BALTIMORE -- When she was growing up, Jen Kitchen's Easter baskets were "always, always, always" brimming with candy -- the foil eggs, the jelly beans nestled in synthetic grass, the sturdy chocolate rabbit.
But this weekend, her three young children will get nothing of the sugary sort in their baskets. No cream-filled eggs. Not one Peep. "Not even one little jelly bean," the mother from Mount Airy, Md., says.
Instead, Kitchen's twins, who are almost 4, and her 2-year-old son will get baskets stuffed with movies, dolls and plastic eggs jingling with pennies. There will be soap bubbles and sidewalk chalk to encourage them to get outside and celebrate spring. And for snacking, she's tossing in granola bars, raisins and mini-boxes of Kashi cereal.
This year, parents like Kitchen are joining the food police and pulling something of a citizen's arrest on the Easter Bunny, seizing his candy and forcing him to reconsider his longtime gifts.
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With the warnings on childhood obesity and first lady Michelle Obama's ever-present messages on healthy kids, more parents have apparently decided to pass on the sweets and start new, sugar-free Easter traditions.
"What fun is it to give them something I don't want them to have?" says Kitchen. "I don't want to feel like I'm poisoning my kids or that I'm going to have to deal with a horrible sugar rush."
The nascent health push, which has yet to put a dent in the nation's candy consumption, has candy makers unfazed. Susan Smith, spokeswoman for the National Confectioners Association, insisted this week that Easter candy is part of the fun of childhood, saying, "What's Easter without a chocolate bunny or a Peep?"
Dr. Mike Bishop, who runs the national chain of Wellspring weight-loss camps for children, would like parents to figure out that a candy-less Easter could be a welcomed change. To emphasize his point, he rattles off one disturbing statistic after another about the pudgy state of the nation's young people:
--One in three kids is overweight.
--One in six is obese.
--Those numbers are four times higher than they were 40 years ago.
The last thing children need, he says, is another holiday centered on candy.
"Easter is not about chocolate bunny rabbits -- contrary to what my daughter thinks," Bishop says. "What I suggest for all of these holidays is to take the focus off the food."
But Bishop doesn't mean to ban Easter treats completely. If kids don't have weight problems, he thinks a Cadbury egg here and there won't hurt.
For overweight children, however, he says baskets should be candy-free.
"You really should avoid it altogether," he says. "Help your kids learn that ‘candy is not for me."'
This week at Target in Columbia, Md., parents swarmed the ample Easter displays. The candy selection was almost daunting, with all the perennial favorites represented but also seasonal specials from nearly every major company. Skittles, Snickers, M&Ms -- no one was missing out on the Easter action.
Aside from Halloween, Easter is the sweets industry's Christmas, so to speak. According to the National Retail Federation, the average person will spend $17.29 on candy this year -- up 74 cents, or about one package of Peeps, from last year.
Makenna Booth of Ellicott City, Md., sat in her mother Anastasia's cart, short legs swinging out the front. When Mom asked if she'd like chocolate eggs, Makenna chirped a decisive "Yes!"
According to the National Retail Federation, people are expected to spend more money this year on non-candy Easter gifts, too -- perhaps to fill in the basket for parents trying to walk the healthy line.
Makenna, for instance, will be getting crayons and paper, Hello Kitty underpants and some toys. "I'd rather not have a holiday centered on sweets and eating," her mother said. "But maybe that's just me."
Stores are accommodating the parents trying to avoid candy with a selection of Easter toys and gadgets. At Walmart, for instance, they were selling badminton sets with bunny-shaped racquets, Easter pencil sets and a plastic baseball bat that looked like a big orange carrot.
Almost every parent loading up on holiday gear swore their children's baskets would only have a few pieces of candy.
"We try to steer away from 100 percent candy," said Melissa Rozgonti, an Elkridge, Md., mom who was buying pastel-wrapped Reese's cups and looking for gummi fish, but also including hockey equipment and a bike helmet in her children's Easter loot.
Jennifer Cola of Annapolis, Md., was buying her daughters Whoppers, Easter Pez and jelly beans, but also some toys. She said her girls, who are 9 and 7, would be "very surprised" to find a candy-less basket.
And since her motherly message all year is "behave, be kind, be good and you get treats," Cola would rather not deny them.
"We do candy, but we try not to do a ton of it," she said. "It's just the whole Easter Bunny thing."
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