By Laura Simon (with input from Angela Fuller from Food Allergy Families of the Triad)

I have a confession to make, and I hope you’ll all keep this a secret, OK? Every year, I start buying Halloween candy in late September. I buy at least six bags of my favorite stuff: Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, assorted Hershey bars, and Kit-Kats. I stash them in an out-of-the-way place, and congratulate myself on being so on top of things. For once.

For the next week, my family and I take turns pilfering candy from the “secret” stash in an out-of-the-way place, until grocery day dawns and I discover we are down to a few measly candy bars. So I buy more.

This cycle repeats itself over and over until I find myself scouring the nearly-empty shelves the day before Halloween in an attempt to find candy that the trick-or-treaters will appreciate, in hopes that they’ll spare my house when they’re looking for someone to egg. In the back of my mind, I’m also considering the fact that I’ll likely eat everything that’s left over, and I have strong opinions about candy, so I want to be sure I get something good.

Surely I’m not the only person who does this, right? Right? Anyone?

Given my love for A) candy and B) candy with peanut butter in it, I’m a pretty unlikely candidate for the Teal Pumpkin Project, right? I also happen to have three kids who do not deal with food allergies, and it’s a good thing because the food allergy learning curve has been a little steep for me.

Case in point: nearly a decade ago, when my youngest was only a year old, a dear friend invited a group of us over for lunch. I knew what she was making, and I knew my little Mr. Picky wouldn’t eat it. In fact, he would pretty much only eat one thing at that point: peanut butter and jelly. I also knew my friend’s son was allergic to peanuts, but I packed a peanut butter and jelly sandwich anyway. If you are a food allergy mama, I am so sorry. I know you are twitching right now. You should be. I had no idea I was doing anything wrong. After all, I wasn’t packing the sandwich for her child to eat.

My friend was very gracious, more so than she should have been. That was the day I learned that many kids with food allergies don’t have to eat the food to get sick. If they come into contact with that food, if they happen to inhale peanut dust or play on the jungle gym right after the child with goldfish residue on his fingers, they could react in much the same way as if they consumed it.

Can those of you who fall into my category – with a household of allergy-free people – step back with me and think about that for a moment? Not only do our allergy mama friends have to worry about people who willfully disregard their children’s safety, they also have to worry about those of us who are well intentioned and ill-informed. To us, it’s dust. To them, it’s life and death.

Now think about all the fun of Halloween: picking out costumes (which starts in August in this family, for the record), going out after dusk, enjoying the time with our neighbors, and eating chili around a fire pit. For mamas dealing with food allergies, this is a very different time. They have to prep their kids for the houses where they can’t take anything offered. They have to read the label on every single piece of candy. They have to make sure their kids don’t take anything with an allergen, because if it winds up in the trick-or-treat bag, everything is contaminated.

That’s right. I just learned that little tidbit last year. For the past two years, I soothed my conscience by telling myself that I included plain Hershey’s candy bars in our candy selection. But because I tossed those Hershey bars into the pretty pumpkin bowl with everything else, a child with a peanut allergy couldn’t eat them. Or anything else I had to offer. Oh, and a child with a dairy allergy couldn’t take them either because they call it milk chocolate for a reason. How am I just now realizing these things?

Allergens are everywhere, and they’re sneaky. That’s why we’re painting a pumpkin teal this year. And as much as I love candy, we’re going to hand out things that aren’t edible. I have a number of reasons for this switch, and I’d like to throw them out as food for thought – from one non-allergy mama to another.

First, this is a great opportunity to teach our kids to be empathetic. I feel like empathy is in kind of short supply right now, and that is deeply troubling. I want my kids to be able to consider how their peers would feel about not being able to take part in the fun of Halloween. I want them to make inclusive choices, even if that means a sacrifice on their part. That’s the beginning of character, and don’t we all want our kids to grow up with strong character? I’m honestly surprised at how well my kids have taken to this already. They have a classmate who can’t have gluten, and they point out every gluten-free label they see. “Oh, look! That’s gluten-free. David can have that, isn’t that cool?” I really thought I was holding onto the candy thing for them, but apparently it was for me. They were totally willing to think about their friends, and I was the one holding them back.

Second, I think this is a great chance to educate them and help them be protectors. Perhaps if I’d really learned about food allergies as a child, I wouldn’t have been the buffoon dragging a peanut butter sandwich into my friend’s house. Sometimes kids are even more observant than adults. How awesome would it be if the teacher and parent weren’t the only ones looking out for a child’s safety? Let’s teach our children to be partners in protecting their friends’ health.

Third, there’s a definite health benefit for our family here. One of the original purposes of the organization that started the Teal Pumpkin Project was to break the link between food and celebration. They encountered a lot of pushback initially. Think about it: our culture celebrates EVERYTHING with food. And we like food. I mean, I love a good Thanksgiving dinner, and I’m all about birthday cake. But what if we dialed that back just a bit? What if we emphasized having fun in other ways? For us, switching to dollar store treats will probably save us a hundred dollars on candy we consumed before the actual holiday. I don’t even want to calculate the calories and sugar we’ll avoid because, well, we ate a lot. And I’m just not tempted by the bag of spider rings in the pantry. There’s really NOTHING appetizing about them.

Finally, I happen to think that those little trinkets we’re giving out instead of candy will generate a surprising amount of fun. Yes, you could certainly make a case about junk and landfills, and I honestly cringe just thinking about goody bags at birthday parties. But my three-year-old has been playing with one of those toy spider rings for over a week now. She hides it in places where she thinks it will surprise me, then she waits for me to discover it. Yes, I’ve had approximately 30,000 heart attacks (those things are surprisingly realistic in the right spot), but she’s having so much fun. Stickers are fun, too. Temporary tattoos are amazing. Erasers are actually useful, and way more fun when they’re shaped like eyeballs. Pencils that change color based on your body temperature? Off. The. Charts. If you’re worried that your kids will be disappointed because they don’t receive candy, you’ll probably be surprised.

So I’m painting a pumpkin teal this year. I’ll probably make a big mess of that, and most likely I’ll get paint in one or two places where I don’t want it. That’s OK…fortunately, I really like teal. It’s also hands-down good to step away from our expectations and comfort zones, and hopefully we’ll emerge with a little more character and a little less…er…girth. I’d love it if you’d join me.

If you’re just venturing into this whole thing, keep in mind a couple of things:

  1. If you can’t quite give up the idea of handing out candy, you can still participate in the Teal Pumpkin Project. Just make sure that allergy-safe treats are kept in a separate dish.
  2. As much as possible, try to present both options in an equally positive light. We definitely don’t want to make kids feel like they’re missing out or receiving a consolation prize. You might be surprised…a lot of kids will probably choose the non-food options, even if they don’t have to.
  3. Check out the FARE webpage for all things related to the Teal Pumpkin Project. You’ll find printables (In case painting a pumpkin is not your thing), project ideas, lists of places to find affordable non-food items, and pretty much everything else you might need.

Above all, keep in mind that our kids are watching. This is our chance to show them what it means to be included. I happen to think that means more than all the Reese’s Peanut Butter cups in the world. And that’s saying something, because I really like my chocolate peanut butter treats.