Camp Gourmet

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Sharing the message about healthy eating

Camp_fmtViki Kappel Spain, M.Ed. is an all-agency camp food service consultant and an active member in the American Camp Association. She cooks, trains, and does consulting work for camps all over the U.S., and has been cooking in the camp industry since 1985. She answers questions about nutrition and healthy eating at camp.

What do you consider the biggest trend in camp meal preparation and nutrition in recent years?

Choice is the biggest news for camp. Family or buffet-style serving has replaced the cafeteria trays of yesteryear, though line serving still takes place. The “lunch lady,” line-served food is basically out the door. Food served in a family setting, with a bowl of salad, a pan of lasagna, and loaf of garlic bread for each table, offers the opportunity for children to sit, relax, enjoy each other’s company, learn table manners (“please pass the butter”), and to think of others (taking one or two pieces and passing the bowl around instead of taking half the bowl and thinking of no one else). In this fast food era and age of both parents working, many children do not experience the family table as often as parents would like. If camps offer this serving style, it affords a great opportunity to support family values.

What are the top concerns expressed by parents about children and eating at camp?

Parents know their children best. Most parents are concerned about their children getting the healthy foods they need, and they want to make sure they will get their favorite foods, as well. The major topic of concern from most parents is about meat and the assurance that the meat will be thoroughly cooked. Parents worry about their children who have special dietary concerns (dairy-sensitive, vegetarian, food allergies) and contact the food service director regarding the menu, asking how the camp can support this need. Many parents also express concern about sugar and caffeine, and some even ask about the availability of a low-carb program. Since the nature of most camps is activity-oriented, low-carb-conscious parents are usually told that carbs are necessary for energy at camp.

How are camps addressing special diets and food allergies?

The days of serving everyone in the dining hall exactly the same food is definitely a thing of the past. Each and every camper may have slightly different dietary needs that camps consider when planning a menu. Allergies and sensitivities have taken center stage for food service directors and their focus on foods served at camp. With peanut allergies so rampant and extremely dangerous, even having peanut butter on the shelves can cause problems, let alone serving peanut butter and jelly or peanut butter cookies to the whole room.

For those who are dairy sensitive or lactose intolerant, having dairy-free options are a must, from soy milk to cheese-less pizza, and even butter-free desserts. Cooks are encouraged to make Rice Krispy treats with margarine, not butter, to ensure a safe environment for all.

Anything families can or should do to prepare children for meals away from home?

One of the best things parents can teach their children is to “just try a little.” Some families serve favorite, home-made foods and family recipes, and others eat a small variety of fast or prepared foods. In either case, the children will be exposed to many new items and need to take the opportunity to learn new tastes and experience the entire food array at camp. No parent wants to think of their child as finicky, but most children actually are finicky and reluctant to try new things. The age of potlucks is almost gone, and with that the opportunities for children to try new things is fading, as well. As hard as camp cooks try to duplicate home-made food items, children can tell that camp macaroni and cheese looks and tastes different from home food, whether it be different from the “Easy Mac” they are used to making or the scratch cheese sauce mom or grandma makes.

What are children’s favorite foods at camp?

Traditionally, children’s favorite foods vary from region to region, but there are several menu items that can guarantee success: pizza, hamburgers, barbecue hot dogs, macaroni and cheese, ravioli, spaghetti, submarine sandwiches, tacos and burritos, chicken dinner, pancakes, scrambled eggs, and cereal. When the camp kitchen takes the food preparation level up a notch, children are delighted with fresh-baked breads, hot dog rollups (dough wrapped around the hot dog in a spiral and baked), and other fun foods. Children also love and appreciate fresh-cut French fries, real turkey dinners, real pizza dough (instead of cardboard crusts), special meals like cookouts, barbecues, breakfast-in-cabins, and even hike lunches.

Originally printed in CAMP Magazine, reprinted by permission of the American Camp Association.

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