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How to Pack Food for a Gluten Free Kid Going Off to Camp

IMG_2362As I brainstormed ideas for this blog post, I pondered over what was happening in our family's "gluten free life" right now. It dawned on me that a big part of my own gluten free planning right now centered on working with our son Ryan to plan what food he would pack for a few upcoming camps and camping trips this summer

This isn't our first rodeo...our son has been to overnight boy scout camps for the past few summers, a week-long hockey camp, and many boy scout weekend camping trips in which they prepare their own food. While it's always more work for Ryan to take his own food, we're all getting it down to a science. So I thought I'd share some tips and thoughts, especially with those of you who are doing this for the first time.

First off, my recommendation: If you have a choice of where to send your gluten free kid to camp, you may want to peruse our list of summer camps on our CAMPS page on GlutenFreeTravelSite. Each year we add to the list and update the information for the current year. What started as a handful of camps willing to work around the diets of gluten free campers has blossomed into quite a comprehensive list of camps in virtually every part of the country. Not all have dedicated gluten free kitchens, but those that don't do everything within their power to keep their gluten free campers safe. Giving a gluten free kid the chance to experience summer camp (especially with other kids who follow a required GF diet) can be life changing. It's something Ryan has done for the past 5 years, and it's the highlight of his summer, if not his year! 

IMG_2432But let's face it, the locations and dates of these GF summer camp opportunities don't work for everyone, and sometimes your child may rather attend a summer camp that their friends from home are attending. For Ryan, he has the opportunity each summer to go on a 6-night summer camp adventure with his fellow boy scouts. While it would be easy to dismiss the opportunity and say, "Ryan, you just won't be able to do that. They aren't equipped to serve you gluten free meals," who wants to tell their kid THAT?! It's up to us parents of GF kids to empower them, right? And to figure out a way to make it work.

So that's what we've done. Starting a few years ago, I called the camp the scouts were planning to attend that summer. I called early in the year -- like February, when we needed to put down our initial deposit. I wanted to find out their level of gluten free knowledge and if Ryan attending was even a possibility. It quickly became clear, that while the staff had good intentions, the nature of summer camps (with their young, seasonal workers) was not the ideal atmosphere for learning the ropes about GF food prep. I would have had to read every label for the food the were planning to serve to determine what he could eat. Even still, they probably wouldn't have been comfortable -- or equipped -- to keep Ryan's food safe for him.

Udi's lasagnaHowever, we did manage to come up with a plan whereby Ryan could attend camp. He would just have to bring his own food. No biggie...we have a large cooler, and he'd be given space in the walk-in refrigerator and freezer to keep his food. Now we just had to plan what to send. After all, he wouldn't really have access to a stove or oven to prepare his meals (and he'd want to keep prep simple anyway). That meant sticking with things that were ready-to-eat or could be heated up in the microwave. I requested a menu in advance so Ryan could try to take and prepare items similar to what was being served to the other scouts. I also send a cutting board, knife, clean sponge, dish towel, small container of dishwashing liquid, paper towels, and a few glass containers that can be used to microwave things. 

Here are some of the items we have packed for various camps over the last few years: 

Breakfast: Hard boiled eggs, cereal, granola, muffins, sausage that can be microwaved (we like Jones Dairy Farm brand), yogurt, and frozen breakfast burritos or sandwiches.

Lunch: Deli meat (turkey, ham, roast beef), PB&J, tuna fish (premixed with mayo in airtight container...and I encourage him to eat this on one of the first days before it goes bad). We also pack pretzels, corn chips, or other snack foods; applesauce; and cookies. 

Dinner: Microwavable meals like Amy's mac-n-cheese and other frozen dinners, Udi's frozen meals (there's both meat and veggie lasagna, pasta primavera, and many more), frozen meals by Feel Good Foods (there are Asian-inspired chicken and beef varieties), and various brands of frozen burritos. This year I'm also going to have him try some of the Lean Cuisine gluten free meals to see if he likes any of them enough to take them to camp. 

At camp, he always has access to fresh fruit, juices and milk, and sometimes a salad bar (he sticks to lettuce, tomatoes, and other non-questionable items, making sure that cross contamination with croutons or other gluten-containing items isn't an issue).

And let's just put it this way...if you remember camp food from when you were a kid, it hasn't changed much. Ryan typically eats better than his peers. In fact, on more than one occasion, his friends go home telling their parents what yummy food Ryan got to eat!

IMG_2895One caveat: Ryan's boy scout troop typically chooses a different summer camp location each summer, so unfortunately, we essentially start from square one each year. I call the camp and talk to the director of food service. I explain Ryan's diet (fortunately by now, most people have at least a basic understanding of what's involved with a GF diet). I confirm that Ryan can bring a cooler of his own food. I ensure he will have the ability to store his perishable food items properly in the refrigerator and freezer. I explain how he will need access to a sink, countertop, and microwave. And I request a copy of the menu. 

We are taking the same approach this summer when Ryan also attends an overnight hockey camp for 5 nights. So no matter what type of camp your child may have the opportunity to attend, it can usually be done. You may even be lucky enough to get a chef who CAN work within the parameters of the diet. Last summer, our whole family visited Lake Placid, where my two sons and husband participated in a "family hockey camp" (on hallowed ground...the same ice where Team USA beat the Soviet hockey team in 1980). We stayed at a local boarding school, which hosts summer camps throughout the summer. The resident chef assured me when I spoke to him months ahead of time that he could accommodate Ryan. He was used to preparing gluten free meals for some of the students at the boarding school. And with my husband and I there with Ryan, we figured we'd be another set of eyes. 

But situations like that are rare, and I think it's safer and more realistic to expect that if your child wants to attend a summer camp that's not specifically set up for gluten free kids, they will need to take their own food.

A lot of the same advice applies if you have a child going camping with an organized group like the scouts. Ryan has now been on many weekend camping trips. Fortunately, they do all their own cooking, and each "patrol" is responsible for planning what they will prepare. This works out well for Ryan, as he has a voice in the menu planning. Whether or not he is the one whose turn it is to shop for the food, he can request certain brands of food (bacon, deli meat, snack foods, sausage) that he knows are gluten free. Then, he typically brings his own bread (for the sandwich making), muffins or other breakfast food to eat with eggs and bacon/sausage, and rolls for burgers or hot dogs. He even brings his own gluten free graham crackers so he can participate in s'mores making.

I'm confident that all this extra work required of him will prepare him well for being on his own in college and beyond!

Please feel free to leave a comment or question below if you have your own tips to share -- or specific questions about a camp situation.