What to Expect from Summer Camp Food?

Kids Summer Camp Meals

The Summer Camp Food, or Any Camp Food, Should be Providing Kid-Friendly Camping Meals with a Focus on Proper Nutrition and Abundance.

After working many years at summer camps and outdoor science schools, it is profoundly eye-opening to realize that food insecurity is a real problem within the United States. Food insecurity is when a kid doesn’t know where their next meal is coming from. This blog is all about what to expect from summer camp food as it will fortunately be abundant for the kids at summer camp.

During my years as an Outdoor Science School instructor, there were always stark differences in the eating habits of the various schools.  When the school was located in an economically-challenged area, the camp food would fly much faster from the kitchen and counters.

Summer camp food provides an important escape for many kids, and a real treat as they can eat to their hearts content.

But it is crucial that the camps prioritize proper food management, nutrition, and health with the kids camping meals.

The kitchen staff at camp, along with the counselors, are the true unsung heroes of the entire summer camp experience for your kids.  Except with the kitchen staff, you will likely never meet them and have the opportunity to say thank you.

And most, even other adults working at summer camp, will never see the long, hard hours that they work to ensure that we are all eating healthy at camp.

It is an under-appreciated job with some of the worst messes you can imagine.  Especially after camp theme activities that involve food challenges in the dining hall.

Or projectile vomit incidents that absolutely ruin your once-a-week bacon morning for months.  Bacon is a rare to occasional treat at summer camp.  And I really missed eating it, but I just couldn’t get that triggering image out of my head for a good while.

It is important to realize that at camp, the kids will be overexerting themselves much more than their usual daily routines at home and school.

Their days at camp will be long, and full of fun, active activities.  The kids camping meals provide them with much-needed fuel to really seize the week and make it as impacting as it can be for them.  It is, after all, an outdoor experience that they will remember forever!

How Is the Summer Camp Food Served?

Camps will serve their summer camp food in one of three ways: family, cafeteria, and buffet styles.

The food will be served out of a centrally located, multi-purpose dining hall building with a fully equipped commercial kitchen.

Family Style – One camper from each table goes to the main kitchen counter to retrieve several dishes that will comprise of food for the entire table. Each table will typically have 8 to 14 people.

Cafeteria Style – Similar to the expectation at a school cafeteria; everyone lines up and is served one-by-one by the kitchen staff.

Buffet Style – Similar to the cafeteria style with the key difference being that the kitchen staff will present the food on big counters or tables for kids to serve themselves.

You can also expect a buffet style cereal bar for breakfast. As well as a salad bar at lunch and dinner to always be available, regardless of the main course.

The Summer Camp Food First and Last Meals!

Most meals at camp are included in the price.  But be sure to check on the first meal.  This is the one the kids will eat as soon as they get off the bus on the first day of summer camp or outdoor science school.

Many camps require kids to pack a brown bag lunch for this first meal.  This is a small meal prepared by parents before-hand and sent up with the campers on the bus.

If camps do offer food for the first meal, it will be a light meal to account for upset stomachs on the bus ride.  Sometimes it is simply bread that is put out with some spreads and fresh fruit.

The last meal should be checked on as well as it is typically just a light snack right before the campers get onto a long bus ride.  They will be served breakfast that morning (typically around 8 am), but most camps try to have kids leave by noon on the last day.

This means that the kids will be very hungry by the time they get off the bus.

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Where Does The Summer Camp Food Come From?

Due to budgetary considerations and the sheer volume of food ordering, most summer camps will rely on full end-to-end food delivery services such as USA Foods, Cisco, or another large national food provider.

The food will be delivered weekly or monthly, and camps will always carry a reserve supply of at least 3 – 5 days for a full-capacity camp session in the event of a delayed return.

From a nutritional perspective, the ingredients found within the main courses at summer camp can sometimes be not quite as healthy as expected.

I remember being shocked at times, especially when I realized the sheer concentration of sugar in the barbeque sources used at some summer camps.

And on rare occasions, the odd slip-up with the kitchen staff can happen where the fresh fruit might not be as fresh.

An Opportunity for the Kids to Step It Up with Their Summer Camp Food!

Keep in mind that meal times at camp serve as good opportunities for your campers to embrace a bit more independence and responsibility.

That means that they will be getting their own summer camp food, and cleaning up their own tables as a cabin group.  Its never too early for the kids to start learning how to clean up after themselves.

It also gives the parents a reason to expect the campers to continue these habits when they return from summer camp.  There are no excuses now!

Important Questions to Ask About the Summer Camp Food:

Do the Returning Counselors Bring Their Own Summer Camp Food?

A good way to evaluate the summer camp food is to ask whether the returning counselors typically bring their own food or rely solely on the camp meals.

The counselors won’t have much time to gather and prep their own food.  And remember they’re usually not allowed to keep food in the lodging areas.

So if they are willing to bring their own food and prepare it in the few spare minutes they’ll have as the kids file into the dining hall, then it’s a pretty good indicator of the quality of the overall main course food.

Can I Have A Copy of the Summer Camp Food Menus?  Or the Camp Session Menu? 

Another good way to evaluate the summer camp food is to ask for a copy of the intended summer camp menus in advance.  One week out from the start of the camp session is appropriate.  It should always be available for parents to review.

Look to see whether the food is standard and generic, or has a unique flair.  What proteins do the camp focus on?  Is it red or white meat?

This will also help you to understand the consistency of the camp menus if you send your kid to multiple sessions.  How many changes do you see in the camp food over the seasons?

Who Plans the Summer Camp Food – the Camp Director or the Kitchen Director?

When camp directors plan the summer camp food menus, the budget will become the overall deciding factor.

Kitchen directors are usually given a bit more creative license when they get to plan the summer camp meals.  And thus the quality of the meals will in turn be given a bit more consideration.

The camp kitchen staff will also typically be a happier group if they are trusted with the responsibility and the creative freedom to plan the meals themselves.

Regardless of who decides the menus, camp directors will always have final approval over the actual monthly and weekly food orders.  Who translates this massive food order into the actual camp meals is the real question.

There are more questions that should be asked of kids summer camps that go beyond the food.  These questions strike at the very core of how to trust the summer camp.

These are tough insights to gain without an inside perspective.  And that’s exactly what we provide with our recent post, How to Find Trust in Your Kids Summer Camps.

Empowering Kids at Summer Camp

What About Gluten-Free or Vegetarian Meal Options for Summer Camp Food?

Many summer camps are not able to provide gluten-free meal options for specific children due to their bulk food ordering.

However, as long as there is a genuine nutritional or medical need, the summer camp should always allow the parents to pack up specific food for their campers meals.

This food will be stored in separate areas of the kitchen dry storage and refrigerator.  Once the food is accepted, the only people with access to it should be the kitchen staff and the camp medical technician.

The Camp Medical Technician will ensure that these specific meal considerations are followed and respected by the kitchen staff.

The Camp Medical Technician is the most important role at summer camp in ensuring your kids overall safety.  It is also the most mentally taxing position I have ever worked at camp.  Check out this post to learn more about the highly important role of the Camp Medical Technician.

Vegetarian meal options should always be available upon request in advance.  There should be a checkbox on your summer camp registration form.

If a vegetarian option doesn’t exist on the registration form, then inform your summer camp staff up to one week out from the start of the camp session. This should be appropriate for these important food requests.

Remember Plenty of Water is Crucial for Every Camper, Regardless of the Summer Camps Location.

A water bottle is an essential item at summer camp, but it doesn’t need to be anything fancy.  Just something that is reusable and refillable.

In addition to their water bottle, every camper will be expected to drink at least 3 cups of water at every meal.  It is vital that they drink enough to keep up with their level of overexertion in an unfamiliar outdoor setting.

It is common at summer camp to see upset stomachs and dry skin due to a lack of hydration.  It’s hard to enjoy the incredibly unique outdoor adventure that is a kids summer camp with a growling, queezy stomach.

During summer camp, there are also sometimes a few kids that refuse to eat or drink at each meal.  Counselors will take note of these campers.

And, if required, will have them talk to either the camp medical technician or one of the directors to attempt to impress upon them the importance of full, energized stomachs at camp.

Refusal to eat is usually more common over the first couple of days of summer camp as the kids are shy and feeling a little unsure about their new surroundings.

Happy And Strong Team At Summer Camp

That’s A Wrap!

Hopefully, this post on how to trust the summer camp food is helpful, insightful, and enjoyable for you.  I have to admit that I absolutely LOVE summer camp food or any meal eaten in the outdoors.

There is a common belief in the outdoor industry that food eaten outdoors always tastes better.

Whenever I work at a new camp, one of the first things I always figure out is who are the kitchen staff and how can I work my way into their good graces as quickly as possible.

They are my heroes at camp because they take care of our stomachs so well.  They provide the necessary energy to jump into every activity, to embrace every new adventure, and to sing my Heart out at every campfire!  Without the kitchen staff, Camp wouldn’t have its camp spirit!

This post is a part of our KCE Camp Tidbit – What About The Camp Food.  Have a great time preparing your young camper for their unforgettable outdoor adventure!

“Food is the ingredient that binds us together.” 

– Unknown

For more of the best kids camp tips and insight, subscribe to our free and exclusive KCE Camp Tidbits emails.

Want to Share Your Experience or Ask a Question About the Summer Camp Food?  Leave A Comment Below!

4 thoughts on “What to Expect from Summer Camp Food?

    • Sam says:

      Cheers Natisha! I’ve eaten many a camp meal in my time, and its always one of the most important aspects of an active camp day. A full and happy stomach can lead the way sometimes!

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