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Camp Encourages Kids to Explore Healthy Behaviors

April 01, 2008
If you went to camp, you probably didn't serve yourself lunch from a salad bar.

Times have changed! Now the majority of camps offer salad bars – just one sign that camps' menus are reflecting all our families' changing tastes. This is one of many updated ways camps are encouraging the longstanding tradition of healthy behavior – in the dining hall as well as on the playing field or at the swimming pool.

Camps are doing much to help address concerns about kids eating the right foods, as one of the healthy ways to promote well-being. At camp, thoughtful menu planning – along with physical exercise – is helping stem problems of weight gain among children. Wellness is especially important in today's society, particularly with concerns about childhood obesity and eating disorders. A summer camp experience can provide the structure and activity needed to keep kids healthy year-round.

According to research conducted by the American Camp Association® (ACA), 63 percent of children who learn new activities at camp tend to continue engaging in these activities after they return home.

What are some of the things camps are doing?

Over two-thirds of all camps accredited by ACA say that they've started serving more fruits and vegetables. About four in ten have explicitly reduced the use of fried foods and sweets or sugary foods. Some offer low- or no-fat options.

Cooking with olive oil, adding flax, avoiding partially hydrogenated oils, making food from scratch -- these are all ways for children to eat healthier that camps are incorporating into their menu plans. Even in the camp canteen, the trend is toward healthier choices and less candy or "junk food."

Kids are being introduced to all kinds of foods: whole grains, tofu, even fruit soups. In a recent survey, two-thirds of all camps responding said they offer vegetarian options, with 21 percent offering vegan choices. More than one in ten camps provide foods that are organic and/or locally grown.

Responding to concerns about allergies, many camps provide choices that address each child's allergy issue. The peanut-free option is provided often, with nearly 40 percent of all camps saying they offer this choice, potentially including items like soy nut butter. Some camps are completely peanut-free, while others set up a no-nuts table at meal-time. Camp directors also report being more attuned to children who have sensitivity to gluten.

For other special diets, meals that are kosher, calorie controlled, or designed for diabetic campers are also available. Ask the director of the camp you're considering what is offered.

It's more than menu choices

In addition to new menu choices, there are camps that use specific programs to teach healthier eating habits. One day camp invites families to family night programs where topics such as healthy choices are discussed. Another camp schedules a mandatory class on nutrition for its campers.

In ACA's survey of camps, one camp reports that it trains its staff is trained to watch for indicators of any eating disorders and shows them how to model good eating behaviors for the campers. Camp health staff are there to watch out for children, and aware camp nurses can keep a trained eye on campers for any special problems or behaviors.

Recently, one camp's program theme was from the "Inside Out." Their intent was "to help the campers become physically, personally, and socially healthier on the inside so that they could more positively impact their outside worlds."

Another camp reports offering special programs for fifth grade-age campers and older where the campers experiment with doing their own cooking. The same camp offers programs on natural therapies and destressing for campers seventh grade and up. The camp says, "Girls really love the programs. We overfill in those each summer."

To learn which camps offer the program options you're seeking, visit the Find a Camp page at www.CampParents.org, where there are over 2,400 ACA-Accredited® camps to choose from.

Camps have always placed an emphasis on health and fitness. Today, the activities and food options they provide—and the healthy behaviors they teach—are more important than ever.

© 2008 American Camping Association, Inc.

With nearly three decades of experience working with children, youth and families, Peg L. Smith is the chief executive officer of the American Camp Association® (ACA). With up to 300 health, safety and programming standards, ACA is the only national association that accredits camps and promotes a safe and fun camp experience with developmental benefits backed by independent research. To learn more about ACA, visit www.CampParents.org or www.ACAcamps.org.

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