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Send Your Kid to Camp with Special Foods for Their Special Diet

It’s a summertime rite of passage: hiking, swimming and hanging out in the great outdoors at a camp filled with lots of kids (and no parents). Meeting new friends and being away from home – sometimes for the first time – can be exciting and scary and oh-so-much fun.

I never wanted my daughter’s wheat sensitivity to keep her from experiencing all the joys and trials of summer camp. From packing the right snacks to getting chummy with the resident mess hall cook, here are some tips and tricks from a mom who’s hiked the path.

Note: This post is not intended to provide advice for kids with life-threatening allergies.

Father (and Mother) Knows Best

Don’t assume that the camp staff understands your kid’s food needs the way you do. Being clear is super important. At home, you may bend the rules a bit but lay it out in black and white for camp. “My child cannot eat anything made with wheat.” “My kid cannot eat any dairy products.” They simply don’t have the bandwidth for shades of grey.

Over Explain

As parents of kids with special food needs, we know all the hidden sources of whatever it is our child can’t eat. Don’t assume others know this. When I’ve told people my daughter can’t eat wheat, they’ve said, “That’s fine. We aren’t having sandwiches on whole wheat bread. We’re just having crackers and cookies.” It didn’t dawn on them that these foods contain wheat too.

Better to share a list of types of foods. “My child can’t eat dairy like milk, cheese, yogurt, ice cream, soups with cream, bread made with milk, hot chocolate, etc.”

Find and Replace

Here’s the big advice: Find out what the camp is serving and then send replacement food. That makes it very easy for them to meet your kid’s needs and your kid doesn’t feel left out. Most camps will have a menu plan (they have to order lots of food, so they aren’t winging it). If the office staff doesn’t have it, ask to speak to the camp chef or cook.

Once you have their plan in hand, go over it carefully and figure out where you need to provide replacement food. My goal was for my daughter to eat the same dishes, but just provide wheat-free options. For example, I didn’t want her to miss out on burgers or spaghetti, so I sent wheat-free buns and brown rice pasta noodles.

Here's a partial example of the list I make:

Packing It In

Your ultimate goal is to help the camp provide your kid with appropriate foods. To do that, you want to make the process as simple for them as possible. That can mean providing packaged and frozen foods that you might not normally serve at home.

My daughter’s camp served foods like dinner rolls and macaroni and cheese. I was able to find some frozen gluten-free rolls and a box of gluten-free mac and cheese. Our stores offer many special diet choices and you can probably find replacement foods for just about any need.

Everyone Loves a Good Print Out

I have to confess, I’m a bit of an Excel spreadsheet nerd. I took the menu plan and created a spreadsheet showing what the camp was serving and what replacement foods were needed for each meal for the two-week camp. I printed out several copies and provided them to the kitchen staff along with the bags of replacement foods. Maybe that was overboard but my daughter did eat all of the foods that I sent.

You can write it down in whatever way works for you. Just be sure to provide clear instructions and make the substitutions as easy as possible for the camp staff. I made an appointment to meet the chef when I dropped my daughter off at camp and went over the list with him so I could answer any questions.

Here's another example of my spreadsheet set up:

Snacking With Others

If your child is going to day camp, you aren’t off the hook. The first year my daughter went to day camp — before I was the special diet veteran I am now — I sent appropriate snacks and told the staff that she couldn’t eat wheat. I thought I had everything covered until the day I picked her up and she was furious that she had grapes for snack time and the other kids had s’mores. The next year, you better believe I found out what the snack plan was and I sent wheat-free graham crackers for s’more day.

What tips and tricks can you share for meeting kids’ special diet needs this summer?