Camp Junk Food

Okay, so I know the title here is rather harsh. Let’s be honest—I totally expected my 8-year-old daughter to eat junk food while away at her very first overnight camp last week. Both of my children (and my husband for that matter) have what I call a “stomach of steel.” They can eat just about anything with no ill effects whatsoever, so I knew there would be no immediate consequences (like a food sensitivity) for her to contend with while away from home.

My daughter at her first overnight camp!

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But just because one may feel fine after immediately eating highly processed junk food doesn’t mean it isn’t doing any damage. After all, according to Michael Pollan’s research, four of the top ten chronic diseases that kill most of us – coronary heart disease, diabetes, stroke and cancer – “can be traced directly to the industrialization of our food.”

Our Little Pre-Camp Chat

So even though my daughter has no specific food-induced medical conditions to worry about, we still had a friendly little chat before she embarked upon her very first week away from home without a parent or grandparent by her side. As I’ve shared before, I absolutely do NOT want my two young girls to ever “worry” about food (or anything for that matter). But that doesn’t mean I won’t educate them along the way when it’s appropriate (just as I will with many other important topics in life).

So I told her that there would be junk food at camp and eating it was totally fine, BUT my advice to her was to eat a lot of what she knew was good (i.e. for sure a whole food—straight from the earth) and just a little bit of what wasn’t.

And what did she do in my absence? She ate Froot Loops for breakfast daily, “with pineapple on the side!”. As I mentioned she is a completely typical 8-year-old so this is what happened when she was left to her own devices :) I guess I should be thankful for the serving of fruit? And truth be told, I was thankful for that and told her so. I was sure to reinforce the positive and not at all harp on any of the “negatives” of the week.

Some Good Decisions

And she actually did make some other really good choices on her own that made me very proud. She tried out the salad bar (like I had suggested before she left home), but how can I blame her for her boredom with it halfway through the week when it was basically the same drab salad bar night after night? This is my girl who honestly loves salads and vegetables even more than I do so I know she tried. She also followed some other advice I’d given her long ago about asking for a glass of water. I always tell both of my girls that when they are at friends’ houses or birthday parties they should always be gracious guests and accept what is served, but it is NEVER too much trouble to ask for a cup of water. I tell them if they are already eating birthday cake and candy and who knows what else – there is no reason to then wash it down with a sugary juice or soda – so just ask for water.

And to my surprise she actually remembered this advice at camp, and when dinner was followed with handouts of candy (Skittles to be exact) and a choice of soda or Powerade…what did she do (in addition to accepting the Skittles of course)? She politely asked for water! That’s my girl. Except she told me (in her own words) “they looked at me like I was crazy and didn’t have any water to offer.” So as a result she tried the Sprite (since she said it looked most like water). She apparently hated it and poured it out on the grass and finally settled on the bright blue Powerade (“which is actually good, mom!”). Is it just me or are sugary drinks really necessary to wash down the packs of candy? Just for the record, they apparently did give the campers water to drink earlier in the night at dinner because they weren’t allowed to have juice until they drank their water first (one of the more impressive food guidelines I heard about!), but unfortunately things seemed to go downhill in that department once the dinner hour was over.

Amazing Experience (with or without the junk food)

So, yes – her first camp experience (from a non-food perspective) was a once in a lifetime adventure. Her counselors were absolutely wonderful, she made some amazing new friends, and she LEARNED some pretty impressive new skills (water skiing, archery, sailing, horseback riding – and independence of course – just to name a few). BUT we did pay a pretty penny to be able to send her there for this experience (that she absolutely loved) so I feel I have the right to complain about the food. I absolutely knew it wasn’t going to be great, but as I am piecing things together through her various stories I admit the food situation sounds worse than I was expecting. Nachos with runny orange cheese anyone? Not to mention the kids who are more sensitive than she is and came home from camp not feeling well as a result of all that junk – including one of her cabin-mates in particular.

Junk Food at Camp #realfood - 100 Days of Real Food
Leaving the art building at camp

Time for Change

But, I am not one to just sit here and complain without trying to do something about it (hence this blog of mine). I was the same way about their elementary school, but felt similarly in the fact that it was only respectful to spend the first year observing before I try to butt my way in and start suggesting changes :) I am sure there are all sorts of constraints that force the camp to do things the way they do (i.e. limited time, limited budget, limited space, picky eaters, etc.) – but I admit I am hard-pressed to find a reason why each night would HAVE to end with skittles and soda. Can you think of one?

During this first overnight camp experience of ours I came into contact with two other camp moms (who are acquaintances) that both happen to feel the same way I do – so I can only imagine there must be more who feel the same? Maybe they haven’t spoken up yet or just don’t know where to start (or think they are alone)? So I don’t know what the first step toward change will be yet, but one thing I do know is that it will be something. I was recently inspired by the changes Carrie Vitt with Deliciously Organic made at her own daughters’ overnight camp. She knew they could provide better choices as well and offered to give them some guidance – which they gladly accepted! And the changes she made – super fresh and wholesome food at a minimal increase in cost – were very well received by both the campers and the staff. The outcome was super impressive if I do say so myself and drives home the fact that it can be done. And even though I am sure it won’t be an easy road I can’t just sit back and not try.

Have any of you been through something similar with overnight camp and have advice to share? I am all ears!

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189 thoughts on “Camp Junk Food”

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  1. I don’t think most camps serve junk like that! My daughter attends a sleepway Girl Scout camp, and besides a smores night or two there is no junk. And obviously a Girl Scout camp would have a tight budget. Fruit loops aren’t cheap anyway! You should meet with the camp. I think many parents feel the way you do!

  2. My kids go to Hayownetha in northern Michigan. While, they do have typical camp food, all treats, especially treats sent by parents must be home made and are shared amongst the cabin. The last night of camp they had a banquet with a steak dinner and the counselors for each cabin provided desserts that night. My daughter’s cabin had their table drizzled with candy. One night out of two weeks od snacking and desserts, not bad.
    I was pleased that my daughter said she didn’t know what any of the cereals were there. Her cabin mates explained what Captain Crunch and Cocoa Puffs were! Success! (I also do not forbid foods since 90% of what they eat comes from our healthy kitchen, so if the have a bag of cheetos, I don’t sweat it either.)

  3. Maybe you could suggest they offer daily cooking class that could make homemade desserts that the campers could have every night instead of the candy and soda (using recipes you know and approve of). With enough groups of campers throughout the day, they could incorporate some allergy-sensitive recipes so treats could be safe for everyone.

  4. I was thrilled when I put “vegetarian” under the food allergy area on the registration form for my son’s camp that they actually called me to discuss this. Previously, he had basically just eaten cereal for breakfast, salad bar for lunch and dinner, plus whatever sides they might have without meat in it. I was given instructions to have him use “line 1” and give them his name and they would take care of him. He’s at camp this week, so I’m anxious to see how it worked out for him.

  5. I’m a Bible Camp person- I see all those Skittle laden little ones for nine weeks a summer! Some camps (like ours) limit the treats – one piece of candy per day per camper for the little ones, two for the slightly bigger kids… and no soda. For our youth group weekends (middle school or high school kids), we don’t have the soda machines or the camp store (candy) open in the evenings.

    One of the big issues facing camps is the limited resources. Many camps are non-profits- and most don’t even make enough money from camp fees to break even. It’s hard to provide nutritious food when you have no budget! And many of our camps do a great job of using what they’ve got.

  6. I think you’d love Gwynn Valley Camp in Brevard, NC. Working farm, delicious food, great childhood experience. My three kids attended for two weeks last summer. Good luck!

  7. Your post is so timely to my life! I just returned from Church Camp with my daughter and packed 3 days worth of fresh food for her and I. Although I go to serve as a counselor, I really also feel that the only way to ensure that my super sensitive stomached daughter survives is to be her meal sidekick supplying food that will save her gut. After the first day, I was feeling good about my mothering skills. I had slid her a fresh PBJ at dinner and a cutie to avert the processed corn dog and fries. Yet, at 3am I heard her sit up in her bunk, cough, and vomit. Ahhh for the love of food aversions! After cleaning her up and reassuring other counselors that this is the result of some food culprit. Me: “Honey, did you drink the red powder drink in your snack bag?” “Yes.” “Did you have fruit punch at dinner?” “Yes.” Darn you Red Dye 40!
    My suggestion is this: unapologetically pack food for your daughter and ask if they can store it in their camp kitchen. Make sure your daughter has access. Healthy snacks, fruit, drinks, whatever sets your heart at ease. Each kid rolls into camp with their own unique needs: medicines, need to wear a pull up, epi pen, homesick…and food sensitivities, so prepare whatever you wish to help your child be the best them they can be! Momma knows best :)

  8. Definitely try! I honestly believe that many people just don’t think about the food the put in their bodies or serve to others. They don’t know what they don’t know. But I also believe that a little information can go a long way.

    Perhaps point out to them that Skittles have the highest level of neurotoxic food dyes of any of the candies tested in this recent study (well, tied with M&Ms). Even getting them to switch to a less harmful candy would be a step in the right direction.

    Good luck!

  9. I think that is wonderful
    you did that for the camp. But I am surprised did they chose not to make any changes. I live in Saint Louis Missouri and I am assuming you live in Missouri because the camp is here.I would love to help you make changes at camps if you would like to contact me.

  10. That is so great that your daughter had such an amazing time! Learning to work through different environments then the one you have at home is a great learning experience. With that said I would like to also say you have EVERY right to complain about the food at camp. I run a specialty diet menu for a local kids camp. We do everything we can to make our menu from scratch. This can be difficult but we believe that while the children are in our care it is our responsibility to feed them the best that we can. Being in charge of the specialty menu that means not only are we helping to prep and cook food for 400+ campers and staff; we are also prepping food for children who have celiacs disease, lactose intolerant, and have nut allergies just to name a few. Me and my partner in crime work all year testing new products and recipes to make sure that our specialty food tastes just as good, if not better, then the food being served on the regular line. The regular line also goes through the same testing of recipes all year to make sure the food tastes fresh and delicious. We also have a salad bar for kids to choose from. Each item on the salad bar is freshly prepared as well! It is not unusual to have a line out the door waiting to get to the salad bar. Each year at camp we also add something that we feel may be different to our campers on the salad bar. This year is was arugula. We had one of our volunteers dressed as “Miss. Arugula” and she gave a little 3 min talk to our campers at the first dinner about what arugula is and why it is so healthy for you! Camp isn’t just about learning how to make healthy active choices, it’s also a chance for kids to make healthy food choices!
    Side note: Love reading your blog :)

  11. As food services manager at a non-profit camp, several years ago we made the decision to only serve ice water (and fruit juice at breakfast) with every meal and snack time. We offer fresh veggies and whole grain crackers & cheese along with fresh popped popcorn for snacks. We use very little processed foods and offer a great salad bar with many options. This is challenging in several ways including higher food costs on an extremely limited budget as well as the poor eating habits of many kids coming to camp who won’t eat what we serve and resort to pb&j or just don’t eat at all. You do a great job encouraging healthy choices for your kids – I wish we could get more families going in this direction.

  12. I really can’t quite get my head around this. They were given skittles and soda after dinner. EVERY night. Are you kidding me??!! We live in Australia and, while there is plenty of bad food eating going on here, I can honestly not imagine this ever happening at a camp here. Maybe some marshmallows around the fire one night, but candy and soda every night? Never. That anyone thinks this is okay or normal is just mind blowing. Why have adults handed over caregiving responsibility to junk food manufacturers?

  13. Wow, it sounds like you handled the situation so remarkably well! I love the asking for water thing. Maybe that’s something that you can suggest to the camp? It would even help their bottom line to cut out sugary drinks. Just offer water and milk at meals.

    I feel for organizations feeding kids, though. The salad bar is probably unremarkable since most kids probably won’t actually eat salad. My sons are great eaters, but they are not keen on salad!

  14. I recommend sending your kids to camp with a water bottle, just like at school. My sons do that and just fill up from the water fountain or sink whenever needed. And while I know gatorade is not ideal, it’s better than plain water when true dehydration is an issue. Both of my children struggle with migraines and I find that some gatorade or other electrolyte drink works better than plain water in the heat to ward off the headache and nausea.

    I totally agree about the soda, candy, and sugar-laden cereal choices. No need for those.

  15. I really wish they would just offer water all across the board at camps, schools and child events…that way there is no questions asked! The kids get well hydrated, it’s healthy and every child can drink it. At my child’s preschool, every kids gets a chance to bring snack…they specifically say just bring water, no juice! And there is never a child questioning it, the kids really don’t mind it and parents are happy!

  16. I just love your parenting style. I think it’s great that you don’t harp on your kids to give them complex but have important conversations! I don’t have kids yet, but hope I can steal some tips from you when I do! And hopefully by then, there will be better camp food choices!

  17. As a resource for you: Camp Augusta in California is wonderful and serves organic, non-processed food. Twice during the week a homemade ice cream food truck comes to provide a sweet treat. They might have some good advice/suggestions of how to make real food work as part of the camp experience…

  18. Someone should conduct a research study on the correlation of behavioral issues and sugar and food coloring consumption at camp. I would bet that they would see a dramatic decrease in kids needing disciplinary action. I know my daughter on red food dye is a completely different (uncontrollable) child. This research may cause them to listen!

      1. Assistant to 100 Days (Amy)

        Hi again. We serve mostly water. I use sparkling water with a splash of 100% juice or slices of fresh fruit to spice things up. Lisa’s girls also drink whole milk. Mine are almond milk fans. :) ~Amy

  19. I was both a camper and a camp counsellor for many years in NZ. The camp back then served only water or, as a very special treat, watered down bug juice. There were lots of potatoes and carrots (I know because campers had to peel them!) as well as fresh and canned fruit and the pantries were stocked with only the basics as pretty much everything was made from scratch. Canteen was only 2x a week although access was unlimited and. Yes, we did used to binge on the junk. But we were so active all day everyday that it didn’t seem to be a problem. I suppose it has changed in 20 odd years but I hope not too much as I’m thinking of sending my daughter to camp when we go back to NZ next year (we live in the UK now)

  20. Just came across this post while looking for this (wonderful wonderful) blog. I am from Europe (Austria) and worked at a summer camp in the US during the summer of 2012. While I have a lot of stories to tell about that summer, one of the most horrible things I remember was the food! I worked in the kitchen (as a non-native speaker of English they wouldn’t let me be a counselor, even despite the fact that I work as an English teacher and have worked as a counselor for Arts&Crafts and Low Ropes for years – again… lots of stories, sorry to ramble!). Working in the kitchen did not include any type of food prep, because EVERYTHING came from a package! I’m not even kidding, even the salad was pre-cut and came in a plastic bag that had another plastic bag inside it with cut carrots and red cabbage. I absolutely hated the Mac&Cheese, which had a very orangy looking sauce on it that tasted like melted fatty plastic. Luckily there was always (white) bread and peanut butter around to have instead.

    The worst of it, though, was that I was in charge of handing out the night time snack for the kids. All they had and ordered were processed sweets. I was happy for the nights I had crackers to give them. The drinks were all sugary stuff, but at least there was water from taps nearby. Still, I a) don’t think these kids needed any snack 2 hours after dinner and b) don’t believe that sugary snacks are a good way to end a day when you have to get these kids to bed right after!

    As what the parents paid for 3 weeks of this camp was an amount of money I’d not earn in 5 months, I still can’t understand why they would allow such bad quality of food to be fed to their kids. The summer camps I work at here are WAY cheaper, but the food is always prepared fresh from fresh ingredients (with the odd sausage & fries day inbetween). Afternoon snacks were usually fruit and water, cold tea or juice, and for meal times only water (though the kids were allowed to bring a few snacks to camp and those were usually sweets, but kids are kids :) We did not allow energy drinks and caffeinated drinks for the smaller ones). I’m not saying that it’s always a perfectly balanced meal they get here, but I would say that making things from scratch is the way to go. Oh, and not to mention the kitchen would prepare night-time snacks for the counselors which always included fruit, different types of cheese, some veggies and super nice bread rolls :D

    1. *through this blog (not for)

      Oh, I forgot, and this baffles me still to this day: At the US-camp we made HUGE batches of these drinks that were a powdered mixture. It came in different colors like pink and purple and even blue! The drinks would then stain the plastic tables so we had to bleach them from time to time. Also the ice pops stained the tables. I’m pretty sure that this type of food coloring served every day is not healthy. Oh, also, we served food in styrofoam bowls or on styrofoam plates, accompanied by styrofoam cup, and the “silverware” (really, shouldn’t it be metal if it says silver in the name?) was plastic. Serving anything in styrofoam and drinking from it (especially when the food items are hot) just doesn’t seem like a smart idea to me. Again – if I’d be paying this much for camp, I would demand a change.

      I hope your daughter will have lots more camp adventures! Camp is a wonderful time! She seems like a very smart kid to try to make the right choices!

  21. Morning,

    I just read this post and laughed. As a Camp Professional for 20 years, I have seen this! The goey mac & cheese with cheese sauce that you can’t pronounce ingredients and other “fun” foods. Having said this, most camps (at least in Canada) have made huge changes in their menus, working with local dieticians and food producers to create menus with very healthy choices. At the camps I Directed, we got rid of boughten tuck (junk food time), and replaced it with homemade versions of things like yogurt parfaits, ice cream sandwiches, fruit pops – using real fruit & 100% juice. We also had to adapt to many new food allergies: nuts, soy, dairy, wheat….
    As a Director, I always encouraged parents to ask about the menu which we made readily available so that they could see it. As for water – it was always available and we never served soda. When you spend the big bucks, the food provided for your children should be at least 95% healthy. For the next camp experience, ask in advance. Good food (as you know), doesnt mean junk!
    PS: love this site & the recipies.
    Thank you!

  22. Wow…having been the ast. director at a summer camp for 4 years I can tell you we would never feed our kids like this! Since we came in 4 years ago we have been working to change the kitchen and offer more healthy choices to the girls (girl scout camp!).

    Every meal has water on the tables and you have to have a glass before having milk or bug juice (lunch only). We have a salad bar and while its expensive for us to offer variety we do try to make sure its different every few days and there is always homemade soup out. Dessert is inly served at dinner (used to be lunch to!), all grains are whole wheat, and there is no meat served on mondays (I take issue with this one lol), and fruit is left out all day for the taking. Candy is a real treat and there must be a really good reason for it. Soda has no place at camp and we only offer gatorade on the hottest days to trick them into drinking a little more.

    Camp isn’t always going to be healthy, we love to cookout desserts at night and have gooey treats. However, if you find the right camp the food doesn’t need to be a complete disaster!

  23. Lisa,
    So glad I came upon your blog post! I have been a camp director for 31 years now and we have made a dramatic shift in our food service at our overnight camp. Nothing like having your own family to make it clearer to yourself about what is good for kids. Keep talking to your camp, this is the trend and the desire of people and if enough people make their voices heard, the camp will change. We changed before the voices came, ha, ha. We recently hosted a food service workshops for camps through our American Camp Association Indiana section here at our camp. We even gave a presentation just on the things we had changed and explained to attendees how for many food items it cost the same to change to a less processed or no processed food item than to buy the processed one from the big food companies. More money goes into the pockets of the local people working in your kitchen and less gets sent to the big box food company some 500 miles away.
    I’d be happy to share with you all of the changes we have made in our camp’s food service department.

  24. I attended a wonderful camp in NC that grew its own fruits and veggies, had campers work the farm, and served the same foods they grew at meals. We were encouraged to at least try small portions of foods we didn’t like or weren’t familiar with, and sodas and candy were not present at all (there’s no snack stand, but we did get to have smores on our overnights!). Based on their website and the literature I still receive from them, this is still their practice. It was a wonderful experience, great food, and I don’t think anyone really minded. Of course, we all looked forward to those smores!

  25. It is always interesting to me to hear about other camp experiences. When I was younger I went to several day camps so I didn’t experience many of the food issues that parents/children run across. But for the past six years I have worked at an arts overnight camp. And at my camp we most certainly don’t serve soda or other unhealthy drinks at dinner… we don’t offer dessert often and when we do it is a surprise offered after the full meal is over.

    We offer vegetarian diets and other dietary options. Campers can buy candy/soda every other day, and only “two wet, two dry” limit.

    I suppose what I’m trying to say is that not all camps offer poor food options. If you hope to make a change, go for it! Healthy food at overnight camp is not unreachable.