Whether you're returning to a traditional Halloween or sticking with a socially distanced celebration this year, there's one holiday staple everyone can enjoy: jack-o'-lanterns. These 10 tips can help you safely create the perfect pumpkin (tips No. 2 and 6 might surprise even veteran carvers):
1. Pick the right pumpkin. Look for a greenish, firm stem; a stable bottom and no soft spots (a sign of spoilage).
2. Wipe down the pumpkin with vinegar water. Not only does it remove dirt, but the vinegar inhibits microbial growth. Your pumpkin will last longer and the vinegar won't hurt wildlife that might nibble it once it's discarded.
If you want to skip the knife:
3. Draw your jack-o'-lantern. Protect table surfaces with old towels or newsprint, then free your kids' inner Picasso with markers or acrylic paint pens (buy online or at your local craft store), stick-ons and your supervision. A marker success tip: Start with a washable marker that lets kids wipe off mistakes as they draw. Once they've perfected their creation, they can trace over the lines with permanent marker or paint pens. A bonus: Uncarved pumpkins last much longer!
4. Go glam. For a designer-look pumpkin, spray your pumpkin or a cluster of mini-pumpkins with metallic paint (always spray outdoors or in a very well-ventilated garage). Once they're dry, you can add sparkle with craft-store jewels and a glue gun. Another option: Gather beautiful but still flexible fall leaves and decoupage them to your pumpkin (tip: if they curl, pin them until the glue sets). Bright orange and red leaves look best on white or pale yellow pumpkins.
If you plan to carve:
5. Set expectations to avoid disappointment. For kids under 14, carving is best left to parents, guardians or older siblings who have more dexterity, hand strength and experience handling cutting tools. But there's still a lot younger kids can do! That includes choosing the pumpkin, cleaning out the seeds and pulp (the best part in a grossly good way!), creating the design and drawing it on the pumpkin with markers.
6. Carve the opening at the bottom instead of the top. Why? You won't have to fuss with cutting that tricky angle into the lid to keep it from falling into the pumpkin. Plus, much of the pulp and seeds may have already settled at the bottom, meaning they'll come out when you remove it. It's also a great way to give a wobbly pumpkin a flatter base (just leave the bottom off and set it on a board or plate so any liquid from the cut pumpkin doesn't seep out and stain your porch). A bottomless pumpkin is easy to light since you can just lift it up by the stem, turn on the light and set it back down; no reaching in and brushing your hand against the sides! Never use real candles in a jack-o'-lantern since they're a fire hazard.
7. Scoop out the seeds and pulp. It's a safe job for little hands and a sturdy spoon. Put the seeds in a colander so they're easy to rinse clean if you'd like to roast them later for a healthy snack!
8. Thin the shell before carving. Pumpkin shells can be very thick, making carving more difficult and potentially more hazardous. A parent or strong-armed older sibling can scrape the walls to remove some of the pumpkin flesh until it's only about an inch thick.
9. Carve carefully. Whether you or an older teen carves, consider using a pumpkin carving kit rather than a kitchen knife. They're easier to handle and those little saw blades are flexible for creating round shapes. Always cut away from your body and avoid using excessive force – that's often when tools can slip and injure you. Wipe your hands and tools often with paper towels to keep them from getting slick. Use good lighting when carving and protect the surface of the table with towels or newsprint.
You also can use metal cookie cutters (like crescent moon and star shapes) to start your pumpkin designs. With a hammer, gently tap the cookie cutter into the pumpkin and, if needed, pull it out with a pair of needle-nose pliers. It likely won't go all the way through, but you can complete the cut with a paring knife or your carving tool.
10. Compost your pumpkin once the holiday is over. Not only can they be a magnet for mischief, but carved pumpkins spoil quickly and can attract rodents and insects.
Looking for some inspiration? Check out these pumpkin-carving masterpieces, some of which made it into the New York Museum of Modern Art.
Wishing you and your family the happiest of Halloweens!