Halloween is almost here, and along with the usual ghost, zombie, skeleton, witch and pumpkin decorations come unique – and sometimes uniquely scary – challenges for families with food allergies.
Parents of kids with food allergies and food intolerances have to carefully inspect every “treat” that comes into the house; and the challenge of keeping your child physically safe from an allergic reaction goes hand-in-hand with the challenge of dealing with the emotional fallout of a holiday based largely around activities (trick-or-treating and food-centered school Halloween parties) that may make him or her feel “different” and left out.
Both as a health counselor and a mom (my youngest son’s allergies were so extensive that the only treats he could eat were Skittles, Starburst and Smarties), I’ve learned a few tips that can help you and your family truly enjoy the holiday.
First, in talking about Halloween with young kids with allergies, focus on those parts of the holiday they can fully participate in – costumes, parades, spooky movies (look up Halloween specials on commonsensemedia.org to find age-appropriate scares), and hanging out with friends and family.
If you don’t already have a go-to family meal for this holiday, make your own “new” traditional meal that your kids can fully enjoy and look forward to: a good chili (vegan or otherwise) or a beef or vegetable stew with gluten-free bread or noodles can be a delicious and filling pre- or post-trick-or-treat meal. And you can create a centerpiece special dessert your child can look forward to eating at the end of the night, like gluten- and dairy-free pie; gluten- and dairy-free cupcakes decorated with ghosts, witches and pumpkins; or even a gluten- and dairy-free Halloween cake. (If you don’t have time to make these yourself, call ahead to your local bakery for allergen-free options.)
FARE, the Food Allergy Research & Education organization, started a wonderful campaign back in 2014 that’s been catching on, the Teal Pumpkin Project – encouraging families to offer non-food treats in addition to standard Halloween candy, and to place a blue teal painted pumpkin next to their standard jack-o-lantern as a sign that they’re offering treats like stickers, bracelets and glow bracelets, and goofy Halloween toys to help kids with food allergies feel included (https://www.foodallergy.org/education-awareness/teal-pumpkin-project).
Parents of young children with food allergies (and those without food allergies who are simply hoping to reduce Halloween-related sugar overload) may also enjoy turning to the “Switch Witch” – a relatively new “legend” invented by some brilliant parent somewhere out there that holds that the Switch Witch, a harmless creature like the Tooth Fairy, will switch your child’s bag of Halloween candy (or the leftovers, if you find some candy that’s safe for your child and that you don’t mind him or her eating) for a toy or toys while they sleep. Take it and run with the idea from there – it’s up to you whether your child’s candy gets swapped out for one big toy he or she has been wanting for a while, or a replacement small treat bag of non-food items like stickers and other dollar-store fun.
If you’re heading to a school or other Halloween party involving treats, you can bring prepackaged bags of allergen-free candy like Welch’s Halloween Fruit Snacks or Annie’s Organic Bunnies & Bats Fruit Snacks. Or you can get creative with orange Jell-O spread out on a cookie sheet and then cut with cookie-cutters into pumpkin, ghost or other Halloween shapes; and even healthier treats like tangerines or oranges with cut celery stalks as “pumpkin” stems, or “ghost” bananas on a stick (a small banana split in the middle, with each half pushed onto a popsicle stick and either raisins or carob dots used for the eyes and mouth).
Remember most of all that young kids will take their cues from you (even if they don’t seem to be paying attention!). Accept and acknowledge their emotions if they voice them to you (tell them that it’s “normal” and okay to feel left out when there are things you can’t do; and if you feel comfortable doing so, share stories about some times when you felt left out as a kid). But also try to find those parts of the holiday you yourself can truly enjoy (whether it’s costumes, Charlie Brown’s “Great Pumpkin,” or a meal with friends or family), and embrace and share this enjoyment with your kids.