Ghosts, Ghouls, Goblins, and Good Food: A [Healthy] Halloween Tale?

Up for something different this Halloween besides alliteration? Sure, there's the haunted houses, the costume parties, and the outdoor activities while the fall weather lasts. It's all great fun. And why not? But how about adding a slight twist to tradition?

As President of the National Center for Public Research I invite you to 1) give a health-promoting treat or two this year and 2) help kids and parents take the Good Food Pledge.

Big snooze, you're thinking. But hold on. This isn't as boring as it sounds. And if you suffer through a few more paragraphs, you'll hear our jaded costume ideas.

They're good.

Here's how it will work at our house on October 31st:

Little Timmy and Tabitha ring the bell and holler "trick-or-treat" when we open the door. They are followed by hoards of other kids with similar sounding vocals. All in costumes. Some scary. Some colorful. All have that persistent look: I will collect as much candy today as is humanly possible for one small child despite the annoying limitations imposed by my parents. That was always my goal as a youngster. My best friend and I would run full-speed from house to house to fill- up our lush green Marshall Field's shopping bags before our parents' interpretation of curfew set-in.

That was long ago. But I still enjoy dressing up for Halloween. And I still have a sweet tooth. I mean, really - who doesn't? How about an appropriately-sized warmed-up brownie with just a smidgen of French vanilla ice cream? Followed by a wee dram of twenty-year-old Ferreira tawny port on that even less frequent but certainly special occasion for those responsible grown-ups now of legal drinking age?

I suppose that'd be nice.

And why not? Almost any kind of food and drink in moderation is okay.

The problem is that many children are eating candy and other "foods" high in salt, fat, and sugar, and drinking soda with high concentrations of caffeine and #2 corn, not just on Halloween, but most of the time, and during the period of their lives where regular nutrition is desperately needed. It is no mere coincidence that many of these same children are suffering from adult-level diet-related diseases such as diabetes and obesity in record numbers. Many are having trouble paying attention in school. Graduating. Getting a decent job. Getting any job. Getting health insurance. Staying well.

Growing up: it's difficult today for many children. Poor nutrition is one of many factors that play a role. Halloween is not the culprit. But it can be an opportunity to stand up for good food while keeping the spirit of the season and not being a total curmudgeon. Everyone can do a little something to help improve the lives of children.

So back to Timmy and Tabitha. This year when they ring the bell at the house where we live and holler "trick-or-treat" they're in for a surprise: jump ropes, little prepackaged bags of apple slices, and a copy of the National Center for Public Research Good Food Pledge. Seriously.

You're thinking: hey, we can do this at our house, too, and maybe not get egged or snickered at - and it's true!

First, as statisticians, we've run a number of highly rigorous probability scenarios; the chances of getting egged after providing nutrition information are very low. Kids actually do like it when you show an interest in them even though they sometimes choose to keep that information to themselves.

Second, the jump ropes are more cost effective than you might think. At our local party store, we snagged a few "value packs" of 20 for just $9.98 a pack.

The cost of prepackaged, organic, locally-grown apple slices in bio-degradable edible free range soy ink wrappings? Let's not have that conversation just yet. But jokes aside, the point is that food that will make you healthy costs more than food that will make you sick if eaten on a regular basis. Don't forget that the cost of cheap food isn't so cheap after all. Someone always pays. Direct costs are borne on the quality and length of life. Indirect costs are borne by the heath care industry, by employers, by government agencies, by taxpayers, by me and you, and by others who take on the financial burden of pre-death treatments.

So on to the Pledge. We invite you to share it in your own circle of influence. It's one small thing that you can do and it doesn't take much time or money, just perhaps a bit of photocopying. It goes like this:

National Center for Public Research GOOD FOOD PLEDGE

I pledge that from this day forward I will strive to be an ambassador for healthy eating. I, from this day forward, will strive to choose fruit instead of candy, water instead of soda, baked goods instead of fried foods.

I, from this day forward, will strive to educate myself, my family and my community about the benefits of good nutrition and exercise.

I pledge that from this day forward I will be an advocate for healthier food options in my community, so that these positive "good food" solutions that I commit myself to today can be easier for me and for everyone to make.

Personalize your goals here:

Goal 1: _________________________________________

Goal 2: _________________________________________

Goal 3: _________________________________________

Unfortunately, it will be easier for some families to follow through on the Good Food Pledge than it will be for other families who live in areas where grocery stores are non-existent, few or distant. But we need to begin somewhere. And just think: The Huffington Post has millions of readers. Granted, most probably do not read my blog, but let's forget all the zeros for a moment. If just nine of you readers share the Pledge and a nutritious treat with children this Halloween that would give us a start!

Nine friends of Good Food: Are you out there?


(As Lisa Simpson calls out hopefully as she's stuck at the top of the gym pole all by herself long after school's out: Mrs. Pommelhorse? A little help?)

Taking a healthy twist on Halloween will sure get the eight-year-olds like Lisa, Timmy, and Tabitha talking about you on Monday morning at recess. (A really strange, old person in a costume gave me a jump rope and bag of apple slices and some kind of - uh - good food pledge? Hey, wanna jump rope with me?)

This conversation could very well happen during recess if we still had recess these days in all of our public schools. Ah, that's another story.

Which brings me to my grand finale of jaded costume ideas. Frankenstein, the Grim Reaper, Dracula - they just don't scare the way they used to.

How about an "issue of the day" as a costume? Recess (or lack thereof) is a good one. Global warming. Affordable housing. Where is your passion?

How to dress up as an issue, you wonder?

Be creative. For affordable housing all you need is a cardboard box, some markers, and glue. Make it look like a house, with holes for your arms, legs, etc. and paste play money to it. Carve out a little hole at the top of the house and keep throwing money down the chute (passers-by will love the animation). Look really confused and tired. Throw up your arms with a where does it all go? If you are feeling especially beaten paste a "foreclosure" sign on yourself at the end of the evening.

Just as easily as you can make a house out of a cardboard box you can surely turn into a place of business for Halloween. If you're feeling optimistic, you can be a mainstream grocery store. Your square footage doesn't matter as long as you sell an assortment of healthy foods. Cut pictures out from magazines and paste them to your exterior. Create a flyer for what's on sale and pass it around to the other guests at the party. Seedless grapes? Sour grapes? Develop your own ideas and run with them!

Or you could dress up as a USDA Food Stamp Liquor Store. Now that sounds devilish! Mostly you sell liquor, lots and lots of liquor, in jumbo bottles. Words like "malt" and "Muskatel" are important descriptors. But tobacco, phone cards, lottery tickets, potato chips, soda, and candy are also big money makers so stock up appropriately. When customers look all bewildered, asking for the nutritious foods that the Surgeon General encourages them to buy with their Electronic Benefits Transfer card, stare back at them in disbelief. Recruit a few people at the party who have had a few drinks already to sit on your stoop and whistle at the women who walk by.

We still haven't found the costume for you? Try the human sandwich board. Put the issue on the front and a petition on the back so folks can sign it as you go trick-or-treating with your kids door-to-door, pen in one hand, Marshall Field's bag in the other. Imagine the response of teachers if kids dressed up as "recess, please" at their school Halloween parties! (If you want to see what others are doing around the country, Google "rescuing recess.")

More costume adventures: go as a body mass index calculator. Friends and neighbors can punch in their height and weight and out comes their BMI scores! Dispense advice on little slips of paper in fortune cookie fashion, such as eat less, exercise more, get off the couch, turn off the TV, and so on. Throw in an occasional good job and don't give up the ship! For the person who says he's tried everything to get his BMI score down but just can't do it, tell him slowly and solemnly grow taller. (Remember, and this is the researcher talking: men lie about their height and women lie about their weight. Bring a scale for random testing and be sure to calculate your sampling error.)

The Hamburgler. Wasn't he the guy in the 70's who was supposed to help Ronald guard the hamburgers but, instead, kept eating them? Life is full of contradictions!

Tired of the food angle? I hear you.

Go as a Wall Street banker looking for a bailout. All you need is a pin stripped suit and a tin cup.

Go as a loan modification. Interest vs. ability to pay. It's a balancing act. See what you can work out.

Go as the angel of spare change. Hand out dimes and nickels to trick-or-treaters down on their luck.

Go as Josephine or Joseph (aka Jo/e) the plumber. Or Jo/e six pack. Or their distant cousin Jo/e juice pack who hands out healthy juice boxes as a soda alternative to little tiny children because soda is mostly #2 corn -- sorry, veered back again! But while I'm on the subject:

In 1923, long before the rise of McDonald's golden arches, an advertisement for beef made this proclamation in the Bridgeport Telegraph:

"Ninety percent of the diseases known to man are caused by cheap foodstuffs. You are what you eat."

For the history buff, the phrase you are what you eat actually dates back to the 17th century. Over time, science has repeatedly demonstrated that nutritional intake directly affects health outcomes. That we are what we eat is a medical fact.

We are what we trick-or-treat?

Not exactly, but consider a new twist on tradition this Halloween anyway. If you already bought your trick-or-treat candy, or if on November 1st you realize that your lush green Marshall Field's shopping bag is not only a collector's item but is overflowing with candy, remember: you might be able to sell your bag on eBay and most candy freezes well.

Regarding this second point, you can freeze chocolate in good-quality sealable plastic bags for three months or so. If you use medium-size instead of super-size-me bags, it will be easier to stretch out the goodies over a longer time period. Freezing can cause a white and gray coating on the surface of chocolate. This is because the cocoa butter rises to the surface. No worries. It doesn't affect the taste or the quality.

That reminds me: final costume idea - a freezer! In the day and age of "romancing the farmers' market" a freezer doesn't sound very exciting. But remember: our love affair with locally grown, fresh produce is - at least in the Midwest - a seasonal thing. Picking and freezing produce at its most nutritious stage can help many families eat balanced meals year-round.

Now, that wasn't so scary, was it?

Happy Halloween!