The Scariest Night: Halloween with Food Allergies

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The spookiest night of the year is filled with ghosts and ghouls, and possibly scariest of all...candy.
Candy? Yes. Candy.
Inside those gooey wrappers waits not just a sugary energy high (followed by inevitable tears) but a variety of the top 8 allergens. The allergen friendly treats are not-so-kid friendly, as most of the fall-back gummies and hard candies practically glow with a variety of questionable food dyes. Artificial food dyes have been under increasing scrutiny the past several years, and are banned from use in children's food in some European countries.
While all parents wrestle with their conscience when it comes to the massive candy haul, parents of food allergic children particularly dread this sugar-ific holiday. Not only do they see the potential for a reaction at every turn, they feel an immense sense of guilt. They know that the sugar is bad for kids. They know that they are better off without it. They know that the costume itself is exciting, and they can make their own allergen friendly treats.
But all they really see is their children's eyes, watching the other 'normal' kids, doing 'normal' things. One parent confessed that Halloween is the hardest holiday for her. She knows she'd be throwing the candy out anyway. It's the fact that she has to say no and throw it away because of the allergies that gets her.
Fortunately, children are resilient. And there are lots of ways that parents can make Halloween just a little less scary for the food allergy crowd, whether you deal with allergies personally or not.

Focus on the Costume

Sure, it's only worn for one night. It can be a waste of plastic, fabric and good money. But, it doesn't have to be. Get your child excited about dressing up for Halloween. Ask what they want to be and then get creative. You don't have to stick to the cookie-cutter character costumes available at your local big-box store. Make your own costume out of outgrown clothes, scrap fabric, boxes and found objects. Peruse magazines and online craft sites like Michaels or Family Fun for inspiration. Let your child's imagination go wild, and gently guide them to help shape their ideas. Maybe they'll end up a businesswoman like Grandma. Or put on an apron and get ready to do some iron chef-style cooking. Or maybe they'll use cardboard and crepe paper to become a lollipop. Whatever their vision, the costume fun can easily overtake the candy-crazies and fill up the chilly weekend hours leading up to the big day.

Find an Event

Most of the local malls hand out candy. But the weekend before the actual Trick or Treating begins, some amusement parks and zoos hold trick-or-treat events sponsored by local businesses. The businesses scare up customers by hosting a booth and giving out items related to their establishment. You might end up with pencils from a tutoring center, bumper stickers from your favorite radio station, and seeds from the local nursery. Of course, there will be some food as well. But the novelty of going to a special place in costume coupled with the non-food trinkets they collect will make the visit worthwhile to the under 10 set. And some events have allergy friendly foods, like potato chips or juice boxes to hand out.

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Go Trunk or Treating

Local churches and schools sometimes host a gathering in their parking lots lovingly labeled "Trunk or Treat". There will be tons of candy. But, there will also be religious themed stickers, pencils, notepads, rings, and an assortment of non candy or non-treat items from the members who want to hand out something 'different'. The kids don't care. They'll even thank the folks handing out "Come Worship with Us!" cards. Trunk or Treats are nice because you do get more "non edible" goodies than traditional door-to-door traipsing.

Play Hostess (Ghostess?)

If you can beat 'em, join 'em. Throw your own awesome Halloween party, making it totally safe for your own personal family's set of allergens. Set up a maze of haystacks, make some blood-red punch, don some fake fangs and get the party started! Play games like "Mummy wrap", have a dance contest to the tune of "Monster Mash", and turn on a few grade B scary movies (The kind that are funny when you watch them now.) Or stick to cartoon classics and pop in "It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown". Don't forget to the onslaught of trick or treaters...you can start playing 'guess the next costume' or take turns passing out candy. If your party list is small, consider making a living scene in the front yard. A small gathering of ghouls might want to resurrect themselves periodically from a pseudo graveyard, witches and warlocks can take turns tending a bubbly brew (and a few not-really chained prisoners). Let your kid's imagination run wild, you might just end up with a new neighborhood tradition.

Set an Example

You aren't the only food allergy family in the world. So set an example and hand out non-edibles. I'm not saying you should become the toothbrush house. Don't make yourself a target for tissue-roll wielding teens. But that doesn't mean you have to hand out candy. (or heaven forbid, raisins!) Companies like Oriental Trading have tons of brightly colored plastic toys that are comparably priced to candy. They may not disappear as quickly, but they make the allergy families happy, and they don't feed cavities. Stock your treat dish with pencils, stickers, glow in the dark ducks, necklaces, gooey eyeballs and stretchy skeletons. Even the teens who come knocking will give a lopsided grin. The best part is that when the evening ends, you won't be stuck eating the leftovers. Cover them up and stick them in the cupboard for next year's trick or treaters.

Don't Forget to Prepare the Kids

No matter where you are going, your kids should know that they are not to put anything in their mouths that has not been specifically okayed by one of their parents. The adult handing out lollipops at the Trunk or Treat might say it's okay to go ahead and eat one. That's only because they don't realize your rules are different. Let them know that they will get more candy than they know what to do with...but most of it will be consumed at home, after you read the label.
Also, it's a good idea to go over with kids what kinds of candy are safer than others. A nut allergic child might opt for Starbursts over Hershey bars. A dairy allergic child should look for Jr. Mints or hard candies. A child avoiding food dyes should stick to chocolate bars. On a grocery run, stop and read labels of the cheap candy hand out bags. Make a note of the safe ones, and point them out to your child. That way, if a friendly soul holds out a bowl and says 'choose two' they have a better chance of getting a safe item.

Plan to Trade

No matter how much planning you do in advance, there will be some unsafe candy in the mix. As long as your kids know this in advance, they will be okay with it. At the end of the evening, you can go home and sort out the haul. Make piles of candy that are safe, unsafe, and need to be verified. Then pull out your super-amazing-secret-stash of safe trades and set up business. In our household, I stock up on a few allergy friendly alternatives to childhood favorites, a few larger toy-items, and a few party favor style toys (the party favors actually come from our hand-out bowl) Then we bargain. I'll trade 2 unsafe lollipops for an organic one. Full sized candy bars get traded out for small toys or candy. I plan to trade everything I have in stock, but the kids don't always realize that and we can drag negotiations out for awhile. Eventually, everyone is happy, full of sugar and ready for bed.

Introduce the Great Pumpkin

If the idea of setting up a trading post just doesn't appeal to you, you might like the Great Pumpkin idea. Inspired by Charlie Brown and the Peanuts gang, parents tell their children that if they leave bags of candy out on the kitchen table The Great Pumpkin will come in the middle of the night and trade for something cooler. The 'something cooler' could be anything from a stuffed animal to an action figure play set to a new movie or video game. Whatever the child has been eyeing and talking about incessantly lately. A nice fringe benefit is that the Great Pumpkin encourages kids to actually settle down after an adrenaline filled evening to get some sleep. After all, he can't show up to eat candy if everyone's awake, now can he?

Recycling Treats

A final option, which could be paired with the Trading Post plan, is to set aside November 1st as an extra costume day. Go trick or treating again...but this time, the kids are delivering, not begging. Let your kids pull those costumes back on, re-apply any make up, and head to your local nursing home. You should check with the administration there first, but if they give you the green light your kids will put a lot of smiles on some lonely faces as they wander around handing their candy out to folks who otherwise don't get to see a lot of costumed kids. The treats will do double duty there, and your kids will feel great about the cheer they brought.

Whether the candy is dropped off at work, delivered to the nursing home, or simply dumped in the nearest trash receptacle, once it's gone you get to breathe a sigh of relief. Pat yourself on the back, you survived the biggest candy holiday of the year! Now...if you can just get through Thanksgiving, Christmas and Valentines day, it will be smooth sailing.

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