AS A CHILD, being “different” and standing out from your peers can be tough. As a food-allergic child on Halloween, it can be especially tough. In 2014, the Teal Pumpkin Project began to promote inclusion for food-allergic kids through the shelling out of non-food items, making trick or treating easier and safer for them. At our home in New Jersey, we happily added a teal pumpkin to our front door with a special touch – a sign that read “Accio Teal Pumpkin” – in homage to the Harry Potter Series that Josh, my food-allergic son, and I had just finished reading.
One of the greatest joys I have experienced as a mother was reading the Harry Potter series with my son. Harry Potter was different, yet Harry became the hero. Most importantly, Harry had friends who stuck up for him and protected him. It struck me that when you have a food allergy, you truly need your friends to help keep you keep safe, especially on Halloween. Josh and I both related to the book’s core themes of empathy, compassion and tolerance.
I wanted to bring some of that Potter magic into our food allergy world, and Halloween was the perfect opportunity. I decided to create the ultimate allergy-aware Halloween party – by transforming our basement family room into a haunted house filled with Harry Potter lore, along with fright night staples like ghosts, vampires, werewolves, skeletons, ghouls and goblins. My goal was simple: every child would have a great time, and no one would feel left out.
At our party, all food would be thoroughly labeled for ingredients in a fun and spooky way. Non-food treats would also make an appearance. Games would be designed, young minds would be challenged, and magic would be in the air.
It has worked like a charm, casting a spell of friendship, excitement and surprise over the 50-plus kids who attend. As you can imagine, I’m currently busy planning this year’s go-to kids’ event. Although it takes about six weeks for me to finish all the magic touches, the multiple thank you notes make the effort worthwhile. I got one from a child with dairy, egg and peanut allergies that said ours was the first party she had fun at without worrying about her safety. It’s also common for me to hear, “Mrs. Mandelbaum, this greatest party ever,” and Josh, who once felt different from the other kids on Halloween, is the wizard host with the most.
I do solemnly swear that I wish there was a spell that could vanquish food allergies for good. But until researchers can make that happen, a spookily friendly Halloween party is at least one way to create inclusion – I wave my wand and, for a few hours of costumed fun, the food allergy difference disappears. I hope my story inspires you to consider your own allergy-friendly party. Start off simply, and perhaps it will grow to be an annual event in your home, too.
One other idea you’re welcome to borrow. In our home, we’ve added an element of charitable giving to this event, so that Josh and his friends learn to appreciate what it means to give back. We hold the Halloween party as a belated birthday party for Josh (whose real birthday is in the summer). On the invitations, I ask that, in lieu of gifts, people bring a gift card for the annual holiday toy drive that I run for abused children in Newark, New Jersey.
For me, one of the big joys of this party is seeing Josh add up the amounts of gift cards and get excited about giving to those less fortunate. A generous spirit certainly belongs amid the magic we’re creating.
Halloween Party Decorating Tips
Here are some of the trick to creating our downstairs spooky Hogwarts-like world.
- Signage: I make a lot of the signs, employing black coffee and a red paper stamp so they’re aged and bloody-looking.
- Buy inexpensive real flowers and lay them near fake graves to add an authentic effect.
- Label bottles as “Poison.” I fill these with a concoction of spinach and water pureed in my high-speed blender. You can get creative and look up names of specific poisons from the Harry Potter series such as Draught of Living Death, Mandrake, and Venomous Tentacula.
- Decorate over decorations – layer on netting, spider webs to up the spooky factor.
- For a Harry Potter theme, scour websites for free Potter downloads. I created maps and signs with fun sayings such as, “I solemnly swear I am up to no good.”
- Put photos of Harry Potter characters like Voldemort in real frames of different colors from the dollar store (a lot of our decor is from the dollar store).
- I use real plates and serving dishes to make it look authentic, even using old silver dishes that we’ve never polished, since they look old and decrepit.
- Use old water/wine/olive oil bottles, medication and mayonnaise containers with labels and add fake rubber worms and (dollar store) mice to make your mad laboratory. Or use these elements as decor in your own Hogwarts “Room of Requirement.” Nothing gets tossed out in our house without a pause to think if it can be of use at the party!
- Also for a mad laboratory, use old vases to feature “body parts” floating in water (strawberry pureed with water is the “blood” and old pasta like fusilli creates brain matter). Plus, employ your kids’ old clothes and add spooky heads to create an eerie cast of characters.
- Using sticker paper placed on top of index cards, I create fun and spooky warning labels informing my guests of the ingredients in our baked or homemade goodies.
- Sticker paper can also decorate (dollar store) trays – my serving trays sport labels such as “assorted eyeballs,” “scary skull surprise” or “cauldron cakes.”
- Old X-rays from your vet (we had one of our dog’s knees) taped up on a glass door pane will look especially frightening and authentic.
- Freaky tin foil on glass windows with mini-strobe lights makes a great effect.
- I use my old anatomy textbooks from physical therapy school as props (picture of heart dissection etc.)
- I take photos of the kids at the party. Then the next year, I print out the photos and make reward signs (as if the kids are felons), pinning them to a bulletin board.
- Be the first person at stores the day after Halloween. I get 75% off and shelve my increasing collection for the next year.
- We don’t do smoke machines, in case anyone has asthma. Strobe lights and replacing our bulbs with purple ones give us that spooky effect.
Allergy-Friendly Food Tips
When requesting an RSVP, I ask that parents let me know if there are any food allergies. This has worked really well, so we can plan to have special goodies for all.
I create a “Poison Book,” with the labels of every candy that’s put out – so on the day of the party, if anyone has an ingredients question, it’s super easy to find the answer.
Allergy-friendly Halloween treats in the store can be limited, so here are some homemade ideas to up the ante. Create chocolate frogs, gravestones and teeth and more with Enjoy Life chocolate chips or a similar allergy-friendly brand.
- Get a crawly effect by placing Surf Sweets gummy worms into homemade dairy-free, egg-free vanilla icing that’s spread over allergy-friendly brownies, cookies and cupcakes. Add crumbles of allergy-friendly, Oreo-style cookies for extra garnish.
- Add a very small amount of the blended strawberry and spinach water (from the poison bottles instruction above) to give plain icing a spooky tint – this way you don’t have to find safe food dyes.
- I bake giant pumpkin-shaped chocolate chip cookies using the Cherrybrook Kitchen mix.
- Sticking a cut celery stick in a tangerine is how I create my little edible pumpkins and, surprisingly, these are always the most popular snack choice.
- Think out of the box and add your own. It’s Halloween, it’s Harry Potter, and the sky is the limit. Happy hauntings!
- I make “estimation jars,” which contain candies of differing sizes. Kids guess the number of candies in the jars. The winner gets a jar – or an iTunes gift card if he or she is allergic to a candy ingredient. Each jar has a name of a different Harry Potter potion, such as Gilly Weed or Veritaserum.
- I create my own custom Harry Potter-themed word search puzzle and design my own crosswords, also with Apple gift card prizes.
Lianne Mandelbaum is the founder of NoNutTraveler.com which advocates for airline allergy accommodations.