This Halloween, remember the kids with food allergies

For children with food allergies, Halloween isn't just spooky: The treats they get can be life-threatening. So food-allergy parents get extra creative this time of year to make sure their kids don't miss out on the fun of the holiday.

Last Halloween, Valerie O'Keefe's son Leo, 9, couldn't wait to spray-paint his hair bright orange to be Ron Weasley and cast spells with his older brother, Eli, who was Harry Potter. Leo loves trick-or-treating, but his peanut and tree nut allergy means a lot of Halloween candy is off-limits.

"We have to be aware of his choices," O'Keefe told TODAY. "It's not just about making his meal choices safe, but it's also about making the environment he lives in safe."

O'Keefe, who lives in Hilton Head, South Carolina, focuses less on gathering massive amounts of candy and more on the costumes and friendships. This year, for example, Leo and Eli, 11, are going as Fortnite characters and they're making their costumes.

"It's another fun way to make the holiday festive and less focused on collecting candy," she said. "We still go to all the events and it is fun getting to wear the costumes and hanging out and building relationships in the neighborhood."

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Leo's allergies mean he (and his parents) must be vigilant. He knows what candy he can eat and picks those when he can. But if a house doesn't have a safe candy, he takes one and swaps it out at home for something allergen-free that his mother buys ahead of time.

Both Leo and Eli keep a small amount of their candy and donate the rest to a cause they select. Two years ago, they took it to the fire station and thanked the firefighters. Last year they want to send it to the children in Puerto Rico because, they told their mom, "the kids there lost their houses."

"We try to make it meaningful," O'Keefe said.

Carolyn Hernandez's son Ben, 10, is allergic to dairy, rye, barley, wheat, coconut and annatto, a food coloring — which eliminates most candy. Like Leo, he takes a treat even if he might be allergic to it. And he knows not to eat any candy while trick-or-treating.

"Usually he and his brother will swap stuff out. If Ben gets peanut butter cups he swaps them for Skittles with his brother," Hernandez said.

She also buys him candy without allergens. Despite the restrictions, Ben loves Halloween and was very excited to be Doc Brown from "Back to the Future" last year. His brother Ryan, 8, was Marty McFly.

"He is digging his costume with the white wig and the Hawaiian shirt," she said.

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The nonprofit Food Allergy Research and Education (FARE) supports the Teal Pumpkin campaign, which encourages families offering non-candy treats to place a teal pumpkin outside their house. That way children with allergies know there have a safe option.

"The Teal Pumpkin project really amplifies the message of inclusion and the serious issue of food allergies," said Nancy Gregory, senior director of communications at FARE.

FARE provides other tips for children with allergies and their families at Halloween, which include:

  • Skip candy without a label

  • Always carry an epinephrine auto-injector, if prescribed

  • Carry a cell phone for emergencies

  • Remember fun-sized candy and regular sized candy often have different ingredients

  • Always read labels

  • Hand out small toys or non-food items

  • Make treat bags for your children to give to your neighbors to pass out to your child

Three of Gretchen Kirby's children are allergic to lactose, corn, soy and starches. When they were younger, the "Halloween Fairy" gave them tokens to exchange for special treats, which they ate while watching other children trick-or-treat.

As the children, Tavish and Adrien, 12, and Keva, 11, grew, they enjoyed dressing up and showing off their costumes so they joined in trick-or-treating. Like other children with allergies, they accept treats, but they either share them with mom or give them away to other children. They still have their own special celebration at home where they enjoy sweets.

"All the treats they eat are homemade," Kirby, from Northshore, Massachusetts, told TODAY via email. "They focus on greeting neighbors and they hunt for non-food items."

Kirby hands out non-food treats every year, such as bubbles, super balls, spider rings, eyeballs, erasers and pencils. And she's found a way to be thrifty about it, too.

Because her treats are non-perishable, she can buy them on sale — a year ahead.

This article was originally published on October 23, 2017.