By Sarah Ryeland
When children go away to summer camp, parents always have questions and concerns. They want their children to be safe, happy and healthy, so they ask the right questions and do their camp research before sending the youngsters off.
But when kids arrive at camp they often have only three questions, says Tia Pearse: Where is the bathroom? Where do I sleep? And, where do I eat?
“Some camps don’t understand how important it is to have good food,” says Pearse, co-director of Camp Tawingo. “But mealtime is our biggest program – it’s actually what the kids do most.”
That’s why parents have concerns about what their little ones are going to be eating. Will there be healthy options? Will she like the food? What about his allergies?
For most Muskoka camps, food is a major focus. And with ever-increasing numbers of children with restricted diets, allergies and sensitivities, it’s clear why so much planning is involved in menu selection.
Companies like G.B. Catering that specialize in cooking for summer camps, know they’ve got their work cut out for them.
“We’ve been having to buy more special products like gluten-free in the past few years,” says Réal Bourbeau, owner of G.B. Catering. “We’ve had years where we couldn’t wear latex gloves, and kids with allergies to things like bananas and grapes and celery. Once we had a diabetic camper that was gluten-free and vegetarian. We get all kinds of special requests.”
And for parents, it’s a comfort to know that camps take this seriously.
Companies like G.B. and the like try to stay in tune with the needs of campers, and that means planning menus months in advance and working with staff to make sure everything is up to par.
“The menus are all done ahead of time,” says Bourbeau. “We work on it together, and then G.B. proposes a menu for the camp to approve. We always offer well-balanced and nutritional meals with lots of fruit and vegetables, and with vegetarian options at every meal.”
For G.B., keeping things healthy is all in the basics. They avoid processed foods and cut out harmful preservatives by making most things from scratch. From cookies and éclairs, to soups and sauces, the chefs at G.B. take care to give kids in the camps they serve the best food possible.
Camp Tawingo uses a catering company named Landed Loon, and Pearse says the options they provide can make or break a camp experience.
“Mealtime is when campers are most likely to feel homesick,” she says. “So meals are really important. We spend a lot of time planning and making it a comfortable experience.”
Staffers at Tawingo are careful about giving kids healthy, delicious options and even find they will try eating new foods they wouldn’t sample in other situations. With the “no-thank-you portion”, campers are encouraged to try to the meal before they turn it down and often find they like something new.
“Kids are more likely to try something new when their friends are doing it too,” says Pearse.
And the mealtime ambiance is crucial.
“The dining hall routine can put them at ease,” she says. “If it’s loud and unorganized there’s no way to enjoy the meal.”
So campers and staff are encouraged to be calm during mealtime, with only one person up from the table at any given moment. It’s after the meal ends that rowdiness can resume.
Those techniques along with plenty of ways to customize each meal are what keep kids and parents happy – and coming back for seconds.
But it’s not just about campers and parents – what about the staff?
“Our staff are here for nine weeks,” says Pearse. “It wouldn’t be fair to them to have rotating menus or bad food.”
That’s a good point. Happy staff equals happy campers.
“Being a counsellor is like being a parent of eight,” says Pearse. “They’re the ultimate role models. They get the campers to meals on time, play with them, keep them safe and manage behaviours.”
So it’s vital that those caregivers are properly fed, too.
Whether parents are looking for a nut-free environment (most camps are, nowadays), healthy food options or a camp that caters to a specialized diet, there are many Muskoka camps that fit the bill. So while Junior is focusing on fun, Mom and Dad can have peace of mind knowing he’s staying healthy, too.