Surving school camp

Surving school camp

How do kids with special dietary needs feel at school camp?

And what can you do about it?

Sending your kids away to camp is always stressful for parents with kids who have special dietary needs and this story is not designed to make you stress more. However, I wanted to give you some insight into my recent experience on a camp.. to help you understand how kids may feel when they have different dietary needs. Maybe there is something here that can help you to make the experience a little more enjoyable for your child. Or maybe those who have some power to make a child feel more included and safe could consider how the child in their care might be feeling.  

Our experience; planning for camp:

SO, here we go.... My children and I spent a few days of a recent school holiday period at a music camp at a popular school camp site. It was a lovely site and I could not complain at all about the place.. however…

We rang beforehand to discuss our food requirements. I was told they could cater for gluten free but additive free was not really an option, since they could not guarantee what ingredients were in the food. I did not particularly feel like they wanted to help me out or that they had the knowledge, so I said, ‘No problem we will bring our own food’. The person on the phone said we would have access to a microwave, but not in the kitchen, ironically because of risk of contamination.  I figured this would be ok and that we would be able to manage, so we agreed to go.

On arrival, at the camp, we went to put our food in the fridge. This was in the main public area and we wondered if our food would even fit in the fridge or be safe, knowing that we would have serious problems foodwise, if any of it disappeared. When I asked a lady about the safety of our food in the fridge, the lady looked at me strangely. I told her that even though our food was labelled, we had lost food before, when stored in a ‘public’ fridge.  I hate to think how I would have felt about this arrangement if my kids were anaphylactic. So.. we were off to a great start. Within 30 min I felt like I was being judged as some kind of weirdo. 

Meal times and food preparation:

Our meal times were supposed to be set, so I thought I would know when to go and heat up our food. However, they often did not occur exactly when they said they would.  Give or take 20-30 min. This meant we were always guessing about what time to start heating up our food. There was no access to bench space at all and the microwave was in the main thoroughfare where you make your tea and coffee as well as line up for food from the kitchen.  When trying to heat up our food in an already limited space, we were always doing it with 50 people walking past watching and waiting for their food to be supplied. Talk about ‘feeling different’. At no point did anyone ask us what we needed or offer any assistance for plates, bowls etc.. We had to squeeze past people in line to keep asking for things like a serving spoon or a plate and feeling different as everyone could see we were the only ones who had our own food.

By the time we got our meals heated and went to sit down, there were either no tables left with enough seats for the three of us or everyone would already be seated with others, so we usually sat on our own.  So now not only were we the weirdos with the weird food, we also were being unsocial.. making it hard to join in conversations or meet people.  

Then my kids who very much understand their needs, started comparing what we were eating to what others were eating and feeling left out, especially when it came to dessert which I had not entirely planned for. Fortunately, the camp did have ice-cream that was suitable for the kids, but ice-cream without the chocolate cake was not really cutting it.

My son told me later that when he’d been there on school camp a couple of years earlier, he’d still felt like he did not belong. He always got his food after everyone else. There was nowhere to sit and when he got it, it was either too hot or too cold. Having sensory issues means that he likes his food just right and this was just another thing to cope with when being on camp for the first time.

I know this situation is a little different from a school camp, as often the parents don’t go, but sometimes they do, especially if the child has severe allergies. If my children had had severe allergies, I would have been even more stressed about the fact that I had to heat their food with no bench space, directly above where tea and coffee was being served and on which there were often patches of spilt milk.

Camps can be stressful for any child, but as you can see, they can be particularly stressful for kids  (and their parents) with special dietary needs. However, it does not need to be this way. With a little understanding and forethought, they can be a very enjoyable experience.  They can even help your child take more responsibility and independence over their food.

 camping with child

So, what are my recommendations to ensure a child feels not only safe but included, in a situation like this…

Research the camp closely beforehand to see if they can cater for your child and to determine whether you can be confident that they understand the risks and barriers for a child.

Ask about ingredients to establish any possible issues. Their responses will help you determine if the food is safe for your child or not.  If they say ‘I think’ or seem overly confident without providing evidence of their allergy avoidance procedures, then I would be concerned.

Arrange one person as the key contact point for your child and discuss with them any concerns you have. Or.. if you have arranged your own food, explain the details to them.

If you are arranging your own food,

You can request a copy of the menu from the camp and try to make meals that match what will be provided on the day.

You’ll need to provide all meals and snacks and possibly even drinks.

  • Type up a menu of each day and what you have provided for the child to eat and drink. Add any preparation tips or instructions.
  • Label every single item with child’s name and what meal it is for.
  • Bag up each meal or snack and then place these in a bag labelled for the day it is meant.  See ready made meals that can be purchased instore.
  • Provide your own utensils if this is a perceived risk.
  • If you have foods for the fridge, you will need to pack these separately in another bag.
  • Don’t forget the treats like marshmallows for campfires, lollies for prizes etc.
  • Don’t forget dessert/ supper – including warm drink options.
  • Prepare foods you know your child will like, so there is no risk of it not being eaten.

Prepare your child so they know exactly what they will be getting, who is responsible for their food. Maybe get them to ask a friend to eat with them so if the meal is late, they are not eating alone.

Ask if there is a way that your child’s meals can be heated up discretely and served at the same time as all the other meals.

I hope some of this will help. In the end, if you’ve done everything you possibly can, then try to relax. If not then keep yourself busy. Find some friends to catch up with. Spend more time with your other children or take some time out to do your own thing and they’ll be home before you know it. 

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  • Jenny Trezise