Decorating the house is a cinch. You can carve a scary face on a jack-o'-lantern with your eyes closed. The kids' costumes were finished by Labor Day.
Think you have this Halloween thing down pat? Think again.
You may have a precious pumpkin, the coolest-looking offspring and the most frightening front porch in town, but that's not what the critics (i.e. the neighborhood children) are going to be discussing in the post-Halloween debriefings.
Face it, Halloween is about kids and candy. And the big question is: Does the stuff you're handing out measure up?
With Americans expected to spend nearly one billion dollars on the sweet stuff, Halloween ranks as the No. 1 confectionary holiday, says Bill Sheehan, spokesman for the National Confectioners Association in McLean, Va. Last year alone, 1,200 newproducts hit the grocery shelves, giving door-to-door revelers more variety than ever.
"The trick-or-treat bag has become an interesting conglomerate of items," says Lizbeth Echeandia, publisher of Confectioner Magazine in Dallas. "There are a lot more novelty items -- sour treats, fun bubble gums, interesting packaging."
Even if you were a trick-or-treater yourself, you may have lost your perspective on candy. It's not easy lugging that bag around the block through the rain or cold, particularly if all you get is something "healthful" like an apple or "useful" like a toothbrush.
To find out the winners and the losers in the treat department, The Sun assembled a panel of 13 confectionery connoisseurs from Rognel Heights Elementary School in West Baltimore. They ranged in age from 7 to 11.
Each demonstrated a certain -- shall we say -- enthusiasm for the prospect of taste-testing candy. Whether it ranked high or low, ,, no candy was refused by our panelists -- although raisins did meet with a round of "Eeeeeeeeews."
The 13 (we kept picking the spooky number in honor of the holiday) treats rated by the group were chosen as a representative sample from two Baltimore-area grocery stores. They run the gamut from soft to hard, sweet to sour, chocolatey to fruity.
And the winner is . . . the Snickers bar.
Our results mirrored a national trend: The candy bar is the second-best seller in the country, according to Ms. Echeandia. Eight of our panelists rated the classic chocolate, caramel and peanut treat as the candy that would most impress their friends at the lunch table.
"I give it a hundred," said Teona Blackston, 8, as she bit into a Snickers.
"I give it three hundred," said Lakia Bailey, her third-grade classmate.
"Well," said Teona, determined to show her affection for the snack, "I give it . . .infinity."
But before parents run out and buy all chocolates for Halloween, please note that the dark stuff was not universally loved by the panel. What goes into the chocolate can make quite a difference.
For instance, Dove miniatures --a dark, rich version of the chocolate you see on the Dove frozen ice cream bars -- was rated the least favorite candy in our survey. Hugs, a milk chocolate/white chocolate version of Hershey's Kisses, and Tootsie Rolls finished in the bottom half.
The Dove chocolates, in particular, seemed designed to appeal more to adults than youngsters. They struck a bitter note for many panelists.
"Too chocolatey and too sweet," said Maurice McCoy, 9. "That makes it two thumbs down."
The low rating for Hugs was a surprise only because the kids seemed to love the name and the appearance, but several found the candy boring and the portion too small.
The panel's second-best choice was Dum-Dum Pops, a sweet confection that several children said was an appropriate partner to the sour Smarties candies. Dum-Dums are marble-shaped lollipops that come in flavors like orange, cherry and cream soda.
The fact that lollipops would be so highly rated demonstrated how difficult it was to predict a child's tastes. Dum-Dums are not glitzy, heavily advertised or trendy. They just taste good.
"It's an A-plus," said Lakia.
L "I can taste the brain," said Teona. "They really are dumb."
If you ever want to see a room full of children become upset, tell them they can only eat candy corn, Mary Janes or raisins at Halloween. Next to Doves, those were the panelists' least favorite.
Despite the verbal assault on raisins, it should be noted that even the lowly rated dried grapes were the top choice for one panelist. (Raisins also finished fourth with two panelists, although that couldn't offset being ranked 12th and 13th by many other tasters).
"They're squishy, and they look like ants," Teona said of raisins. "If I got these on Halloween, I'd give them to my dog."
Mary Janes, the peanut butter-flavored hard candies, may be a sweet Halloween memory for adults, but the children were unimpressed. Likewise candy corn may strike grown-ups as a classic; the panel gave thumbs down.
"Too much peanut butter and too hard," Kenneth Carter, 10, said after trying the Mary Janes. "If I get them at Halloween I'm giving them to my grandmother."
"It's wax," Amanda Barnes, 7, said about candy corn. "I'd throw it away."
Obviously, the panel's findings are not scientific. On almost every candy, opinions varied wildly.
As a result, it's difficult to draw conclusions. Here's an example.
You'll notice that fruit flavors are appealing. The panel liked Dum-Dums, Gummi Mummies, and Now and Laters, all of which taste like fruit.
But then again, Smarties was not a big winner. The best rating it received was a fourth and most children ranked it in the lower half, somewhere between Tootsie Rolls and raisins.
"It makes my cheeks burn and my eyes water," said Jewel Holt, 10, after biting into Smarties.
It's also hard to tell whether children are more attracted to hard or soft candies. Low-rated Mary Janes are hard, but so are high-rated Dum-Dums. Gummi Mummies are soft and well-liked, but candy corn is only soft.
"Gummi Mummies stick to your teeth," noted Keona. "That's good. You just have to make sure you brush."
What's the ideal candy?
The Sun's testers were asked to put themselves in the role of candy makers and design the perfect confection.
"It would be tangy and soft," said Teona dreamily. "When you put it in your mouth, it would burst with juice."
The name for this as-yet-uninvented sweet: The Kid. And, added Teona, it would be shaped just like a kid -- with little arms and little legs and a big smile on its face.
Here are the 10 best-selling candy bars for 1992, according to Confectioner Magazine.
3. Reese's Peanut Butter Cups
4. Extra Gum
5. Hershey's Kisses
6. Milky Way
7. Hershey's Milk Chocolate with Almonds
8. Hershey's Milk Chocolate
9. Kit Kat
HOW SWEET IT IS
Here are the rankings for the 13 treats as judged by our 13-member panel:
1. Snickers (Fun Size)
2. Dum-Dum Pops
3. Gummi Mummies
4. Now and Later
5. Bazooka Bubble Gum
8. Tootsie Roll
9. Smarties Candy Rolls
11. Mary Janes
12. Candy Corn
13. Dove Chocolate Miniatures