The Surprising Way to Use Halloween Candy to Tackle Picky Eating
When your child has sensory challenges, a reluctance to eat certain foods is about more than being a picky eater. Oral defensiveness or tactile oversensitivity results when certain tastes or textures are overstimulating for the mouth and taste buds. As such, children with this sensory issue often eat a small variety of foods, leading to nutrient deficiency and a constant battle at the dinner table.
In general, the advice around Sensory Processing Disorder states that focus should be placed on gaining tolerance to healthy foods. This makes sense as, ideally, we want our children to be eating a well-rounded and nutrient filled diet. However, Halloween is the one day out of the year where we can use candy to our advantage and tackle the stubborn food sensitivities we’ve been working on.
To be clear, I AM NOT encouraging the introduction of candy into a regular diet. This is simply a technique for letting your child experiment with new foods so that similar, healthier foods can be incorporated into their routine. If a child becomes comfortable with peanuts and peanut butter after eating a few Snickers on Halloween night, that’s a win! Again, the point here is not about eating candy, but using candy as a way to gain familiarity with new foods
What Makes Halloween so Special?
For a child with sensory challenges, eating isn’t always a fun activity. Sitting down to the table to choke down some green peas usually ends in a meltdown instead of a burst of joy. Halloween is one of the few times where eating is the epicenter of all of the fun. Without eating, there’s little point to all of the costumes, trick or treating, and fanfare. For tips on handling the chaos of Halloween with your child with autism or SPD, check out this other Sensory Toolbox post.
Especially if you’re trick or treating with a group, your child is going to feel motivated to participate in the fun and try a few pieces of candy. As long as this motivation doesn’t turn into overwhelming pressure and anxiety, you can turn your child’s desire for candy into a therapeutic activity.
Prepare for Halloween with this post on the 4 Best Halloween Tips for Kids with Autism and SPD
Using Halloween Candy to Your Advantage
Maybe your son can’t stand the crunch of peanuts or doesn’t like the slimy feeling of coconut. Maybe your daughter cringes when she eats sour flavors or starts to gag when anything spicy enters her mouth. Instead of needing to rely on boring old peanut butter, coconut, lemons, or salsa, turn to those delicious Halloween candies in the pretty wrappers.
When it comes to using Halloween candy to tackle oral sensitivities, you have a number of things working to your advantage. First, as we’ve talked about, Halloween is a holiday about eating, which is naturally motivating. Second, candy doesn’t look like everyday food. While I’ll save my rant about advertising’s ability to make candy so appealing, it works to our advantage in this case. Third, candy is often a fun treat that is rarely allowed to be eaten in the quantities that Halloween condones. Fourth, it’s exciting for your child and out of context of the dinner table that often causes stress.
Given these four factors, we have the perfect scenario in which your child may try nibbling on a Snickers or an Almond Joy. Your child may start eating a piece of candy on their own. If so, that’s fantastic. Don’t make a big deal about it to your child, but feel free to have your own internal party. If this doesn’t happen, don’t force it. While slight encouragement is acceptable, forcing your child to try a new candy will only add to the stress of an already overwhelming holiday.
So, what do you do if your child ate candy on Halloween night? While this is a big victory, it doesn’t mean that the fight against food is over. A Snickers, Almond Joy, or Lemonhead is very different than the raw peanuts, coconut, or lemons they have in them. When you sit your child down to a crunchy peanut butter sandwich the next day, don’t expect them to associate the peanuts with the Snickers. Especially if your child has autism, applying an object to a new context and situation can be challenging.
Talk with your Occupational Therapist about your child’s experiences on Halloween night and how you can best translate them into everyday life. How do you turn that experience with the Snickers into eating a crunchy peanut butter sandwich? How do you start introducing sour foods into your child’s diet after eating a Lemonhead? This will be individualized for your child and it’s best to talk with an Occupational Therapist that knows your child well for specific recommendations.
Halloween can be a chaotic time when your child struggles with SPD. However, it can also be a great opportunity to try new things, work on skills, and have some therapeutic fun!