Halloween is one of the most fun parts about being a kid. And frankly, if you’re an adult who is a kid at heart, its still a pretty great day!
But if you’re the parent of a child with food allergies, Halloween can feel a lot more trick than treat. My son, Jack, has life-threatening food allergies to dairy, egg and all nuts. Bluntly translated this means that most Halloween candy can kill him.
We discovered his allergies when he was just 15-weeks old, had his first sip of formula and went into anaphylaxis shock. So he’s never known anything different, and we’ve never known anything different.
While I don’t want to speak for him and won’t provide any perspective on what its like to celebrate Halloween when you have a food allergy, I can tell you what its like as a mom of a child with food allergies. I can also tell you how I started doing something last year to make the holiday even more fun for both me, and my son.
For eight Halloweens we had been doing all of the things that every parent of a child with food allergies has learned to do. We have a trade-in policy and exchange the candy that Jack collects for a toy or treat that is safe for him. When he was younger we carefully monitored which candy he accepted when trick-or-treating. We carry not just one, but five epi-pens with us that day and have drilled into the kids that they are absolutely not allowed to eat any of their loot until we inspect it at home. Our neighbors are sweet and will ask if they can provide candy that is safe for Jack.
But even so, it’s a tough one when your child has food allergies. And that’s too bad, because it’s a great day! What’s so wonderful is that Halloween is about more than just the candy collected during trick-or-treating. It’s about community and fun and everyone coming together on a day of silliness to celebrate fantasy, spookiness and friendship.
Here in Chicago, we all hunker down over winter and this is often the last time we’ll see our neighbors out and about for many months. So we do Halloween really big. In our community, like many of yours, Halloween is about the costumes and candy, but also the celebrations and the neighborhood gatherings. While kids trick-or-treat the adults follow along with red solo cups full of cheer. People host parties stocked with pizza, cookies, candy and other things that my son can’t eat and are very dangerous for him to be around.
And sometimes that’s a bit tough because I always envisioned that our house would be the one on the block with the big family parties and the place where all of my children and their friends would want to hang out. Not only is that fun, but I also I recognize the value in having a house where kids want to be as they get older because you can keep an eye on them, without them realizing you’re doing so. I remember how much I loved being at my friend’s house when I was a teenager because her family was friendly and the kitchen was always stocked with homemade cookies. But now that I’m the parent, I think I kind of shy away from those situations because the whole food thing is so tricky. And I can sense that Jack isn’t always included in other social situations that involve food like lunch bunches or restaurant meals because it makes the other parents nervous. And to be honest, it makes me nervous too. But that’s ok because Jack doesn’t seem to mind.
In fact, he has never complained about Halloween or any other food-focused holiday. He loves the version that he gets. And as his mother, I want to keep it that way. Whenever someone comments about how hard the allergies must be, we always reply with “yes, but its manageable.” And that’s true. As long as we manage certain situations, Jack is safe.
He understands that Halloween has its limits from a safety perspective. But from an emotional and goal setting perspective, I never want my son to think of his food allergies as limiting. There’s a real difference in tone between words like hard vs. challenging, sucks vs. tough, and limiting vs. manageable.
So with that in mind, last year I decided to stop feeling mopey about the dangers of Halloween parties, and instead dress myself up in a costume that would be a party-on-the-go complete with food that is safe for my son.
As our family got ready to trick-or-treat with others, I put on a hat from Jack’s beloved Cubs, sneakers, a fleece and carried a cardboard box full of individually wrapped hot dogs self-steaming in foil (thirty-two of them to be exact). I had stadium mustard and Giardiniera, but no ketchup (this is Chicago, after all!) and kept calling out, “get your red hots, here!” I was a Wrigley Field vendor. You know the kind that walk the stands and sell right from their tray?
Jack and his friends loved it and kept coming back for another hot dog as we moved from house to house over several blocks. I heard them saying “Jack’s mom has the best hot dogs!” and it made me feel good that they could associate Jack with a regular food that they love too, instead of the conversation always being about what Jack can’t have.
It was a hit with our fellow adults too because every good Wrigley vendor also has to have Old Style beer with them.
I loved it because it showed the kids that their mom can be goofy and enjoy the day just as much as they do. It let them know that I’m in this whole thing with them..its not just their holiday, its our holiday. I recognize that a day that is supposed to be unabashedly over-the-top fun does have its limitations for him, and for us. But this was my little way of showing Jack that I have his back. The limitations are all things that we can manage and I’ll always be there, finding creative ways to help him enjoy himself in safe ways.
As he gets older I know he won’t want his mom around all of the time. At some point it won’t be cool to have your mom trailing after you, even if she’s handing out free hot dogs. I can’t always be hovering, and helicoptering as much as I’d like to. And I need to trust that he will make safe decisions when it comes to his food allergies.
Plus after a few years, these costumes that allow me to travel with food will probably move from the creative camp to the weird camp. But for now, he’s enjoying it, my neighbors are enjoying it and I’m enjoying it.
Aside from keeping our bellies warm and full of good cheer while trick-or-treating, hopefully the Wrigley vendor costume, and others that follow, will be a reminder to Jack of how to approach food allergies with a can do attitude, instead of a can’t do attitude. Sure food allergies can be very tricky, but with or without allergies, Halloween should be a treat!