While some parents may be shivering with anticipation of little ghouls, goblins and witches celebrating Halloween, parents of children with food allergies are more likely to be shivering with anxiety of the hazards that lie ahead.
“Oh, Halloween … our favorite holiday to celebrate, but such a tricky one if you have food allergies,” says Nancy Flores, mother of 6-year-old Noah Lyons, who is allergic to peanuts and tree nuts.
Never fear. Your children can still have a terrific Halloween. You just have to be proactive to keep them safe. Here are experienced-parent tips for those who are new to the food allergy scene.
1. Ask about the school’s policy on parties.
Remember Halloween class parties from your own childhood? Cookies and candy galore, with paper cups full of garish red fruit punch from a big can? That’s probably making you wince if you have a child with a food allergy.
If your child has a serious food allergy, schedule a meeting with your child’s teacher—and perhaps also the school nurse and the principal or anyone else who regularly comes into contact with your child—as soon as possible. (They’ve probably encountered the issue previously, as one in about 13 children younger than age 18 in the United States is affected by a food allergy, according to the nonprofit Food Allergy Research and Education, Inc.)
Ask about school policies and procedures, including class parties. Some schools allow parents to send party food from home, while other schools ban food from outside sources altogether. Find out if you can send a safe treat that your child can eat.
2. Get festival- and carnival-savvy.
When autumn rolls around, it’s time for hayrides, festivals, visits to the pumpkin patch and carnivals. Inevitably, there are always plenty of food and treat options available—and it’s probably not food that you want your child to be around, let alone consume.
“The best thing to do is, number one, for the parent to go with the child if they can,” says Dr. Drew Bird, leader of the Food Allergy Center at Children’s Medical Center in Dallas.
And it’s smart to check out the food offerings at the event. Buffets and ice cream bars are rife for cross-contamination, so you might want to avoid those altogether, depending on your child’s particular allergy. If you can, talk to the people who prepare or serve the food, and request to see ingredient lists or labels.
“If you don’t know, and they can’t verify, just don’t go there,” says Bird, who suggests sticking to simpler foods that you know are safe.
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3. Prepare in advance for trick-or-treating.
It’s fine in most circumstances to let your child dress up in his favorite costume and trick or treat, just like everyone else. However, you should decide how to approach the situation beforehand. There are a couple of routes you can take: 1) You can approach your neighbors and ask them to hand out special pre-approved candy or treats to your child, or 2) you can let your child collect candy just like everyone else but then sort through the candy before she eats any of it. Let her then trade treats for the questionable items.
“You can have a barter system going on,” says Dr. Manish Ramesh, director of the Food Allergy Center at Montefiore in New York. “You can say, ‘we’re going to make it even more fun.’ You make a game out of it.”
Of course, there is no such thing as a “perfect” or “safe” candy. But certain candies are less likely to be dangerous, so your child may be satisfied with those.
“Always read the labeling before buying,” Dr. Ramesh says. “Candies that are made with sugar and flavoring alone such as Dum Dums (lollipops), Jolly Ranchers and the like are less likely to have common allergens.”
4. Think outside the box.
Perhaps you just skip the candy altogether and take a cue from Flores instead. Inspired by the Tooth Fairy, Flores invented the Candy Witch. Last year, the Candy Witch gave a Halloween bowling set to Noah in exchange for all the candy that he collected on Halloween night but wasn’t allowed to eat for safety reasons.
“She typically leaves a note saying something along the lines of “Thanks for being a great kid, Noah, and for staying safe and healthy. Enjoy your gift!” says Nancy.