Helping Your Child Navigate The Chow Line at Summer Camp

Wave goodbye to GORP (“good old raisins and peanuts”) and “bug juice” (fruit punch)—staples of my childhood camp days long, long ago. Times change, and certainly kids are more used to eating sophisticated foods than they were back when I headed off to camp with my little canteen and “mess kit.” (I loved the tiny fork and spoon that came with it!) These days, the expectations for camp cuisine is higher than ever, and some camps tout menus that rival those of restaurants! So what’s the problem? There might not be one (lucky you!). But some kids have eating habits or issues that can create anxiety at the dining hall. Here I cover some of the common issues and offer suggestions for helping your camper conquer the chow line.

When you’re not there every day to prep your child’s food at summer camp, it’s helpful to know how to prepare them in advance.

Your child is “selective” with food choices or follows a special diet that is not medically necessary.

Being able to find something that one can eat in a variety of settings is a life skill that goes a long way. Whether your child is just “choosey,” is a vegetarian, or follows a specific type of eating plan, it’s always a good idea to research camp options early. There are camps that accommodate a wide range of eating issues—you’d be surprised at the options once you start to investigate. Ideally you’ll have some time before camp starts during which you can obtain the camp menu, inquire what the camp’s policy is regarding choosey eaters and special diets, and get your questions answered. Most camps have dealt with these things before, so don’t be afraid to voice your concerns.

You’ll need to do some prepping at home most likely, too, depending on the age of your child. Here are a few useful exercises to try in the month or two leading up to camp:

  • Take time to role-play and practice typical camp food scenarios, such as the buffet line and a cookout.
  • You could also practice letting your child go off to eat a friend’s house without sending along any “back up” food. (Let the other parent know the plan, but don’t ask that special food be prepared—that defeats the purpose of the exercise.)
  • Introduce a few new foods (multiple times) that will likely show up at camp in a non-pressured way—the more times a child is exposed to a new food, the more comfortable he or she will be tasting it at some point.

Realize that being at sleep-away camp helps kids learn about new things (including foods) and develop confidence and coping skills: that’s part of why we send kids to camp! No camp will let children go hungry—there are always a few alternatives from which a child can fashion his or her meal. Keep your discussions about camp food positive and stress-free, and emphasize that eating camp food is part of the fun.

Your child has food allergies, diabetes or eats a special diet for medical reasons.

You needn’t write off the camp experience just because your child has food allergies or requires gluten-free food. In general, camps are getting much better at working with parents and kids with these needs. You will need to start early on your research and look for camps that focus on or at least discuss these issues on their websites. Camps for specific conditions tend to fill up fast and typically will have filled their slots by early spring, but they are a great option that lets kids be kids and not give any thought to whether their food is “safe” or not.

“Regular” camps are not out of the question for your child in some instances, but be prepared to do a lot of communicating with the camp and staff. Here’s a list of steps to make sure you go through:

  • First, camps always ask about food allergies and intolerances as well as medical conditions when you fill out the paperwork, so be sure to be thorough and specific.
  • Provide the camp with any food allergy action plan you have.
  • Talk to the camp administrators about how food allergies and special diets are handled at the camp, including staff training, dining facilities and cooking arrangements. (Is there a separate area for food allergic kids to eat in? Is there a separate kitchen for gluten-free/allergy-free food prep? How is the cookware and utensils handled and cleaned? Are food choices labeled for different food allergies and eating plans?)

Camp staff should be trained on recognizing signs of distress in children and teens with these conditions, and should know how/be prepared to offer assistance. Older campers can carry along any medically necessary items such as an Epi-Pen or insulin, but counselors or other supervising adults should pass these items between them for younger campers.

Beyond the medical side of things, children with food allergies and special diets must be able to communicate basic knowledge about their needs—which foods they can and cannot have, for example—and be comfortable asking questions about ingredients and preparation methods. Check out the Food Allergy Resource and Education website for lots of information and materials to help make planning a camp experience easier, including a list of food allergy-friendly camps.