From Halloween to harvest parties to Thanksgiving dinner and holiday feasts, this time of year is filled with festive, food-centric occasions. And for parents of children with serious food allergies, it’s a scary time of year. There are countless opportunities for their kids to accidentally consume food to which they are allergic. But parents don’t have to sequester their children until the New Year rolls around. They just have to be prepared—and make sure their children are well-educated about their allergies and what they can and can’t eat.
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That doesn’t include shining a harsh spotlight on your child because of his allergy. “The important thing is not to single them out and say, ‘You can’t have that and you can’t eat anything,’” says Dr. Rushani Saltzman, a pediatric allergist at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. “Down the road, there’s definitely social repercussions for that.”
In fact, according to a 2010 study in the Annals of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology, 35 percent of school-aged children have been bullied or teased about their allergy.
“Children with food allergies can partake in the same type of activities as children without food allergies,” Dr. Saltzman says. “They just have to have that extra layer of cross checking.”
Devise a Plan
Parents should plan ahead to make sure that trick-or-treating is trick-free.
“You absolutely want to start with a strategy,” says Dr. Janna Tuck, an allergist in Cape Girardeau, Missouri, and a spokeswoman for the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology.
Kelly Brantner’s daughter Calyn, now 11, has serious allergies to several kinds of nuts. Kelly has always purchased nut-free candy to hand out at their house. And she also developed a plan that has allowed Calyn to safely enjoy trick-or-treating, just like her friends, without endangering her.
“As soon as we got back home, we’d go through everything,” Kelly says. “She got to take one of our trick-or-treat candies for every piece that she had to give up. That way, she didn’t feel like she lost anything.”
Dr. Saltzman likes the idea of a trade. “Doing a swap makes it fun,” she says.
She’s also had some patients who got to enjoy the experience of trick-or-treating, just like all their buddies, but then donated their Halloween candy to military personnel overseas.
“They can feel like they are doing something good for people who are doing something amazing for our country,” she says. “They are people who can enjoy it and will be so appreciative.”
Another strategy: purchase safe treats and ask your neighbors if they can unobtrusively hand them out when your child rings the doorbell. Don’t forget to let them know what costume your child will be wearing.
If you do choose to let your child indulge in the traditional Halloween-night candy-gorging session, be sure to read the candy labels first. The candy may have been processed at a plant that processes other candy containing allergens that could hurt your child. Opt for the treats that you know are safe.
Ideally, teachers who have children with food allergies will request that parents avoid bringing treats containing those allergens to school for birthdays or parties. But just in case someone forgets, or a tricky allergen manages to slip through, it’s worth having a back-up plan for your child.
At the beginning of every school year, Kelly and Calyn fill a large bag with special treats and send it to school.
“We call it Calyn’s Peanut-Free Party in a Bag,” says Kelly. “That’s the back-up for the teacher in case something (problematic) comes through and they don’t know where it was prepared.”
Plus, adds Kelly, “Calyn participated in that solution so she feels empowered. And that’s a good thing because there’s a lot of anxiety with that allergy.”
It’s easy enough to prepare your own allergen-free foods for Thanksgiving dinner, but what happens if your child’s class has a big Turkey Day meal? Or your family is invited to celebrate the holiday with a group of friends or extended family, who may not be familiar with the rigors of dealing with a food allergy?
Dr. Saltzman suggests talking to the host in advance: “Can you tell me what you plan on serving and if there are going to be foods with those particular allergens? Can you have them labeled so we know, or can they be separate so the child knows not to take food from those dishes?”
A forward-thinking approach in any situation is key, says Dr. Tuck, especially on big food-oriented holidays.
“You have to be aware of how your family functions,” she adds. “There’s always going to be one auntie or one grandmother who is going to say ‘one bit won’t hurt.’ But one bite can kill.”
It might be safer to bring food from home for your child in those situations. Or you can prepare a plate for them first, before anyone has had a chance to cross contaminate anything—like your cousin who tends to take the spoon from the green beans and use it to serve the sweet potato casserole—the one with the pecans. And only choose the foods that you know are safe or were prepared by someone you trust.
Taking these simple steps in preparedness can help smooth out the nervous edges that food allergies can bring and bring joy back to the season.