Kick Nutrition Up A Notch

By Cari Coulter

Providing meals for campers often involves finding a balance between foods that promote health and options campers will actually eat—all while taking cost and resource limitations into consideration. Unfortunately, many children arrive at camp with a wide range of food aversions or preferences that range from the very specific to the very general (i.e., “I don’t eat cottage cheese” to “I don’t eat ANY fruits and vegetables”). Considering that some children require 20 or more introductions to a food before accepting it, it is unrealistic to expect these children to overcome their foods aversions within the relatively short timeframe of camp. If they don’t like fish before they arrive at camp, it’s unlikely they’ll absolutely love it in a week or two. On the other hand, catering to the food preferences of picky eaters by serving fried foods and sugary desserts at every meal is not appropriate either.

Kids should definitely be able to make their own choices and take ownership of their eating behaviors, but these should be accomplished within the guidelines and health options that camp leadership provides. The good news is, with some creativity, know-how, experimentation, and even “sneakiness,” you can serve campers foods that are fun, familiar, and kid-friendly—yet much healthier than their traditionally prepared counterparts. Achieving this involves identifying foods that have mass appeal yet knowing how to modify certain ingredients within these recipes to achieve the biggest health benefits without compromising flavor, texture, and visual appeal. There is nothing wrong with challenging the comfort zones of campers by offering familiar foods cooked in unconventional ways (i.e., layering tortillas and taco ingredients into a pan to create Mexican lasagna, rather than just serving traditional tacos), but straying too far from what kids already know and like may result in their skipping the food altogether and choosing a PB&J sandwich instead.

Methods For Modification
There are three main recipe-modification strategies for kid-friendly meals:

  • Elimination
  • Reduction
  • Substitution.

Elimination involves leaving out any “less healthy” ingredients that are not essential to the recipe. This may involve serving cakes or muffins that are already sweet without added frosting, or removing fried onions or bacon bits from a salad recipe. Reduction is appropriate when eliminating an ingredient altogether is not an option, and involves reducing the number of less-healthy ingredients, such as sugar and fat by a third or half of the recommended amount. In some cases, doing this compromises the flavor or texture of the final dish, but in other cases, this is easily achieved. For example, you may decide to use half of the recommended chocolate chips in a chocolate-chip cookie recipe, or reduce the amount of oil in preparing a salad dressing. Reduction and elimination often involve replacing these ingredients, which leads to the third recipe-modification strategy—substitution. Substitution involves exchanging less-healthy ingredients in a recipe with healthier ones. This may mean replacing a portion of the pasta in a pasta salad with an increased portion of vegetables, swapping the oil or butter in a baked good with pureed fruit or applesauce, or simply using a low-fat or fat-free version of ingredients, like cheese or sour cream, instead of their full-fat counterparts.

Trial And Error = Success
Although the methods noted above can result in something virtually identical to the original, less-healthy version of the dish, they may change a number of the food’s qualities. Therefore, experimentation is the next part of the process. Substitutions work great in certain recipes, but not as well in others. Some changes may also require adjusting cooking times or methods. For example, leaner meats are naturally less tender than fattier ones, and can dry out or toughen if cooked according to instructions for a recipe that originally called for a higher-fat meat. Therefore, cooking temperatures may need to be lowered, and meat may need to be tenderized ahead of time, or cooked in fluids to achieve an optimal result. The only way to identify the appropriate modifications is to try different recipes until the best end product is achieved.

Veiling Vegetables
A final skill of those who successfully create healthy menus that campers enjoy is a touch of sneakiness, the ability to slip healthier ingredients into a menu without campers even noticing. For instance, add fruits and vegetables to meals in less obvious ways so the initial visual appeal is not compromised for kids (or even adults) who instinctually avoid these foods. This approach could include adding pureed sweet potato to pancakes, pureeing squash, peas, and other vegetables to thicken soups and sauces, or even putting vegetable toppings underneath or between ingredients. For example, a chicken pita pizza can also be topped with shredded fat-free mozzarella cheese, chopped broccoli, chopped tomatoes, pizza sauce, or fat-free cream cheese. Placing the mozzarella cheese over the chopped vegetables is visually similar to the cheese pizza most kids love, and reduces the likelihood that those who don’t like broccoli will avoid the pizza all together.

On another note, make sure to give menu items names that “sell” them to the campers. Calling a breakfast of sweet potato pancakes “Grandma’s Sweet Pancake Stacks” sounds yummier than merely “Sweet Potato Pancakes,” and also eliminates the initial resistance of campers who avoid “healthy foods” or vegetables at all costs. I’m not suggesting lying to kids about what a meal contains or how it was prepared; being honest and open about what ingredients are included in the foods they’re eating is definitely recommended. We can even place cooking classes and taste tests into weekly programming to encourage kids to become more familiar with, and comfortable around, different foods.

Kids Tested, Parents Approved
While the initial creation of healthy camp meals takes time and planning, it greatly improves camper satisfaction and parental approval. Those who are unfamiliar with menu planning and nutrition may want to consider utilizing a nutrition professional. The internet is also a treasure trove of resources for individuals looking for healthy recipe ideas for different dishes; it doesn’t take a registered dietitian or expert chef to find these recipes and experiment with them to see if they could work for your camp.

One last thing—pay close attention to how campers respond to each dish served throughout the season. Ask them for feedback, and work closely with the foodservice staff to gauge which menu items are a hit and which are not appealing. This will allow for menu improvements year after year.  In addition to providing healthy foods, campers will look to you and the staff to serve as models of healthy eating behaviors. Make sure staff members are informed about the nutrition and foodservice goals of the organization, and are aware of the role they have in encouraging and demonstrating healthy food choices. This will encourage an even more positive response to a healthy menu.

Cari Coulter, RD, LD, is the program director for Wellspring Wisconsin, one of 10 Wellspring Camps serving families throughout the world. Reach her at .