A few years ago, I watched as my colleague Beatrice and her young son Joey were interviewed by a television reporter about food allergies. It was Halloween and the feature was to air that evening, a perfect time to raise awareness about this growing issue for Canadian children, and about the precautionary measures that families must take to keep their kids safe.
Hoping to get some good visuals, the reporter asked Joey to sort through his loot from a Halloween party, dividing the candy into “safe” (no peanuts) and “unsafe” (with peanuts or a ‘may contain’ warning) piles. With the help of his mother, Joey adeptly separated his treats.
As the off-limits pile grew, the reporter looked at Joey sympathetically and asked: “How do you feel? It must be awful having a peanut allergy  and not be able to have all of these things?”
To the surprise of all of us, Joey, then 5 years old, responded nonchalantly, “Why? It’s just candy.”
Joey was clearly pleased with the amount of treats he could have and proud of the cool pirate costume he’d worn to his class party that morning. I wanted to give Joey a big hug. What a great attitude he had.
Parents, as you venture outdoors for Halloween 2014 with your food allergic youngsters, take a cue from Joey. Stay focused on what your children can have and can do, rather than their limitations. While ghosts and goblins may spook young children, food allergies don’t have to be scary. Halloween is an excellent opportunity to educate your kids. With some careful planning and simple precautions the evening can be a treat for all:
Emphasize safe eating habits
During the Halloween season, a lot of food makes its way into the classroom. Reinforce the “no sharing food” rule and remind children not to take goodies from others, even well-meaning adults. Explain that people who do not have a food allergy may not know what to look for on a food label and could miss something.
Remind teachers and caregivers about food policies
Ask them not to give food to your children without your knowledge. It’s very difficult for a young child to say “no” to an adult in a position of authority. We know of one case where a teacher made a mistake and gave a child a baked good which was labeled “peanut-free,” forgetting that his allergy was to milk. (He had a reaction.) Ask teachers to remind other families about the school’s food policies, and to be on the lookout for unsafe foods that may slip into the classroom.
Have a plan for trick-or-treating
Remind your kids they must always carry an EpiPen or Allerject auto-injector, wear MedicAlert identification, and stick with an adult. Role playing can help for young children who may feel shy about declining treats with obvious allergens from neighbors. Make sure your children eat before going out. A full stomach will reduce the temptation to sample treats en route.
Next: Be on alert: Halloween labels can be different
Food labeling 101
Use Halloween as a fun way to teach your children how to read a food label. Get them to help you sort “safe” and “unsafe” products. (Have them wash their hands before and after this activity.) Be mindful of the following:
• “May contain” warnings may get overlooked if they are under the flap of a package or printed away from the ingredient list. Some brands that are allergy-safe in a regular-size format may have a “may contain” warning on snack-size candies that are made on a different production line.
• It’s impossible to know what is in home-made goodies, loose candies, and unlabeled packages. When in doubt, throw them out!
• Food labeling regulations differ from country to country so stick to products made by North American companies that you trust.
Set a good example
While there are more choices these days for consumers with peanut and nut allergies, the same cannot be said for individuals with other food allergies. Before shelling out at our home, we ask: “Does anyone have a food allergy?”
Inevitably we get a handful of kids with milk allergy, so we keep chips, hard candies and dollar-store items on hand so that they are not disappointed. Teach your children the joy of giving. Get them to donate some of their treats to a shelter or seniors’ home.
With a little preparation, not to mention a cool costume, your child can enjoy a safe and fun Halloween.
Laurie Harada is Executive Director of Food Allergy Canada, www.foodallergycanada.ca .