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One of the bigger concerns you’ll have when taking children to camp is dealing with their special diet needs. I am here to tell you that while special diets do add a layer of stress, they can be managed (just like everything else at camp) with planning and preparation. I recently managed special diets at Bridging Friends Forever 2013, an all-ages provincial camp hosted by Girl Guides NB-PEI. I hope my notes encourage you to overcome any fears you may have about handling the dietary needs of your campers.

I am not a dietitian or medical professional (I actually work in IT). But I learned a lot while supporting 55 campers with special diets (with the assistance of a Food Services Guider, a Chef and Camp Health Services). There was a wide range of needs at this camp-including vegetarians, diabetics and a mix of allergies/intolerances (some life threatening) to dairy, MSG, food dye, soy, corn, fresh fruit, yeast, wheat, gluten, peanuts, kiwi, strawberries, onions, fish, peppers and pork.  Most smaller camps have one or two special diets so don’t let this list scare you.

Are special diets real or are they just being picky? Skepticism is the unfortunate first reaction for many when they hear that someone can’t eat something.  I was asked often if “they can’t, or won’t eat?”  This experience showed me that I am blessed to be able to eat what I want. Campers need to know their food is safe for them and I was happy to be their advocate.  I hope you will be too.

What you need to find out/learn/ask/consider:

  • Start at the Health Forms: The camp cook needs to know about special diet needs as early as possible through the health forms and by speaking to parents.  Early information usually leads to simple changes in the general menu that allows everyone to eat the regular meal. With knowledge, you can educate yourself, shop sales and make a plan.
  • Make sure you’re clear on what you’re dealing with: I had one camper who was extremely allergic to onions in all forms (dehydrated,  powdered, cooked and raw) and another one who was allergic to onions but could eat onion powder.
  • Ask about the consequences: You want to know what will happen (and how to react) if the camper eats the wrong thing.
  • Is it a contact or consumption allergy? If it is a contact allergy (often peanuts and shellfish), you must not serve that food at camp. If it is a consumption allergy, you can direct campers away from allergy foods.  Typically, I’d say:  “The only dairy served at this meal is with the cereal and I have a soy milk alternative.”
  • Cross contamination: We had a toaster for the exclusive use of the gluten free folks.  We cooked the beef hotdogs before the pork ones and made sure they were kept separate.  When we cut up lettuce, cucumbers, carrots, and celery we sealed some away, and then moved on to chop onions and peppers.  Ask parents what measures are necessary and think about setting up an allergy safe zone in the kitchen with cutting boards, knives, and cooking utensils that you know have not come into contact with other food that would be considered unsafe. Also ask about appropriate cleaning procedures.
  • Ask what they CAN eat: What specific brands does the camper eat at home?  Provide familiar food that you know she likes.  Keep things in original packages to avoid cross contamination and so that the camper can read the ingredients.
  • Getting help/looking for a camp cook: Resource Guiders and Guiders from other units are often thrilled to be asked to go to camp as a cook.  It’s a hard job, but it can be fun too.  I’ll bet there’s an experienced camp cook near you that can work with your special diet needs.
  • At a big camp you’ll be part of a team.  I reported to a Food Services Guider who had already gathered the important information and who had a a plan mostly in place.  During prep I followed the chef around…asking questions and reminding him to think about special diets.  “So what’s the vegetarian option?” “Are there peppers in that?” During service I consulted with campers and helped them decide what to eat (sometimes I just sent them to the main line, and other times I had special food for them at my table). At a smaller unit camp, the Camp Cook will probably also manage special diets (hopefully you’ll only have one or two).

But special food is expensive

  • Very true.  When my unit goes camping we’re on a strict budget and we can’t afford an $8 loaf of bread for one meal.  Get the parents involved – they can watch for sales or send something suitable from their own pantry.
  • Planning a big camp with catered meals? Be open about the number of special diets the caterer could expect.  At BFF we had 600 campers and almost 10% needed a special diet.  Not all 55 required expensive special food, but many did.

Campers with special diets don’t want to be singled out

  • Try to plan the general meal so that everyone can eat the same thing. By putting real food (not prepackaged) on your menu you’re more likely to be able to make a suitable meal for everyone.  A gluten free camper can usually eat potatoes and rice.  Rice flour is useful to thicken stew.  If you keep the components of a meal separate you can mix and match to suit all diets.
  • Remember that children are shy.  They’re more likely to go hungry than to ask for something in a strange environment.  At BFF some campers weren’t eating the whole fruit or hard veggies like carrot and celery sticks because of their braces.  We let them know that I had a knife and cutting board at my table for their fruit and we put cucumbers out on the veggie tray.  At another camp I had a Brownie who wasn’t eating because she forgot to put cutlery in her ditty bag and was too embarrassed to ask.  It pays to watch and listen.

But kids are picky eaters too

  • Sometimes the picky eater is actually someone with an eating disorder.  Eating disorders are likely new to you (they were to me!) and must be approached with compassion and understanding.  Talk to the parents to find out what the camper does eat.  Make a food plan (with the camper if possible) that everyone agrees on.
  • Make a plan for how to deal with picky eaters: In a perfect world kids will eat everything we put in front of them.  The strategy is to start talking about food early on in the unit meetings and to let the girls know that we will provide a balanced/safe meal and that they’ll be expected to eat what’s on their plate.  The reality is that if a camper isn’t eating you’re probably going to have to give them something.  At BFF campers visited my table looking for undressed salads, plain pasta, and unmixed meal components.  From time-to-time, Patrol Guiders asked for help with a particularly hard-to-feed camper and I found them a yogurt tube, cheese stick, or a slice of bread with a cheese wiz or jam packet.

Some tricks I learned:

  • Parents are your best advocates.  This is no surprise, but you’re not alone in this.  Ask for help.
  • Gluten Free: There are some really good breads, pastas and desserts available.  Read the labels, get suggestions, and get cooking instructions.  Watch for clearly marked gluten free packages.  It is important to check the ingredients every time.
  • Dairy Free: Almond milk (made from nuts!) was the preferred dairy alternative for putting in cereal and in coffee but it is not that tasty to drink. Soy milk in individual tetra packs is popular among dairy drinkers too… watch your stash so that your dairy-free camper gets priority.  Remember to reserve a portion of things like mashed potatoes before the milk goes in.  Milk cooked in food doesn’t seem to be a problem but ask to be sure.  And a person with a low grade dairy intolerance might be able to safely have a bite of cheese or some ice cream.
  • People with one allergy often have others.  A child who can’t eat gluten, may also be unable to eat peanuts or dairy. A camper who is allergic to latex (are you wearing gloves?) may also have a cross allergy to iceberg lettuce, bananas and kiwi.
  • Red dye and MSG are in almost all pre-packaged items.
  • Don’t forget about religious restrictions – Children who eat Halal, as well as some vegetarians, don’t eat marshmallows (the gelatin may come from animal bones).

Should I invite Mom to come to camp to help manage her daughter’s special diet?

  • Before you go this route, consider that camp is stressful and that Guider team chemistry is important. Adding a stranger into the mix should be done carefully and only as a last resort.  Adults with kids at camp should treat their child like another Brownie, use their Owl name, and limit cuddling to emergencies and bedtime.  That is tough to enforce with a stranger.
  • But it may be necessary and you can get them through the Non-Member Volunteer Application process fairly easily. Do the paperwork, let your parent helper know what’s expected of them and embrace the extra pair of hands.

Final words

I know this is a lot of information.  There is no easy or universal way to handle special diets, but I’ll tell you, my biggest Guiding accomplishment was when we took a camper who is extremely allergic to peanuts to her first ever Brownie camp.  A first aid trainer came in specially to let Guiders practice with an epi-pen.  Her mom helped plan the menu, shopped with us, and was a phone call away through the weekend.  We watched her like a hawk the whole time at camp.  It was stressful and such a relief when her mom picked her up at the end.  But it was important for that Brownie to be away from her family for the very first time ever.  And from that time on, the Brownie, her mom, and the Guiders knew she could be away and be safe.  It was a big deal for her.  It was a big deal for us.

Parents are your best sources of information. Work with them to make sure that you’re providing food that is safe for their child to eat.  Ask lots and lots of questions.  Parents should review your menu and possibly your groceries.  If the parent is comfortable they’ll be able to reassure their camper.  And if your camper is comfortable, your camp is likely going to go smoother as a result.  

Good luck with your camping adventures.  I hope this gives you the confidence to take a child with a special diet to camp.

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I’ve just come back from Bridging Friends Forever (BFF) Camp 2013 hosted by Girl Guides New Brunswick/Prince Edward Island at Snider Mountain Ranch near Sussex, NB.  Now that I’ve had a bunch of naps, I have so many stories to tell you.

There’s one about the great friends I got to see again.

BFF 2013 Mary Dawn Cara1

Photo Credit: Dawn MacNeill
Mary, Dawn and Me at the closing ceremony

BFF 2013 Deb

Deb’s photo is a little fuzzy… but she never sits still so that’s not unexpected. =)

BFF 2013 Lisa and the feathers1

Here’s Lisa and her feathers!

BFF 2013 Bridget

And my new friend Bridget – I can’t forget Bridget. =)

And the one about how important it is to work with a dedicated and hardworking team.  Thanks to our fearless leader Kim, and my co-volunteers Melanie and Shawna for doing such an awesome job – and for making it fun along the way.

BFF Kitchen Crew (without me) serving popcorn one night.  =)  Kim, Shawna, and Mel.

Guiders of the BFF Kitchen Crew (without me) serving popcorn one night. =) Kim, Melanie and Shawna.

That’s especially important when you’re serving 600 breakfasts, lunches, dinners and snacks!  (It wasn’t just the four of us, Snider Mountain Ranch staff and family members did the catering and we all worked together to make this work in the Guiding way).

BFF 2013 Snider Mountain Ranch Dining Hall1

The dining hall – made especially for us. I think it is going to be moved to shelter horses after we leave.

BFF 2013 Evacuation Drill1

600 of my closest friends. =)

There’s another story about a World Record!  Girls, Guiders, and Guiding friends from NB, PEI, across Canada and even from around the world made an incredible 19,953 Bracelets (the old record was 8,000!).

BFF 2013 World Record Bracelets1

World’s longest chain of bracelets. BFF Camp 2013.

BFF 2013 Heidi Bracelets1

My new friend Heidi (aka Blackie) and her bracelets. She started it all and did an amazing job. So very cool.

There’s yet another story about Hat Crafts and Traders.  You couldn’t go anywhere without seeing the distinctive BFF camp hats – all covered in traders.  Girls really got into this (so did staff at Snider Mountain Ranch … they now plan to incorporate it into their regular non-Guiding program).

One of the neatest ones I saw was the Dragonfly Knot.

And this one called “My pet Mummy. No food. No water. No litter. No mess.”  Very cute.

BFF 2013 hat crafts traders1

Then there are stories about what I learned at camp … you get lots of neat ideas for what to do another time.

Neat boot dryer idea.

Neat boot dryer idea.

And even more stories about how beautiful the province of New Brunswick is.   I arrived about 24 hours before I needed to get to camp so I visited Shediac and Parlee Beach.  I got to enjoy fresh clams, fish and chips and even muscles.  So yummy.

Before Camp Cara Parlee Beach

Me on Parlee Beach in my rain gear. I like rainy blustery days by the sea. =)

Parlee Beach, NB.  On this rainy day, I had the beach all to myself.  I got to walk for an hour to the sound of the waves.  It was pretty wonderful.

Parlee Beach, NB. On a rainy day before Camp started, I had the beach all to myself. I got to walk for an hour to the sound of the waves. It was pretty wonderful.

And also how beautiful Snider Mountain Ranch is – especially early in the morning.

BFF 2013 Foggy Morning1

Kitchen staff get up early enough to take fog pictures.

BFF 2013 the bridge1

The footbridge over to the Rocky Mountain camp.

BFF 2013 Snider Mountain

Everyone heading back up the hill after an evacuation drill.

I had a fantastic time.  Thank you to Girl Guides New Brunswick/PEI.  Until we meet again.

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2013-07-16 16.36.05 Swaps trillium flowers and OttawaTrading SWAPS is just one of many fun activities that you can expect to do at a Girl Guide camp.  SWAPs (Sharing With All People) are small gifts, tokens, crests, pins or crafts that you offer to the new people you meet – and they to you (just like a business card in an office).  At camp, they are great for breaking the ice with a new friend, especially if you’re shy.  After camp, they’re an excellent touchstone reminder of all the people you met.

In my opinion, traders need to be small, light, and easy to get/make – remember they have to fit in the bag you carry to camp.  Unique and personal traders are best… your trader should say something about you.  For example, as I’m one of only a few people going to camp from my area, my trader(s) will represent me regionally and as a crafter/crocheter.  Always try to put your name and maybe e-mail on your trader so your new friends can find you later.

This year, I’ve got three traders…

  1. City of Ottawa lapel pins (courtesy of my City Councillor),
  2. Government of Ontario trillium lapel pins (from my MPP), and
  3. Crocheted flower pins that I’ve made.

Pins from your local municipality, province or area can usually be obtained for free if you ask early and politely.  To personalize these, I could either put a small sticker on the baggie they come in, or I could stick each pin through a card with my name and e-mail.

For my crocheted flower, I’m using the five petal flower pattern from Maize Hutton’s crocheted flower bouquet post and I’ve pinned a small card with my name and e-mail on the back of each flower.  Size works out to be approximately 1″ diameter.

Looking for more on the subject of SWAPS and Traders?

Happy trading everyone.  What was your favourite SWAP at Camp?

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