friday night, when they can don their Halloween costumes, knock on doors in their neighborhoods and rush home to spill their huge stash of trick-or-treat candy onto the living room floor.

But here’s the trick for the health-conscious parent: How do you help your kids enjoy the holiday without too much fright?

“It’s the perfect opportunity for parents to teach children how to eat candy without gorging on it,” said Sheila Flavin, a registered dietitian nutritionist in private practice in Getzville.

It’s also a chance to focus more on fun than food, she said.

Flavin – along with a University at Buffalo dental teacher, the University of Missouri Extension and the Clemson Cooperative Extension Food Safety and Nutrition Program – shared the following tips when it comes to striking the right Halloween balance:

1. Eat healthy before the big day: “If you and your family eat sensibly all year, then kids know how to make wise decisions when they are tempted to overindulge with unhealthy foods,” Clemson nutrition specialists Janis G. Hunter and Katherine L. Cason write on the South Carolina school’s website.

2. Eat before trick-or-treating: Children should have dinner before they hit the streets, the same principle adults should use before they go food shopping. “You can even make pizza healthy, without the pepperoni or sausage, as long as you have carrots and celery along with it,” Flavin said.

3. The smaller the kid, the smaller the bag: The goal should be for children to collect a reasonable amount of goodies compared to their height and weight. For the little ones, Flavin said, “a little plastic pumpkin is a great idea.”

4. Limit trick-or-treating: Stay within two or three blocks of home or a familiar place, and ask the kids to help you pass out treats when you get home, Flavin said. She did this last year with her nieces and nephews. “It was a good way to extend Halloween without getting all that candy.” When her three children, now in their 20s, were younger, Flavin and other parents in her North Buffalo neighborhood worked together on a similar strategy: “We’d trick-or-treat for about a half-hour. That was all any of us could take. Then we’d get the kids together for a party.”

5. Set a good example: At home, be a role model when passing out treats. “You might want to think about giving out a little piece of candy and an inexpensive toy along with it,” Flavin said, “so the trick-or-treaters don’t feel like they’re getting gypped.” Alternatives to high-sugar treats include packaged fruits, cereal bars and baked pretzels, low-fat crackers and peanut butter, 100 percent fruit juice boxes or packets of microwavable popcorn. Remember to ask about peanut allergies. Non-food items might include glow sticks, yo-yos, pencil toppers or fancy erasers, stickers, coins or toothbrushes.

6. Urge patience: Trick-or-treaters can wait until they get home to sample treats, so that adults can inspect the packaging and have first rights of refusal when it comes to what can be eaten before bedtime.

7. Limit the feast: “A lot of the work takes place after children get their bags of candy and parents allow them to access that candy,” Flavin said. Parents should toss anything in doubt and let Halloween eating serve as a lesson in portion control and moderate eating – while remembering that the holiday falls on a Friday night this year. “The fun of Halloween is putting out the spread, trading with everybody and having more than you usually would,” Flavin said. “That’s the night children can have five or six pieces of candy. Then it gets taken away and put in the cupboard, and each day they pick out three or four pieces. They can have it at lunch, at school or after dinner, so they have access every day, but it should be limited and controlled: ‘It’s your dessert, or treat, for the day.’ ”

8. Remember good dental habits: Dark chocolate may be more expensive than milk and other chocolates, but is less damaging to teeth – and dental bills, said Dian Chin Kit-Wells, clinical assistant professor of pediatric and community dentistry at UB Dental School. She also advised parents to steer their children clear of caramel and gooey, sticky high-fructose corn syrup, which is “sugar velcro on baby teeth and grown-up teeth alike.” Tooth brushing and flossing are important after eating sweets or sticky foods.

9. Party on: “Focus more on costumes, on games, less on food,” Flavin said. Dunk for apples, go on a hayride or decorate pumpkins. Have a costume contest. Balance, she said, is key to a healthy Halloween, and that means more fun than fright.

“If you absolutely forbid treats,” she said, “that’s just as harmful as letting kids eat candy for breakfast, lunch and dinner. They have to learn how to develop an internal sense of moderation.”