Substitute Without Sacrificing

Youth Empowered Action (YEA) Camp is a leadership camp for teens who want to change the world, with week-long, overnight sessions from coast to coast. In an effort to run the camp according to the values of social justice, we are mindful about food choices. We emphasize serving only wholesome, delicious vegan meals that campers will love. As much as possible, the food is organic, local, and fair-trade. In aiming for inclusivity, we try to have entree, side, and dessert options that accommodate everyone—no matter their allergies, sensitivities, religion, or ethics. Providing campers with vegan food naturally eliminates many of the most common allergens, such as dairy, shellfish, and eggs, and it accommodates other diets as well, like kosher, halal, and vegetarian.

In 2015, we finished the largest YEA Camp session yet, and in terms of cooking, that meant working with more than a few food allergies. Sometimes, in cooking for people with food allergies, it means making a simple switch in a product rather than making an entirely separate meal. For example, if I know a camper has a nut allergy, I will choose a different non-dairy milk, such as soy, rice, or oat milk. 

The first thing to note when cooking for campers is to keep a list of all food allergies at each station, and to inform anyone who works in the kitchen of these allergies. The kitchen can get fairly busy, so always having the allergy list nearby eliminates anyone having to rely on memory to ensure the food is safe for every camper.

Second, be sure to diligently check labels. One might think a bag of dark chocolate chips won’t contain milk, but more often it does! Read the label thoroughly to be sure.

Finding Substitutes

Nearly any recipe can be adapted to be vegan, gluten-free, nut-free, or changed to suit any allergy needs. Knowing which ingredients serve as the best substitutes takes a little practice and sometimes a bit of experimentation. Below are some of the most common (and most delicious) alternatives to common allergens:


There’s an abundance of non-dairy substitutes, such as nut milks—almond, hazelnut, cashew—and those that do not contain nuts, such as soy, coconut, oat, hemp, and rice milk. My personal favorites are hemp, coconut, and almond because they are the creamiest and have the best flavor.


In many recipes that call for eggs, the eggs can be left out entirely. For instance, when cooking with wheat flour, it is naturally binding due to the gluten, so often the addition of eggs is unnecessary. For recipes that do require some sort of binder, substitute one tablespoon of flax meal (ground flax seeds) or chia seeds blended with three tablespoons of water to replace one egg (often referred to as a flax or chia egg).

Different products labeled as “egg replacers” are available. These are usually made from potato starch or a combination of different thickening agents, such as chia, arrowroot powder, or tapioca starch.


Many recipes that call for butter can easily use oil. I find coconut oil works well but sometimes has a strong flavor (depending on the brand), so safflower oil also can work well. There are numerous non-dairy butter replacements made with non-hydrogenated vegetable oils. These replacements are like a healthy version of margarine—creamy, salty, and melted, and often taste better than butter!

Gluten Allergies

Working in kitchens, I have found that one of the most common allergies to accommodate is gluten. There’s this myth that gluten-free foods are dry or grainy or somehow less enjoyable than those containing wheat. In actuality, gluten-free cooking and baking just take some practice. The gluten-free brownies can be just as delicious—if not more so—than the ones containing wheat.

If gluten allergies are encountered when cooking, especially for anyone with Celiac disease—the autoimmune disorder leading to intestinal damage due to gluten consumption—it is crucial to pay close attention to food-preparation practices.

Here are some best practices for gluten-free cooking:

  • Create a space specifically designated for gluten-free dishes and avoid all cross contamination. Don’t use the same spatula to flip the wheat pancakes as the gluten-free pancakes, and don’t use the same pan without washing it thoroughly. If a kitchen will allow it, I even cook gluten-free meals and those containing wheat on a completely different stovetop.

Also, don’t use the same scoop for sugar that has been on the countertop where the brownies that contain wheat are prepared. This approach is difficult and may not be necessary for those simply avoiding gluten, but Celiac disease is serious and necessitates this kind of attention.

  • Know the flours. Not all gluten-free flours are created equal, and it takes some time and experimentation before getting the hang of it. I’ve had the most luck with teff, millet, and coconut flour. Rice and chickpea flours are better for savory dishes rather than sweets, due to the texture of rice flour and the occasional bitter flavor of chickpea flour. There are so many options now for gluten-free flours and grains. The best thing to do is find the foods that are naturally gluten-free, like whole grains (quinoa, brown rice, millet), and cook with fresh fruits and vegetables to avoid any potential cross-contamination.

  • Read the labels! This is true for any allergies, but gluten is especially tricky because it’s in so many foods, possibly products that one wouldn’t even think of, like soy sauce. If cooking for someone with Celiac, note that oats—although naturally gluten-free—are contaminated by wheat when processed and packaged, so it’s necessary to buy oats that are actually labeled as “gluten-free.” Most gluten-free foods are labeled as such, so if it is not on the label, be sure to look up the product online or visit the company’s website to double-check.

We like to offer campers a variety of meals from all over the world at YEA Camp. Some favorites are:

Pad thai. Made with rice noodles, this dish is naturally gluten-free. Use a favorite vegan pad thai recipe and simply leave out the peanuts for nut allergies.

Mac n’ cheese. This one is always a hit! Make a delicious cheese sauce using a combination of flour, nutritional yeast, turmeric, and non-dairy milk. Use rice pasta and gluten-free flour for gluten allergies.

Burritos. We love to have burrito/taco night here at YEA Camp. We offer vegan sour cream, refried beans, guacamole, Spanish rice, salsa, and all of the other fixings. We use a non-dairy cheese that is suitable for vegans and have the option of rice flour tortillas for gluten-free campers.

Finally, it’s always more convenient to make one version of a food than several variations, so with vegan or gluten-free campers, all of the pancakes or brownies can be vegan or gluten-free. This makes for much less work for the chefs, reduces the likelihood of people eating food they shouldn’t, actually makes for healthier and more eco-friendly food, and creates greater ease for everyone to know what they can eat. There are plenty of delicious recipes online to accommodate these needs, and nobody will miss the gluten or the eggs.

Whatever the allergies or special requirements are, taking great care in preparing the food so everyone is safe and can enjoy a delicious meal will keep campers happy and healthy and fuel the rest of their life-changing experience at camp.

Bon appetit!

Salimatu Amabebe is the head chef at Youth Empowered Action (YEA) Camp. Reach her at



Camp Basics: Youth Empowered Action (YEA) Camp is a summer camp for social change. Since 2009, YEA Camp's week-long overnight leadership programs have trained and supported hundreds of teens who want to make a difference in the world. Campers choose a social justice issue they care about and develop the knowledge, skills, confidence, and community to take action on that issue when they go home.

Student to Instructor Ratio: 2-2.5:1

Location: YEA Camp currently runs camps in Northern California, Oregon, and Upstate NY

Cost to Attend Camp: $1,250

Ages: 12-17

Because of YEA Camp's commitment to social justice and sustainability, we have chosen to only serve vegan and organic, local, and fair-trade food when possible, making us one of only a very small handful of vegan or vegetarian camps in the country. Our food is wildly popular because of our “kid-friendly” approach to serving familiar items (like French toast, burritos, pizza, cookies), having incredibly committed and talented chefs with expertise in vegan cooking, getting food donations from vegan food manufacturers, and doing a workshop on our first evening about why the food we serve may be different from what kids are used to eating at home and encouraging campers to step outside their comfort zone and be open to new ideas.