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North Hills Monthly

Camp Menus Designed to Keep Kids Happy, Healthy

Feb 28, 2018 05:04PM ● By Shari Berg

It’s almost that time of year when parents start to think about summer camps to occupy their children during those long summer months. Whether it’s a daylong camp, or an overnight, extended-stay camp, there are some unique challenges that come with providing healthy, well-balanced meals and snacks to keep campers happy. 

Dionne Brelsford, director of programs for Winchester Thurston, said the balance comes in finding healthy options with foods children will eat. Providing healthy meals and snacks will be of little benefit if the children refuse to eat them. “It’s always a good indication that you’ve struck that balance when kids ask for seconds,” she said. 

Winchester Thurston offers a variety of summer camps in the North Hills, consisting of both half and full days. The school does not offer overnight programs; however, meals and snacks are provided with its full-day programming. 

Brelsford said that a great deal of planning goes into the meal program at Winchester Thurston’s summer camps, with a committee sitting down to discuss which meals will be offered. A nutritionist is consulted to ensure the food options are well-balanced and healthy. “We have a formula for what works, which includes evaluating our offerings based on what has been popular in previous years,” she explained. 

Once the committee has a menu planned, part of that formula is to offer the same meals on the same days throughout the summer. For instance, if the camp is serving chicken wraps with fresh fruit on a Monday, campers can expect the same item to be available the following Monday. The same is true for snacks. Morning snack offerings may include frozen grapes or apple slices, with afternoon snacks consisting of things like frozen yogurt. “It’s always something we know they’re going to eat and will give them a pick-me-up,” said Brelsford. “You can’t have fun at camp if you’re hungry or tired or not well-hydrated.”

Overnight, extended camps, such as those offered by both the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, require a bit more planning. 

Spokesperson Stefanie Marshall said the Girl Scouts at Camp Redwing are an active part of the meal planning process. “The girls are not only a part of their group’s meal planning for these camps, they participate in each aspect of the meal including setting the table, cooking and cleaning up,” she explained. “It’s a great way for Girl Scouts to learn all about the thought, time and energy that goes into mealtimes.”

In addition to Camp Redwing, Girl Scouts Western Pennsylvania (GSWPA) operates Camp Skymeadow in Armstrong County, Camp Hawthorne Ridge in Erie County, and Camp Conshatawba in Cambria County. The resident camps held at these locations offer well-rounded meals that include fruits, vegetables and proteins. Vegetarian and gluten-free options are available to all campers.

The Girl Scouts can also work on age-appropriate merit badges centered on healthy meal and snack planning and other food-related topics. The badge requirements are designed to help the girls learn about eating in a healthy way, both for main meals and snacks, as well as how food and exercise work together to keep bodies fit and healthy. 

Mike Manner, director of camping for Laurel Highlands Council Boy Scouts of America, said that while the Boy Scouts have merit badges for healthy eating and other food-related topics, the boys do not plan the meals for the largest summer camp program because a contracted food services provider is involved. “At our camps at Heritage Reservation, we can have as many as 1,200 campers there with different groups at the same time, so it’s important that we have a well thought-out plan for meals,” he said. 

The food services company must devise a menu that consists of foods that can be easily made in large quantities, is appealing to the campers and meets nutritional guidelines. “We always have a nutritionist sign off on our meal plans to ensure we are meeting healthy meal guidelines,” said Manner.

In addition to the Heritage Reservation, the Laurel Highlands Council also operates Camp Seph Mack in Indiana County and Camp Guyasuta in Sharpsburg. 

Individual Boy Scout troops who are attending camp also have the option of having “cracker barrels” each evening, which is a time for the campers to prepare and eat a fun snack. Those snacks, including which foods are served, are planned by the individual troops. 

Nutritionally balanced options are not the only consideration when planning meals for summer camps. Food allergies also come into play. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that nearly 6 million children under the age of 18 have diagnosed food allergies, with peanuts and tree nuts among the top allergens. 

“We are strictly no nuts on campus,” said Brelsford. “Whether you are eating our food and snacks, or bringing your own, we do not permit anything with nuts.” 

Manner said that the Boy Scouts have adopted a similar policy, with all Scout functions 100 percent peanut and tree nut free. “If we have a picky eater who prefers something like a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, we give them Sun butter instead,” he explained. 

“For a girl with food allergies or other specific nutritional needs, we ask that the parent contacts GSWPA prior to arrival at camp,” said Marshall. “This allows us the opportunity to work one-on-one with the family to plan the best meal options for the girl. All campers must have a completed health history form, which includes known allergies, upon arrival to camp.”

Both Brelsford and Manner said that campers are required to fill out health forms prior to attending camp, which specifically asks about known allergens. Brelsford said in the case of campers with known allergies, Winchester Thurston staff will review the planned menu for the week with families prior to the start of camp to ensure that all meals and snacks being offered fall within the guidelines for avoiding the allergen. 

“The biggest challenge we face when it comes to food allergies is not knowing about them ahead of time,” said Manner. “Because of past experience, we always have a variety of alternatives on hand that can be substituted.” 

For the first time this summer, the Boy Scouts will also provide a vegetarian menu for campers who are practicing vegans. “We’re also seeing an increased number of gluten-free needs, so we talk about substitution for our regular menu items to accommodate those needs,” said Manner. 

Brelsford said that if Winchester Thurston encounters a camper with multiple food sensitivities or allergens, they may recommend that families consider having that student pack their own lunches and snacks for the week. “We try to be as accommodating as possible, but there are times when it is best if the camper brings their own meals and snacks,” she explained. 

In addition to healthy meals and snacks and being cognizant of food allergies, camp staff also keep an eye out for campers who may not be eating. 

“If we see someone isn’t eating, we try to figure out what is behind it,” said Manner. “Are they homesick? Do they have unknown food sensitivities? Or are they just picky eaters?”

Brelsford said Winchester Thurston camp staff also keeps watch with camp counselors sitting at tables during lunch and snack time. “If they notice that kids aren’t eating, they can be offered an alternative. If kids aren’t eating on multiple days, we may have to notify the parents,” she said. “Food is an important part of any successful camp. Campers who have a full belly and are well-hydrated are the campers who are most engaged and having fun.”