With arms firmly crossed and sour-faced determination, ten-year-old Jaden said, “If I have to eat that, I’ll just go hungry!” Campers paused between bites and all eyes shifted to the two counselors assigned to their table, anticipating a response.

While this may be a familiar scene at your camp, hopefully it is not a frequent occurrence. How can you respond to those campers who balk at foods they don’t like or with which they are unfamiliar? Better still, how can you establish some preventative measures to thwart food battles and make the dining experience nourishing, fun, and fresh? Here are some strategies.

Stay Calm and Collected

Some food avoiders relish the attention it brings them. “Don’t necessarily make a huge deal when [your camper] wants to try something — the more casual you are about it (offer him a piece, but don’t watch him eat it, for instance), the more likely it is that he’ll actually follow through,” advises Peter Girolami, PhD, clinical director of the Pediatric Feeding Disorders Program at the Kennedy Krieger Institute in Baltimore (Cicero, 2015). The prestigious, flagship program in the US is the largest in the world to treat pediatric feeding disorders, and treats children with eating issues related to autism, digestive troubles, or food allergies, as well as children who have food disinclinations without a fundamental medical condition (Kennedy Krieger Institute, 2016).

The One Bite Goal

Campers are encouraged to take one bite of each food on their plate. A summer camp rule of thumb at some camps, the positives of this policy are the introduction of new foods and prevention of children failing to get enough nutrition. However, this idea must be noncompulsory and carefully carried out.

As food service professionals, we must be cautious if we choose to ask this of our campers. Doing so could cause a food allergy disaster without proper assurance that campers with allergies are identified and that counselors and food service staff are prepared to assist with implementation. Also, Nancy Zucker, director of the Duke University Center for Eating Disorders, argues that forcing children to eat foods they don’t like could cause them to relate meal times with unpleasant experiences (Park, 2015). Other opportunities for campers to try new or disliked foods could come during camper team-cooking or recipe-building sessions.

Utilize the Power of Peers

Counselors influence what your campers try, but no one can make a bigger difference than friends, suggests Keith E. Williams, PhD, director of the feeding program at Penn State Hershey Medical Center, in Pennsylvania. Williams also asserts that a child usually must try something ten to 15 times before he likes it (Cicero, 2015).

Brigette Powell, food service director at Montgomery Presbyterian Camp and Conference Center in Starke, Florida, says, “We serve all of our meals family style. This creates a chance for their peers to tell them, ‘You really need to try this. It is so good,’ or ‘This is my favorite meal ever.’” They tend to not want to admit to being picky eaters in front of children their own age and away from their parents.

Provide Specific Alternatives

Sydney Ho, summer kitchen assistant at Heartland Presbyterian Center in Parkville, Missouri, says, “If you’re dealing with a really picky eater, rather than vaguely asking what he or she’d rather have, talk to the camper about specific alternatives. A camper is really struggling with chicken fajitas? Suggest a quesadilla made with the tortillas and cheese that were served with the meal.”

Offer Options

Older campers like options. As teen taste buds mature, their sense of taste changes markedly according to a study of 8,900 youth by the University of Copenhagen (McCormick, 2014). Offsetting your meal options to include two protein selections once or twice during the week, and a third vegetarian option the other days is a great idea for curbing pickiness. This idea is definitely better suited for older campers. In my experience, too many line options for younger children hampers decision-making, causes confusion, and means an extended wait time for meals for the bulk of campers.

“Providing a simple salad bar with nice greens and fresh veggies with lunch and dinner is a great healthy alternative for those campers who may not care for part of a meal. With breakfast, consider offering oatmeal, yogurt, granola, and fruit in addition to the main dish,” says Emma Acker, hospitality coordinator at Heartland Presbyterian Center.

Food Enhancements

Roasting veggies sweetens their taste, and cheese adds appeal to foods like broccoli for some campers. Sauces and dips are kid favorites. Cut foods into various shapes with cookie cutters. Serve breakfast foods for dinner (Mayo Clinic, 2014). Powell suggests adding cheese to mashed cauliflower and whipping it to the same consistency as mashed potatoes.

Food Prep Creativity

Finding creative ways to present food can pique kids’ interest and up the food’s fun quotient. A dish of chocolate pudding can be transformed into “dirt pie” by adding crumbled Oreos and gummy worms. Healthier foods can be transformed into morsels that will spark your campers’ interest too, such as using fresh fruit to create frozen fruit pops. Rename foods to appeal to your younger campers. An egg centered within toast becomes Egg in a Basket, and celery with raisins resting atop cheese spread is transformed into Ants on a Log. Also, consider creating kid-sized foods, like sliders fashioned from meatballs.

In addition, the following food prep tips may alleviate picky eater problems:

  • Comfort and familiarity: Serve meals campers have likely eaten at home or at school, such as mac and cheese or chicken strips.
  • Fresh and simple: Campers are more likely to eat a meal if they recognize it, so stick with fresh, simple ingredients.
  • Combine foods: You can combine kid favorites with other foods to make them more appealing. For example, consider using waffles as the wrap for an omelet breakfast taco.

Involve Your Campers

Farm-to-table, cooking class, or group recipe activities could be added to your camper program experience. Have campers make delicious foods together — fruit pizzas, ice cream sandwiches with fresh-baked cookies, fresh salsa served with pita chips, or have a build-your-own sundae or pizza night.

Camp is all about building relationships. So one of my favorite suggestions comes from Keaton Murray, summer kitchen assistant at Heartland Presbyterian Center, who says, “Make sure your kitchen staff interacts with the campers. Campers are more likely to try a meal if it’s coming from someone they know, trust, and love.”


Andrews, L. & Andrews, A. (2014). We ª cooking! Totally tasty food for kids. Birmingham, AL: Oxmoor House.
Cicero, K. (2016). Proven strategies for picky eaters. Parents. Retrieved from parents.com/recipes/nutrition/picky-eater-strategies
Hammer, M. (2016). Kid chef, the foodie kids cookbook. Berkeley, CA: Sonoma Press.
Kennedy Krieger Institute. (2016). Feeding disorders. Retrieved from kennedykrieger.org
Mayo Clinic. (2014). Children’s nutrition: 10 tips for picky eaters. Retrieved from mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/childrens-health/in-depth/childrens-health/art-20044948
McCormick, C. (2014). What’s up with the buds? Penn State University, SiOWfa14 Science in Our World: Certainty and Continuity. Retrieved from sites.psu.edu/siowfa14/2014/12/05/whats-up-with-the-buds
Park, A. (2015, August 3). Why you should worry about picky eaters. Time. Retrieved from http://time.com/3981050/picky-eating-health-risks

Kimberly Whiteside Truitt, CFM, has served in various roles within the camp industry, including counselor, unit leader, and most recently associate manager, accreditation coordinator, and food service manager at Camp Gilmont. A graduate of Williams Baptist College, Kimberly is married to Thomas, and proud mom of Harrison and Benjamin.

Photo courtesy of HealthBarn USA, Wyckoff, NJ.