Halloween wasn't always about gorging on candy, and many parents are looking to slow the trend pushed by billion-dollar 'candy giants.' (Jessica J. Trevino / MCT) - Jessica J. Trevino / MCT

Trick or sugar-free treat?

CHICAGO — Every Halloween, Kimberly Grabinski braces for the piles of candy her son and daughter collect from their northwest Indiana neighborhood during trick-or-treat night.

A healthy lifestyle and parenting blogger, Grabinski lets her 9-year-old and 5-year-old keep 10 favorite pieces from their candy collections. The rest is distributed to relatives, or traded to mom and dad for a small toy or a couple of dollars.

"I do a lot of bargaining," Grabinski said.

As the holiday synonymous with candy approaches amid the ongoing national conversation about obesity and health, Grabinski and other parents and party planners are angling to make their festivities less about handing out sugary goodies. From suburban school districts offering fresh fruit as snacks at their Halloween parties to sponsors at a Lincoln Park Zoo event handing out toothbrushes, some celebrating the holiday are taking small steps to halt what they see as a year-round sugar overload for kids.

"When I was a kid, (Halloween) was like the only time we got candy," said Grabinski, 41. "Now it's like these kids are having birthdays and they're bringing candy and cupcakes. Our society overall is more inundated by sugar."

That's why Grabinski said she's passing on the minibags of M&Ms and other "mainstream candy" that she usually hands out to trick-or-treaters at her Lowell, Ind., home, and instead will give organic lollipops and spider rings, among other trinkets, this year.

Lincoln Park Zoo officials said their annual "Spooky Zoo Spectacular" event, which is scheduled for Saturday, has seen a shift to "healthier fun" in recent years, with sponsors handing out fresh fruit, toothbrushes and energy bars filled with natural ingredients.

The Downtown Oak Park association teamed up last week for the fourth year in a row with a national group called Green Halloween, so when ghouls and witches trick-or-treated in the suburb's downtown, participating shop owners handed out only refreshments that are organic and eco-friendly.

Schools are in on the trend.

Fruit snacks and wheat crackers will accompany the games and crafts at Halloween parties in Geneva Community Unit School District 304, which in recent years adopted a wellness policy that forbids treats for birthday parties but allows healthful ones, such as fresh fruits and vegetables, rice cakes and plain pretzels, for some classroom holiday parties.

Students in Batavia Public School District 101 will eat nothing at their Halloween parties after district officials changed its wellness policy earlier this year in an attempt to better protect kids with allergies, or families that can't afford to feed a whole classroom, said the district's chief academic officer, Brad Newkirk.

"They'll still continue to do crafts and games," Newkirk said. But snacks won't "be present at those parties," he said.

To be sure, candy is still a major part of most kids' Halloween experience, despite the changing behaviors. Candy sales, which always peak around Halloween, are projected to reach $2.4 billion this year, having grown each of the past five years, according to the National Confectioners Association.

But Americans didn't always engorge youths with sweets on Oct. 31.

Trick-or-treating as children know it today didn't become popular nationwide until after World War II as an effort to alleviate Halloween pranks, said Lesley Bannatyne, a Massachusetts-based author of four nonfiction books about Halloween and its history. Before trick-or-treating evolved to children in costumes waiting politely on doorsteps, youths were out after dark "ringing doorbells, removing porch steps, stealing gates and sometimes banging on doors in disguise and demanding sweets or money," Bannatyne said in an email.

Radio and TV programs helped popularize the idea of handing out treats, and retailers began offering packaged candies to disseminate to the kids.

"Once food giants ... were in the Halloween candy business, the genie was out of the bottle," Bannatyne said.

Those seeking to change behaviors on the holiday insist they aren't trying to cancel the holiday fun.

Amy Ziff, director of Green Halloween, a national organization that helps community organizers throw Halloween parties with healthier alternatives to traditional candy, said one of her essential missions is to make parents aware that they have options on the holiday. Green Halloween posts what it calls a candy "cheat sheet" that offers tips on what specifically to avoid — things like artificial dyes and flavors — if you're searching for organic and sustainably-made goodies.

"You don't just have to throw your hands up in the air and say, 'Forget it, I don't know what else to do, I'm just gong to let my kids have all the junk they want on Halloween,' " she said.

Ziff said that in recent years "cleaner," organic treats have become easier to find, with brands like Surf Sweets and Yum Earth.

But even Grabinski, who is forgoing handing out mainstream candy this year, said there is room for sugary treats on the holiday — in moderation.

"It's not about complete deprivation," she said. "It's about being smart and healthy."

Share This Story