Guest post by Diana K. Rice, RD, staff dietitian of The Kids Cook Monday.
As any parent knows, equipping kids with the life skills they’ll need to make good decisions and live independently is among the primary goals of parenting. But we usually think of this as a long-term goal instilled indirectly by our day-to-day actions. So in the hustle of preparing kids for a few weeks away at overnight camp — what to pack, how to stay in touch, what to do if they feel homesick — the realization that your child will need to rely on those good decision-making skills right now without you around can come as quite a jolt to many parents.
Of course, campers will still have their counselors to help guide their decisions and keep them safe. But what about that tricky buffet line that kids must navigate for themselves, often piled high with tempting options like chocolate chip pancakes, hot dogs, and chicken tenders? Surely summer camp is a time to allow your kids to let loose a bit and indulge in the occasional popsicle and s’more, but with a little planning — and a lot of open communication — you can also help your child make healthy food choices away from home.
Start by researching your camp’s food options. Many camps post a typical menu on their websites, but if you can’t find it there, call the camp and ask for a description of the offerings or sample menu. Then try these strategies:
- Determine the “always” and “sometimes” foods. Sit down with your child to talk about the food options you’ve researched. Start by asking him what he’s excited about eating and how the experience will be different from eating at home. Overnight camp is a time for children to express their independence, so be careful not to emphasize that your child must follow exactly the same eating pattern your family does at home. If your camper has indicated that he’s excited about options that aren’t ideal for everyday consumption, work together to determine the “always” foods, such as fruit, vegetables, plain milk and yogurt, and baked chicken, as well as the “sometimes” foods: fried foods, desserts, and the like. Together, come up with a number of “sometimes” choices that you both feel is reasonable, be it once a day, three times a week, or “anything goes” Fridays.
- Discuss balanced meals. Common offerings such as cereal, granola, or pancakes can all be healthy breakfast choices, but they don’t represent a balanced meal all by themselves. Use a tool such as MyPlate  to discuss all the elements of a healthy meal, especially produce, grains, and protein. Then go back to your camp’s menu to see what combinations you and your child can come up with. Emphasize that choosing items from multiple food groups at each meal isn’t simply because it’s “healthy,” but rather because it will give your child the energy to engage in all of the fun activities the camp offers throughout the rest of the day.
- Go for a practice run. Although many camps now offer well-stocked salad bars, children may shy away from this offering if they’ve never been tasked with preparing their own salad at home or school. Go on an outing to a local salad bar and put together your own balanced salad plates. Talk about healthy strategies such as including a rainbow of colors and using a light hand with “extras” such as cheese, croutons, dressing, and salted items.
In your communication with your child while she’s away, ask if she’s enjoying the food and whether she’s discovered any new favorites. And when your child returns home, keep the camp experience alive by maintaining at least one new food tradition from camp. If the camp your child attended offered cooking classes, such as those supported by the free resources The Kids Cook Monday provides to camps , be certain to keep that practice up at home, as cooking and dining with kids in the home environment provides a multitude of benefits. No cooking classes at your child’s camp? Ask her which foods she most enjoyed from the camp’s dining hall, then visit TheKidsCookMonday.org  for a searchable collection of child-friendly recipes to cook together. Now breathe — I’m confident your little eater will do just fine this summer!
Diana K. Rice is a registered dietitian on staff with The Kids Cook Monday, a project of The Monday Campaigns , an ACA Educational Ally. She credits her interest in food and cooking in part to the summers she spent at Camp Brighton Woods in Brookeville, Maryland.