There’s No Such Thing As A Special Diet

By Pat Prior Sorrells

Cooking “nuggets” five different ways for one camp meal can be a challenge--especially when the spoon from one batch can’t touch the spoon from another batch. With the growth of food allergies and special diets, camp food supervisors may go crazy. With a little creativity, Camp For All--a special-needs camp in Texas--has simplified the process, and the campers, camp staff and food-services staff all are benefiting.

The growing number of special diets that need to be provided at camps today is a result of food allergies, food intolerance, diets by choice or combinations of all three. A food allergy occurs when the immune system reacts negatively to a certain food. According to The Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Network, 12-million Americans (1 in 25) have food allergies, and reactions can be deadly. While food intolerance results in a less severe reaction, it too has a negative impact on health and well-being. Peanuts, all nuts, gluten, casein, gluten combined with casein, PKU, soy, low-calorie, high-calorie, fish, ketogenic, red dyes, sprinkles, sugar, diet sugar and citrus are only a few of the challenges for campers. In addition, there are diets people choose, including vegetarians, vegans, pescatarians, those who eat no red meats, and “flexatarians”--primarily vegetarian, but they sometimes eat meat.

So, how does a camp kitchen juggle it all? Cindy Adamcik, food-services supervisor at Camp For All, emphasizes that it is important to start with the right philosophy. For example, there is no such thing as a “special” diet. Whether someone has food allergies or intolerances or is making a life choice, “[T]hat’s how they need or want to eat, so that’s how they will be served. Period.” Adamcik’s goal is to provide campers the foods they need so they won’t feel different from their peers. If breakfast calls for pancakes, everyone is served pancakes; they may be made differently, but every variation is just as tasty. The camp’s food philosophy also extends to staff members, who need to be in top form every day.

Here are some additional tips on working with special diets:

1. Maintain good communication with parents or caregivers, dieticians and medical staff. Sterling Leija, the camp’s guest-services manager, contacts parents prior to each session to find out exactly what food challenges incoming campers may have. According to Leija, “You need to ask, ask, ask, and then ask again.” Not only are parents surprised by the ability of the camp to provide the right foods for their child, but the trust in the care of the child increases proportionately.

Heather Saavedra is a dietician for Camp Phever at Camp For All--a camp for children challenged by Phenylketonuria (PKU), a genetic disorder in which the body can't process part of a protein called phenylalanine (Phe). Saavedra says that “effective communication between the kitchen supervisor and dietitian is essential.” She and Adamcik work closely together prior to camp, and at camp, resulting in some special foods prepared from scratch and many prepared ahead of time.

2. Become more knowledgeable about food challenges. Food allergies are not only growing more prevalent, but are also becoming more complicated. Use the internet and work with dieticians to obtain the most up-to-date information. When in doubt, look to the camper’s parent or guardian as the expert. No one knows their child better than they do, and they can provide important information based on what occurs at home and advice given by the child’s medical professionals. Even something as seemingly straightforward as “peanut-free” has multiple meanings. Some parents simply do not let their child eat peanuts. Others ask that the entire facility be peanut-free, while some do not want their child exposed to products manufactured on the same line as peanut products.

Additionally, Leija and Adamcik have developed strong relationships with suppliers. More and more, the larger suppliers are carrying gluten-free and casein-free products. If the initial answer to being able to provide products is “no,” keep drilling down for “yes!” You will be amazed at what suppliers don’t know they have. If it is a retail store, develop a relationship so that you can buy cases instead of single boxes of products at a discounted rate.

3. Read, read, read the labels. Know what is in every box or can, and identify brands from a regular supplier that will work for all campers, including those with dietary issues. Then purchase specific brands to fill the gap. In this way, parents and dietitians will have the information they need on a timely basis, and there will be less impact on the food budget.

4. Think outside the cake box. While it is important to match meals to campers, it is also important to provide variety and make food that tastes great. Be creative and give campers an opportunity to broaden their food horizons. Isn’t that what going to camp is all about anyway? Why not do it in the dining hall as well as on the challenge course?

5. Be alert because there will always be surprises. Again, this means being creative, being prepared by keeping the basics in stock, and having a good relationship with suppliers. You will be making more food from scratch, but have fun with it. This past summer at the last minute, a child who had a severe peanut allergy was accepted to camp. Surprise! Obviously, this meant that besides clearing the camp of all peanuts, there would be no peanut-butter wraps for breakfast. Adamcik promptly responded by creating the Camp For All parfait. Put together with what was available in the kitchen, it was filled with all types of fruits, vanilla yogurt and granola. Of the 200 parfaits served, only six were left.

6. Match the camper with the tray. Prior to every meal, prepare each tray with the specially prepared food and the name of the camper. In this way, as campers come through the line, they are handed their tray just like everyone else. The food is the right temperature, and campers are safe because they have received the correct food. More importantly, because the perception is that the only thing different is the name on the tray, every camper feels a sense of acceptance in an understanding environment.

7. Look for free opportunities to bring in staff members dedicated to campers’ diets. Camp For All received a corporate grant for an intern whose focus was special diets and projects. With a major in a related field from a nearby university, she provided the focused staffing necessary for the entire summer. The value of adding the extra pair of hands without adding a salary was priceless. Campers had someone dedicated to their needs and safety, and in return, the intern emphasized that she learned much more than she would have in the classroom.

Preparing five different types of “nuggets” at one meal? It’s not “special.” It’s the new camp kitchen.

For sample recipes go to

With experience in marketing and non-profit development, Pat Prior Sorrells has been in the camping industry for 13 years, and has served as President and CEO at Camp For All for the past three years. She can be reached via e-mail at