Catering For Dietary Needs!

Burrito Mince In Trangia

Burrito Mince In Trangia

Food on camps is tricky, but not in the sense that it's hard to do well, there's just so many considerations when you're catering for a diverse school group. Added to this, you often don't know the kids very well. Before camp we do a lot of work preparing for any group and no two camps are the same. To begin with, we look at medical risks and dietary needs. What concerns are there? Do we have kids with allergies? Will some additives make them sick? Will bread and milk cause them to be ill? Can they eat meat? Is it the right sort of meat? Are there any other foods are of concern?

Having catered for so many groups on camps and residential programs, one of the key concerns was that everything has to be ‘normalised.’ Even though I might’ve been catering and cooking for a number of different dietary needs, because they’re kids, I never want anything to stand out or be remarkably different. The last thing I want to hear is a whiney toned, “Why do they get that?!” So if I was cooking burritos for example (which kids love), I'd cook a variation of the burrito for everyone to enjoy. Some have mince, some have chicken, some have tofu, some have beans. Some have tortillas, some have gluten free tortillas, some prefer just to have it on the plate!

Regardless of the mix of ingredients and the time that goes into this, the most important thing from my point of view is every student’s well-being and part of that is making sure they don’t feel ‘different’ a meal times. I’ve been to far to many venues that provide vastly different meals for the kids, making them feel left out and even isolated due to their dietary needs. I won’t have any of that on the camps I run and it’s not unreasonable to expect the same! To be honest, I love buying different foods when I go shopping. I think of all the cool combinations I can do for pizzas, curries and salads just to name a few! Whatever the menu is, I just love wandering around and searching for the best combo to make sure my one meal, can be eaten by all! This does take time, but once you’ve got an idea of a meal plan, each time you have a student with special dietary needs, it’s now only a matter of checking the plan and grabbing the right ingredient!

Camp Food

Camp Food

Ergh! I hear you cry! To be honest I feel the same way about most excursions and the food that's served. It's crap and all the staff try and sneak off for coffee or brunch at any fleeting opportunity.

I've had a lot of camp food over the years and it's varied from 'I think they're trying to poison us' to 'that's really awesome!'

So why is it so inconsistent between venues? Is it because it's hard to cook for so many people? Well... In a word... No! It's actually not! A lot of the time it comes down to total laziness on the part of the caterers. Once the kitchen has a look at dietary needs, that's it! They simply concoct the most average bollocks they can imagine and slop out to everyone. Since you're only there for a few days nobody seems to notice (or care)! But does this make it okay for them to do a rubbish job?

nutritious camp food.jpg

Absolutely not!!! If a venue and program want to have a great reputation for quality, they need to put just as much effort into their food as they do the safety and management of the activities they run the two shouldn't be seen as mutually exclusive. If you serve crap and kids aren't eating, this just adds to the activity risk, so don't do it!

I've owned my own café and been a cook for a residential snow sports training camp in the US, so I know from experience that it's not that hard to cater for large groups with decent food. It just takes a bit of thought and effort!

delicious camp food.jpg

Cooks need to stop using the excuse that some people don't like spice for making food taste like crap. Too many of them try to race to the bottom to cater for the minority and end up producing nothing but rubbish. This results in food being neither delicious, nor nutritious.

However, my experience hasn't been all bad and I can think of three programs I've worked on, where the quality of the food was awesome! Every meal was simple, flavoursome and there was plenty of it.

salad camp food.jpeg

So what's your point? Well, my point is don't accept mediocrity when it comes to what's served! Leading up to your excursion, as part of your planning, talk to the catering staff and see what they're going to provide. Make changes if it isn't suitable and provide some honest feedback for what's served. Failing that, leave someone else in charge of the kids and join the rest of the staff at the local Thai restaurant.

Happy eating!

camp food cook.jpg

Policing The Lunch Box

Policing The Lunchbox - Risk Management

I recently read an article about a teacher writing a letter home to a parent telling them not to bring chocolate cake to school. In terms of earth shattering issues, this is rather low on the scale of importance in the world today, however, still worth a mention.
 
As a teacher, you see all sorts of weird and wonderful things that kids bring to school for lunch. You smell the amazing aroma of exotic spices and foods from all over the world in soups, pastas, noodles, wraps, burritos and even sandwiches. It makes my mouth water just thinking about it.
 
My question to the parents is, why didn't you send enough for me too? Some of the lunches I see are amazing and I just wish someone would pack that for me. In comparison, the classic cheese and salami sandwich doesn't seem to cut it anymore.
 
Whilst I'm a very strong believer that parents should stay out of trying to tell teachers how to teach, with one important exception to the rule, schools should stay out of kids’ lunch boxes.
 
For some reason, many schools have decided that telling parents what they can and can't give their kids for lunch will solve countless ‘dietary’, ‘allergy’ and ‘lifestyle’ problems. Much of this has been born out of two different concerns. The first one is the increasingly prevalent nut allergies, the second, childhood obesity.
 
For the first concern, I completely agree with very black and white rules. Any school's stance on maintaining a nut free campus is a great idea. The number of kids today who have a potentially fatal allergy to nuts is alarming and keeping the campus nut free is a smart way of reducing this risk and protecting the community from what can be a confronting and horrendous ordeal.
 
If someone has an anaphylactic reaction, untreated, their airways close up and they can be dead within minutes. Even if it's treated with an epi-pen, they must get to hospital as fast as possible and there's still no guarantee of recovery.  
 
Now anything which can kill someone in minutes needs to be taken seriously and parents should respect this decision on banning nuts. You're not going to put a brown snake in your kid’s bag which could bite someone and have the exact same result of a fast and painful death, so don't give your kids nuts to take to school.
 
On the other hand, in some schools, this concern has gone way too far and slowly but surely other foods have been added to a pointless list of contraband, driven by a misguided notion that if you ban lollies, chocolates and cakes, you will miraculously solve the societal problem of childhood obesity. It just doesn't work that way. Unlike an anaphylactic reaction, being fat won't kill you in 5-10 mins and the reality is most kids will burn off their cake fuelled calories, as they run around the playground.
 
At the end of the day, unless the school wants to provide lunch for everyone themselves, then they need to trust parents to make informed choices about what they're feeding their own children. If the concern is really about healthy eating, then the solution isn’t telling parents what they can and can't give their kids for lunch, because as soon as you tell people they can't have something or do something, it just makes them want to do it more.
 
If teachers have time to write letters home about the evils of chocolate cake or otherwise to tell parents not to let their kids have this food or that food for lunch, then they seriously have too much time on their hands and need something better to do. There's a reasonable and rational argument for nut free schools, but ultimately, schools need to balance this sort of real risk with a bit of common sense, so they don't start overreaching and trying to exercise control to the point of stupidity.