Balance Halloween candy with healthy traditions

Posted: Friday, October 26, 2007

In a few more days doorbells will ring and doors will be opened to costumed tykes shouting "trick or treat." This charming ritual is fun both for kids who dress up and go door to door, and for grown-ups who decorate their houses and hand out treats. It also is a bonanza for the candy industry, with more than a billion dollars of candy sales attributed to Halloween each year.

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I feel ambivalent about Halloween. On the one hand, it is a holiday that builds community. When else do we visit the homes of so many neighbors and participate in a fun event where the emphasis is on children? On the other hand, the focus of the holiday is disturbingly candy-centric. On a typical Halloween at my house, the evening ends with kids unceremoniously dumping their candy on the living room floor, sorting it into piles, and then counting how many of each different item they have.

Recipe: Pumpkin soup

1 sugar pie pumpkin (about 3 pounds)

1 quart chicken or vegetable stock

3 large leeks, white part only

2 tablespoons buttter

2 tablespoons lemon juice

2 tablespoons honey or brown sugar

Salt and pepper

½ cup cream

Cut pumpkin in half horizontally. Scrape out seeds and place face down on a baking sheet. Roast for 1 hour in a preheated 350 degree oven. Remove from oven and cool. Scrape flesh from the skin and puree. Clean trim and slice leeks. Melt butter and sauté leeks until soft and starting to brown a little. Add the pureed pumpkin and leeks to a soup pot. Mash them together and add the stock. Heat to a simmer. Add lemon juice, honey or sugar, and salt and pepper to taste. For a richer soup, stir in the cream right before serving.

The health effect of all this candy is unknown and probably unknowable. Some kids will horde their candy, saving it for months or even years, until it eventually gets stale and they throw it away. Others will binge on candy for days, experiencing a weeklong sugar high punctuated by periodic crashes and burns.

I've heard of different strategies for counteracting the candy blitz. Years ago, I had a friend who gave out toothbrushes and little travel-size tubes of toothpaste to the trick-or-treaters who came to her apartment. Some people give out relatively healthier treats like fruit leathers. Some folks give out nonfood "treats" such as rubber balls or pens or pencils. All of these are commendable.

As a parent, I have resorted to buying trick-or-treat candy back from my kids. It worked when they were little, but as they grew older they became more savvy bargainers, sensing correctly that my desire to protect them from sugar was a weakness they could exploit for financial gain.

In the end, maybe the best solution is to emphasize other things about the holiday besides candy. Putting up decorations and carving a jack-o'-lantern are a big part of the fun of Halloween, as are dressing up in funny or scary costumes.

As far as food goes, consider starting a family tradition of having something healthy to eat on Halloween to counteract all that candy. One possibility is pumpkin soup. Pumpkins, like most winter squash, are loaded with vitamin A. Not only that, but pumpkin can help regulate blood sugar metabolism, which might come in handy when your child has eaten his third Snickers bar. Here is a recipe for a delicious pumpkin soup to warm you up for the merry night of Halloween. (Make sure you use the sweet pumpkins grown for eating. Jack-o'-lantern pumpkins are ornamental and not intended to be eaten.)

• David Ottoson owns Rainbow Foods and has bought, sold and written about food and health for 20 years.

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