When my daughter Sammi was five, Halloween could have been just horrible.
Just a few months earlier, Sammi had been diagnosed with a disease called eosinophilic esophagitis. An inflammatory condition of the esophagus — the tube that runs between the mouth and the stomach — it is poorly understood and responds to only a handful of imperfect treatments. The treatment we chose for her was called the Six Food Elimination Diet, a set of food restrictions that required her to avoid anything with dairy, soy, eggs, nuts, fish, or wheat. We were already vegetarians; this was a huge lifestyle change for our entire family.
Sammi had just started kindergarten, learning to read and write and follow instructions in a classroom that necessarily had been forced to eliminate Play-Doh (wheat) and to keep a small box with “Sammi-safe” snacks available for the days — most days — when she could not eat the shared snacks brought by her classmates. It was a rough start. And then, it was Halloween.
On this particular diet, the only kind of typical Halloween candy she could eat were Smarties and Dum-Dums. All other candies contained a forbidden item or were produced on equipment that might be shared with a forbidden item, and so I tried to figure out how to save Halloween. How would it be to walk from house to house and say, over and over again, “No, you can’t eat that one. No, you can’t eat that one either. No, no, no”?
Finally, I decided to solve our problem with a combination of money and magic.
One of the greatest heroes of the Six Food Elimination Diet was the company Enjoy Life Foods. They were one of the only producers of food free from every single thing Sammi had to avoid, and they made the most important thing we needed for Halloween that year: chocolate bars. While Sammi would have complied with the rules not to eat any other Halloween candy but those two items we’d said were safe, I knew that she would be terribly sad not to have any chocolate at all. I decided to buy a dozen Enjoy Life chocolate bars — necessarily and appropriately expensive — to trade with Sammi for the candy she got trick-or-treating.
That took care of the missing chocolate…but how could we counteract the feeling of missing-out? For that, we needed something more powerful than money. We needed…
The day before Halloween, I called ten of our neighbors and arranged to leave an Enjoy Life chocolate bar at each house to give to Sammi instead of whatever else they had. I gave our neighbors no other coaching on this — just explained the situation and told them Sammi would be dressed as a pig. (She and I were Gerald and Piggie that year, from her favorite series by Mo Willems.)
At the first few houses, she approached the door in a crowd of other children and stared into the bowl offered by the host. “I can only have smarties and dum-dums,” she said sadly each time, staring into a bowl full of peanut butter and chocolate. The homeowner would then look at her costume, realize who she was, and say, “I have something else for you from your mom.” She’d accept it politely. That was enough for her, and for me, but at one house, we got real magic.
She was alone when she approached the door to our neighbors’ house on the next block. Joel and I had spoken briefly before, just like I had with everyone else. A father himself, he smiled down at her and then did a double-take.
“Wait,” he said, “are you a PIG?”
“Yeah!,” Sammi answered. “I’m Piggie from Gerald and Piggie! My mom is Gerald!”
“Well, hang on then,” he said. “I have special candy for pigs. Pigs are my FAVORITE. You get something much much BIGGER!”
When he handed her the big chocolate bar, she stared at him and said her thank you with reverence. Then she turned around, ran down the steps to me, and yelled, “MOMMY! Pigs are his favorite! He gives pigs the special candy, and IT’S THE KIND I CAN EAT!!!”
She skipped to the next house, convinced that her costume was the reason for everything. It wasn’t about her health for the moment. She was special for some other reason, even if just for a few minutes, and it restored the joy of Halloween for her.
Sammi’s diagnosis, it turns out, was wrong. She didn’t have eosinophilic esophagitis after all, and she now lives with a totally unrestricted diet. Halloween is the same gluttonous gorge on candy for her that it is for everyone else her age, but she and I have never forgotten that Halloween when she was five. She remembers leaving all the rest of her candy for the “candy fairy” to take and leave her stickers instead. I remember spending a fortune on specialty candy and hoping she wouldn’t feel too left out.
This year, and for the last two years, there’s an alternative: The Teal Pumpkin Project.
The project is simple: put a teal pumpkin on your front porch this Halloween, and it’s a signal to families with dietary restrictions that you have safe treats for their children this year. You can choose non-food items — that’s the most inclusive option — and/or low-allergen items that may work for many of these children.
We did this last year, and for non-food items, we offered a platter of:
- *small bottles of bubble liquid
- *plastic necklaces
- *little magic tricks.
If you’d like to offer some low allergen food options, you can try:
- *Enjoy Life Chocolate Snack Packs (single-serving pouches of their fantastic top-8 allergen-free chocolate chips)
Just put these treats on a separate platter or in a separate bowl from your traditional Halloween candy, and you can make some kids with allergies or other food restrictions feel the magic of Halloween.
Trust me: they’ll remember.