In Good Hands: Caring for Campers (and Staff) with Special Diets + Bonus Recipe

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Before I let you in on my system of dietary care, I’d like to get a little story off my chest. I once had a counsellor on staff that was allergic to sulfates and sulfites. This was my first year as kitchen head-honcho and while I totally had the headscarf down pat, I had no idea what those were. The counsellor explained casually that they were ingredients in some processed foods. Well, I thought, you’re in luck! I’m banning processed foods!

I did not end up banning processed foods. Professionals, kind grandmothers, and angels may be capable of avoiding processed foods altogether, but I was none of these. I eliminated where I could, and humbly accepted that the occasional chicken nugget was a-ok if everyone had full bellies.

At some point, sulfates (or was it sulfites?) made their way to the table. I will never forget the moment our director came into the kitchen and asked “Were sulfates served at dinner?”. In the end, the counsellor was fine but I learned my lesson: I was responsible for people’s health, and I did not want to be responsible for anyone’s ill-health.

Now. You may ask “Why am I taking advice from a near-MURDERER!?”. While I ask you to recall she was fine, I should also tell you that this incident helped shape my fool-proof ‘keep people alive and let their parents know it’ system. The tricks are as follows:

Opening Day

Make yourself available opening day to meet with parents of campers with special diets. Be prepared to listen attentively and write things down, even if mama bear is describing to you in detail (with actions) the digestive disaster a slip-up might cause. If possible, it’s best to have the camper there, too. This helps you remember who’s who, and might make the camper a little more comfortable with you.

During this meeting ask:

  •  What their restrictions/allergies are, and how they usually manage them at home. Knowing how they manage them at home might give you a good indicator of how to manage them at camp.
  •  How the camper wants to interact with the kitchen. Are they willing and able to check in with the kitchen at meal times and get their special food if required?
  •  Did they bring their own replacement foods? If so, USE THEM. Nothing worries a parent more than picking their kid up at the end of the week and getting all their replacement foods back. (“Did little Phoebe eat cheese all week?!”). Keep this food separate and labeled.
  •  Be prepared to show them your menu for the week and answer a vast array of questions.

During the Week 

Have a whiteboard that you update each week with camper food needs, and include their name, cabin, and a counsellor from that cabin. Unless you have a rotating staff, you can usually make a staff needs list at the beginning of the season and keep it posted as well. While preparing every meal, go through the lists and make sure everyone has something safe and satisfying to eat. Don’t wait until just before the meal, you don’t want to draw attention to a camper because their meal wasn’t ready on time.

Depending on your staff and the number of special diets to account for, sometimes the easiest thing is to designate a competent staff member to be on top of special diet needs. Don’t forget that sometimes you can create one alternative meal that covers a variety of needs – rice pasta with a rich tomato sauce full of veggies can replace mac n’ cheese for vegans and those with a lactose or gluten intolerance.

Finally, check in with both the camper and their counsellor during the week to make sure your system is working and that the camper is being well-fed.

Closing Day

homemade sorbet at summer camp

Have all leftover replacement foods and the containers they came in together and labeled. When you see parents, unless you are absolutely sure you know who their child is and what cabin they’re in, do not wing it.  There’s no harm in asking for a reminder, but you can’t take back mixing up Dairy-Free-Alana with Gluten-Free-Maxine.

Finally, and I cannot stress this enough: thank them for their children! Parents and campers alike are aware of the potential burden of special diets. Even if little Phoebe had ferocious feedback about your homemade (undeniably delicious) sorbet, sincerely ensure each parent that it was no problem to accommodate their child and that you were honoured to make their experience at camp special.

Bonus Recipe: Homemade Sorbet

Forget ferocious Phoebe. This easy, refreshing recipe can be rapidly accommodated to serve any group size. Just remember to double the ingredients in this order:  sugar, water, fruit.  For citrus sorbet, double the sugar.  In the non-processed spirit, I’ve used turbinado, which can be replaced 1-1 with white sugar.


  • 2 C Turbinado
  • 4 C Boiling Water
  • 8 C Peeled, Chopped, Seeded Fruit – any variety.


  1.  Completely dissolve turbinado in the water, remove from heat and stir in fruit.
  2. Ladle mixture into several baking dishes filled no more than 1 inch. Freeze.
  3.  Cut frozen mixture into chunks and puree thoroughly in food processor. Serve immediately. 

[Note from Travis: If you like Meghan's summer camp recipes you'll LOVE her 3 Week Summer Camp Menu! Purchase it from our site right now.]