Halloween offers scares and delights for children, but for parents of kids with food allergies, the holiday also brings an extra level of concern.
Children who are allergic to peanuts, tree nuts, eggs, milk or wheat — common ingredients in packaged candies — can’t go trick-or-treating and casually eat any treats they collect. For children with severe allergies, a single bite can trigger anaphylaxis — a life-threatening reaction.
Rushani Saltzman, MD, an attending physician in the Division of Allergy at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP), has a few suggestions for keeping Halloween both safe and fun for kids with food allergies.
“Any holiday or celebration that involves food requires care and vigilance for families of kids with food allergies,” says Dr. Saltzman. “That means paying close attention to ingredients. It’s also important to keep holidays fun and to help your child feel included in the celebration.”
Focus on the costume or a party
Halloween isn’t only about the candy. If your child has a food allergy, emphasize the other aspects of the holiday.
- Make costumes a primary focus of your family’s celebration. Be creative and make costumes that appeal to your child’s special interests. Dress up as a family.
- Carve pumpkins together.
- Plan a Halloween party with games or a costume contest as the main event — and a carefully chosen menu of food.
Set trick-or-treating expectations clearly
- Go trick-or-treating with your child, and carry injectable epinephrine with you. If anyone other than a parent goes out with your child, be sure that person understands your child’s food allergies and what to do in an emergency.
- Make sure your child knows not to eat the candy while out trick-or-treating.
- Teach your child to politely say “No, thank you” to food that may not be safe, especially homemade items like cookies and cupcakes.
Choose where to trick-or-treat
- Plan in advance to visit the homes of friends and family, and arrange with them to have treats that won’t make your child sick. These might include nonfood treats like glow sticks, crayons, markers, bubble solution, stickers or finger puppets.
- For a young child who will be happy with just a few stops, you might offer to supply the treats and drop them off in the days before the holiday.
- Look for the teal pumpkin. The Teal Pumpkin Project® is a nationwide movement to offer “safe houses” to young trick-or-treaters with food allergies. Participating households put out a teal-colored pumpkin or post a sign with a picture of one, and offer nonfood treats to kids with allergies. (Even if you don’t have a child with a food allergy, consider participating. It’s easy to offer alternatives to candy, and many kids prefer them.)
The candy your child collects at Halloween may include types and brands that are new to you and your child.
- Always check the labels for the ingredients. It’s obvious from the name that milk chocolate contains milk. It’s less obvious that licorice (red and black) is made with wheat, or that the nougat in chewy candies is made with eggs.
- Even if your child has had no problems with a candy or treat in its regular-size packaging, don’t assume that the ingredients will be the same in a smaller “fun-size” package.
- If the wrapper doesn’t list the ingredients, look them up on the candy manufacturer’s website or simply set that candy aside as too risky.
- It’s not required, but many manufacturers add precautionary notices when food is processed in a facility that also processes certain allergenic ingredients, such as peanuts, tree nuts or eggs.
Practice “switch witchery”
Like the tooth fairy, who comes while a child is sleeping and exchanges a tooth for money, the switch witch exchanges Halloween candy for toys.
In the days leading up to Halloween, consider introducing the idea of the switch witch to your child and find out what toy and what amount of candy would make the trade appealing. In your home, the switch witch might only trade for candy with ingredients your child can’t eat. Or your child might choose to offer up excess candy for an even better toy.