I arrived hungry for the conference, so was glad when dinner was served. As I waited in line, I tried to see what food was offered.
As a vegetarian, I always hope there will be something provided to meet my dietary needs. When I reached the serving table, my heart sank. There was hamburger casserole, mashed potatoes, corn, salad made from iceberg lettuce, rolls, and dessert. There was no alternative protein.
Ever bold to ask for peanut butter for my roll, I approached the kitchen window. I explained that I was a vegetarian.
The cook looked surprised and said, “I put some cheese on the top of the mashed potatoes for the vegetarians,” believing that was an adequate solution.
As the conference continued, I found few–if any–options for my protein needs; I also discovered that I was not the only frustrated vegetarian among the participants, which included two nursing mothers.
Three times a day, I made the trip to the kitchen window to ask for peanut butter, and shared hummus that someone had brought.
Issue of Hospitality
As a guest at the conference, I considered the lack of vegetarian options an issue of hospitality. If the goal of a camp or conference or retreat center is to make guests feel welcome, this one missed the mark.
I had noted on the registration form my special dietary needs, and had every right to expect some nutritious food.
In conversations with camp staff members and retreat guests over the years, I know I am not the only one who has encountered this problem. I watched a counselor survive for an entire summer on peanut butter and sliced American cheese. I have listened as retreat guests expressed frustration that menus did not recognize their needs.
It is also clear from other discussions that for many camps or conference centers, the idea of cooking vegetarian seems difficult, expensive, and unnecessary.
There are many simple ways to narrow the gap between vegetarians and the multiple needs of the camp or center food service. Here are some easy ways to offer hospitality to vegetarians:
1. Develop a definition of vegetarianism.
Vegetarians are people who meet their body’s need for protein by eating plant products, such as beans, lentils, nuts, and dairy products, such as cheese, yogurt, and eggs. Some vegetarians continue to eat seafood and fish, and combine these protein sources with fruits, vegetables, and whole grains to create more complete proteins.
However, not all vegetarians are alike in how they choose to eat, so when dietary needs are noted on registration forms, it is important to determine what types of vegetarian choices guests prefer. Some people don’t eat fish and seafood while others don’t eat dairy. And vegans don’t eat any food products that come from animals.
Although many vegetarians prefer to eat local, seasonal, and organic food, it is not a necessary element of vegetarianism.
It is the sources of protein that define the diet, not whether foods are “organic” or “natural.”
2. Understand why vegetarians made the decision.
People follow a vegetarian lifestyle for a variety of reasons.
Some make the choice for health reasons to combat high cholesterol, balance blood sugar, or address food allergies.
Some do it to make a moral statement, speaking out about the corporate production of meat from animals, high chemical use, and resulting damage to the ecosystem.
For others, it is a natural outcome of their desire to live a healthy lifestyle that includes exercise and outdoor living.
Regardless of the reason, vegetarians are committed to the choice, and simply cannot change the way they eat during an event at your facility. Additionally, some who do adapt to this diet find their bodies have a negative reaction to meat products because they have stopped eating them for so long.
3. Start small and simple.
Meeting the needs of vegetarian guests can begin with simple changes. At the conference mentioned above, I made myself happy with a jar of peanut butter, a bowl of hummus, and pieces of cheese, but I would have preferred an acknowledgement of my special needs at each meal.
Rather than making new dishes, think of ways to adjust and adapt what you currently serve.
For instance, offer pasta sauce with and without meat, along with grated cheese; vegetarian patties with hamburgers; eggs, beans, and cheese on the salad bar; and refried beans with tacos.
Providing a vegetarian choice within usual menu items does not have to be expensive or exotic. Invite vegans to make menu suggestions since they face similar challenges every time they eat away from home.
4. Decide how you will serve vegetarian choices.
During one lunch at the conference, veggie patties were provided along with hamburgers. Great! Except they were not identified as such, so by the time I reached the food line, there was only one left, and the vegetarians behind me didn’t get any.
This is one of the challenges of including vegetarian items on a menu–non-vegetarians may choose them too.
This makes it essential to decide how to distinguish these food choices. One camp set up an “Alternatives Table,” where vegetarians were invited to first serve themselves. However, there is no guarantee that non-vegetarians won’t also go to the table.
Somehow you need to say, “This is for vegetarians,” or prepare enough for all guests to eat the same meal.
5. Consider a meatless meal for everyone.
Consider offering one meal that is meatless once a week or on the weekend. Build a meal around beans, legumes, cheese, or eggs. Many cultures have eaten this way for centuries, and you can seek out ethnic specialties that don’t use meat.
Use this opportunity to interpret to your guests the reasons for including a meatless meal.
6. Add to your specialties.
After you have built confidence and competence by adapting the current menu for vegetarians, develop your own specialties. Although I have not found a cookbook especially for camps that want to offer vegetarian meals, Vicki Kappel Spain’s 101 Camp Recipes (available at www.acacamps.org/bookstore) does include some suggestions and recipes.
Book stores and the Internet are full of vegetarian cookbooks and recipes as well. Try out new recipes when you have smaller groups in order to assess any changes that may be needed before cooking for 300 guests.
As time passes, maybe your camp will become known for its great vegetarian food! Certainly, vegetarian guests will feel welcome when meals include items they enjoy eating and also meet their dietary requirements.
Nancy Ferguson is an Outdoor Ministries consultant, specializing in the creation of program resources for faith-based camps. She is the author of several books, including Training Staff to be Spiritual Leaders. She can be reached via e-mail at email@example.com.
Looking for meatless alternatives for each meal? Keep it simple and you’ll discover it’s not as difficult as you think. You’re probably already offering more than you realize:
Peanut butter and jelly
Peanut butter and bananas
Hummus and pita wedges
Pasta with meatless sauce
Macaroni and cheese