Food Environment / Sugar

Summer Camp Menus: The Good, the Bad and the Bug Juice Ugly

smoreSpring is in the air and for many parents and kids, thoughts turn to summer camps.  This New York Times article examined the growing interest in summer camp cuisine.

When a child spends weeks away from home, parents worry: how will the camp nourish my child? During the school year, many parents strive to control their children’s meals; they don’t want that hard work to collapse as campers are loosed upon twice-a-day desserts and thrice-daily snacks. So parents are increasingly insisting that camp food be more healthful. That means “bug juice,” the sugary color-enhanced punch drink of yesteryear, is out; water is in.

I haven’t found any summer camps in Kentucky that can boast a menu impressive enough to be featured on Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution like this Summer Farm Camp in California.

Amidst the current issues related to unhealthy foods and the lack of exercise surrounding kids, our program focuses on teaching kids the importance of eating and living healthy lives. The fun filled activities focus on how organic food is grown, and harvesting the food from our farm to use in a cooking class for kids…

Healthy and delicious meals are prepared with dishes incorporating local and organic ingredients from our own farm and other local farms. Our goal is to celebrate real food and instill lifelong healthy eating habits.

One of those healthy habits is limiting intake of sugar.  The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends  limiting the amount of added sugars you consume to no more than half of your daily discretionary calorie allowance.  The lead author of the recent study on diabetes and sugar, Sanjay Basu, had this to say about the AHA guidelines.

Frankly, the American Heart Association (AHA) put out recommendations that are quite smart. On average, we consume about 22 teaspoons a day of sugar, mostly added sugars. The heart association recommends no more than 9 teaspoons of added sugars a day for men and no more than 6  for women. But because sugar is in everything, it’s hard to reach the AHA level and not be a health nut all the time.

For children ages 4-8 with a daily caloric intake of 1,600 calories, this works out to no more than 130 calories, or about 3 teaspoons a day (12 grams).   You wouldn’t know it looking at a typical summer camp menu like this one from my local 4H.  Note the logo for our state’s flagship university is also prominently displayed giving an implied seal of approval to this menu.  (In the interest of full disclosure, I should tell you my husband is employed by UK.)

After the kids start Day 3 with French toast sticks and syrup, they’ll have lemonade with lunch, Kool Aid twice for snack, a cookie, and yellow cake for dessert.  Of course even after all that sugar, there’s still S’mores by the fire.  If the campers only eat one S’more each (which is sadly not the norm), they’ll consume 19 grams of added sugar.  This is 7 grams over the daily limit.  You can see why the S’more should be considered a once in a while treat but that phrase loses all meaning when the average child regularly overconsumes sugar more than four times the recommended limit.  For a graphic of what that looks like, see Yale Rudd Center’s Added Sugar’s Fact Sheet.

So what’s a parent to do?  Here’s a handy checklist to use when considering summer camp nutrition.

A Parent’s Guide to Summer Camp Nutrition

When choosing a summer camp for your child, be on the lookout for good nutrition.  A healthy menu is the perfect pairing to a summer camp’s emphasis on physical activity and healthy lifestyles.  Things to consider:

Is water served instead of sugary drinks?

Will snacks and meals include fruits and vegetables to help your child meet the goal of at least five servings a day?

Are whole grains served instead of highly processed grains?

Does the menu help children avoid getting too much added sugar? Younger children should get no more than 3 teaspoons of added sugar a day (12 grams). Tweens and teens shouldn’t have more that  5-8 teaspoons of sugar a day (20-32 grams).

Does the camp help your child develop a healthy relationship with food?  Food should never be used as a reward or a punishment at camp or at home.

Children learn what they live.  When summer camps serve kids healthy food, it helps them develop a taste for healthy food and teaches them that healthy food is the norm.

5 thoughts on “Summer Camp Menus: The Good, the Bad and the Bug Juice Ugly

  1. Casey, I agree with you 100%. My kids love 4H camp. The outdoor activities like fishing, archery, ropes courses and swimming offer great physical exercise. The staff is fantastic and as a whole 4H Camp is extremely well run. I only wish the menu would be as healthy as the activities. There is no reason to serve sugary drinks at camp. Why not water? I would like to see a Healthy Bites attitude applied to camp food and the camp store. More fresh fruits (instead of sugary snacks and drinks) and locally grown veggies would make camp a healthier place for all kids. Let’s utilize the Kentucky Proud program to help make 4H camp an even better place to spend a week of summer!

  2. Totally agree! And if you aren’t happy with the food and drink served at summer camp, parents shouldn’t be afraid to speak up–that’s how change happens. I called my child’s camp director last year and suggested they serve water instead of Gatorade. Just be polite and come with concrete ideas like these (not just complaints).

  3. Very informative article, Casey. I was appalled when I saw the junk that was served at the day camp I used one summer for my older daughter. I gave her breakfast in the morning and packed her lunch, then learned that they were giving her packaged Honey Buns in the morning and other sugar and chemical ladened snacks throughout the day. The local Montessori school was very good about keeping junk and sugar out of the school but summertime was a nutrition nightmare!

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