You’re aware of the growing obesity epidemic. You’re conscious of always offering your kids nutritious, low-fat foods. You’ve banned the sodas and you make sure there are always healthy snacks on hand. Then your child goes off to camp.
At sleepaway camp, kids often have access to unlimited food at mealtime — and sweets and treats from their fellow campers. True, they may burn more energy with outdoor pursuits, but you don’t want your kids to lose their healthy perspectives. So how do you prepare them for the bounties of camp food?
First, don’t wait till the night before camp departure! Dr. Laura Jana, author of Food Fights: Winning the Nutritional Challenges of Parenthood Armed with Insight, Humor, and a Bottle of Ketchup, says that parents must make talking about nutrition with their kids part of an ongoing education process.
“You should always be working toward the goal of eating in moderation, learning how to say ‘no thanks’ when you’re full,” she advises. Of course, this can be easier said than done; Dr. Jana, mother of three, admits that even her oldest, age 11, “doesn’t always get it.” She adds that the skills kids need to eat well at sleepaway camp are also necessary when a child goes to someone’s house for dinner without their parent.
The earlier kids learn the lessons about healthy eating, the better. But as a mom, Dr. Jana knows well that, “It’s the kid’s job to test.” If your child comes home from a sleepover or camp and tells you that he ate five cupcakes for breakfast, “It doesn’t mean you’ve failed as a parent,” she says. Or if your daughter comes home having gained weight, you can take the opportunity to point out that now she understands what she needs to do to be healthier.
Becky Sarah, M.P.H., agrees. “The ideal thing, of course, is to choose a camp that serves healthy food. But this is also the time to trust the parenting you've already done. If the child is used to a healthy diet, she will probably be more likely to make healthy choices at camp. But she may also take this opportunity to try out all the things not available at home. Parents might want to talk to their child about the fact that eating only refined carbohydrates and sugar, especially for breakfast, can make a person feel low energy and grouchy. The child may still try that out, but she might also realize it is not making her feel good.”
Camp food choices are an area parents should investigate when they’re choosing a camp, Sarah adds. “Don’t choose a camp unless it has appetizing offerings of fruits and vegetables at every meal,” she urges.
What about the picky eater? Sarah advises parents to talk with their child realistically about the food that will be available, and to give him a voice in whether to go. On the positive side, it can be a chance for him to get better at coping with an unpleasant situation. “It might be worth eating the same few foods all the time, or trying to be less picky, in order to have access to all the fun parts of camp,” Sarah says. On the other hand, she continues, if the choice to go to camp was not her own, and the child genuinely dislikes all the food, she might be all the more miserable.
“I don't believe children choose to be picky eaters,” says Sarah. “It's just how the food tastes to them. Imagine an adult who really dislikes spicy food being served a constant diet of very hot dishes and being called picky when not eager to finish them all off!”
Dr. Jana believes it’s tough to solve the “picky eater problem,” and that “the pickiness sometimes persists if you cater to them.” But at camp, she notes, positive peer pressure can induce a child to try other foods.
So, you never know — your child might come home from camp craving asparagus!