“Healthy food” typically doesn’t go hand in hand with “camp food.” In fact, the selection is typically a sea of white–white flour, white sugar, and fried, white food in the form of buns, breaded chicken, french fries, and cookies.
None of these choices are doing kids any good.
Camp is actually the perfect setting for kids to try new foods. They are away from home, and have most likely been doing and trying many things that are new to them. If they see their cabin-mate or counselor eating salad at dinner, they’ll be that much more open to the idea.
Oftentimes there are two barriers to healthy cooking in the camp world:
2. Kitchen staff
Since changing an entire menu and method isn’t realistic, start small; simple changes can really add up.
For instance, what about switching out those nightly desserts for fresh fruit a few times a week, or serving pasta with a salad that’s so delicious the campers actually choose to eat it?
Or maybe it’s as simple as removing the soda and candy vending machines. Are they really necessary?
Camp Endeavor, a non-profit weight-management camp located in Wisconsin Dells, Wis., has been providing campers with healthy, well-balanced meals for the last seven summers.
Although it is a weight-management camp, you won’t find any “diet” food here. The focus is on real, whole foods and building a taste and appreciation for these foods in conjunction with exercise.
Although traditional meals such as pizza and macaroni and cheese are served, new foods are also introduced to encourage an entirely different way of eating, as well as to teach the types of foods and quantities that are good for children.
Here are five ways to make camp meals healthier:
1. Switch to whole grains. Substituting whole grains for some of the white-flour selections (cereal, bread, tortillas, pasta, rice, etc.) increases the fiber, protein, vitamins, and nutrients that are lacking in refined, white flours. This swap requires no extra prep work from the kitchen, and the cost is minimal–and definitely worth it.
2. Pack in the protein. Camp meals are often structured around carbohydrates (white, refined ones at that). Protein is what keeps the body full and satisfied, so make sure the kids are getting some at every meal–eggs, tuna, chicken, beef, beans, nut butters, and dairy are all good sources. Having waffles for breakfast? Add some peanut butter before the syrup to get some fat and protein.3. Don’t use the fryer so much! Skipping the fryer altogether is not necessary, but most of the frozen foods (chicken nuggets, french fries, etc.) have already been fried once, so bake these items. Save the fryer for “special” meals or for fries only. Fried foods should be served once or twice a week at the most–not on a daily basis.
4. Involve the campers. Children are much more open to trying new foods if they have something to do with it! Having a “Build Your Own Burrito Bar” (see recipe below) also decreases the amount of work the kitchen staff needs to do. They simply prep the components, and the kids make their own burritos at the table. Burritos may not sound “healthy,” but they are packed with real, fresh foods, and are sure to be a filling crowd pleaser.
5. Encourage more fresh produce. Whether it’s fresh fruit at breakfast, a salad bar at lunch, or a well-prepared vegetable at dinner, it is fairly simple to incorporate more produce into camp meals. Well-prepared means that the vegetables actually taste good. Roasted veggies and sautéed, fresh veggies seem to receive a warm reception, while steamed vegetables often go untouched. Skip them when at all possible.
Camp Endeavor’s afternoon snack time has been a great approach in introducing new foods. Called “Tasting Trios,” three dips are served with one “dipper,” or the other way around when using fruits or vegetables.
For example, pita chips are paired with hummus, roasted red-pepper feta dip (the favorite), and cucumber tzatziki. Each camper receives a small serving of each dip–they are portioned out ahead of time so there is no “I don’t like that, I don’t want it” argument. It sparks great conversation about what they do like–and don’t like–but more importantly opens up their eyes to a new world of delicious, healthy foods that they may have been hesitant to try on their own.
Don’t forget to give the campers some credit–they’ll often try more than you think, enjoy more than you expect, and maybe even find some new foods to enjoy during their time at camp. And that’s what it’s all about. Healthier kids start one meal at a time.
Emily Dingmann is Assistant Director at Camp Endeavor. She can be reached via email at email@example.com.
Build Your Own Burrito Bowl Recipe–40 servings
Mexican food is always popular at camp, but doesn’t exactly have a healthy reputation.
“Build Your Own Burrito Bowls” is great for several reasons–the kitchen staff only needs to prep the components, the campers get to choose their toppings, and it provides whole grains, vegetables, and lean protein, which can often be lacking in typical camp meals.
Vegetarians can simply leave off the chicken and still have a well-rounded meal with protein from the beans and cheese.
10 pounds (dry) brown basmati rice
1 cup lime juice
5 ounces cilantro, chopped
40 4-ounce chicken breasts
10 pounds canned black beans
4 pounds sliced red onions
6 pounds green-pepper strips
2 pounds red-pepper strips
Toppings: shredded cheese, light sour cream, salsa, shredded romaine lettuce, hot sauce
Prepare brown rice as directed.
Toss rice with lime juice and fresh cilantro. Season with salt to taste. Set aside.
Grill chicken and cut into strips.
Heat black beans in liquid. Set aside.
Heat large cook top. Spritz with oil. Stir-fry red onions and peppers together for about 4 to 5 minutes, stirring occasionally.
Prep toppings in bowls for each table.