Meeting the Special Dietary Needs of All Camp Guests

by Viki Kappel Spain

The buses pull into camp, and a hundred hungry campers converge on the dining hall for an orientation and a delicious hamburger lunch. Everything is ready — smiles and clean aprons are on — and all seems well for the first-time group. Just as the food is being served, fifteen campers and counselors come running to the serving window with panic-stricken faces. “We don’t eat beef! Do you have anything else for us to eat?” they exclaim, throwing an embarrassing wrench in the unprepared camp kitchen operation.

The above hiccup probably happens every day in every camp kitchen around the country, with more and more groups and individuals making personal or doctor-advised dietary changes. Even when group leaders and the food service director communicate at an optimum level — addressing meal times, themes, needs, and personal requests — the subject of special diets often slips through the cracks of communication and those needs only make themselves known at the last minute — catching the kitchen staff off guard.

How can the cooks save the moment? They can say “no problem;” ask how many would like a Gardenburger, a chicken patty, or a vegan Gardenburger; and magically pull those items from the freezer and microwave, grill, or bake them; and then deliver the food with speedy aplomb and a big smile. Not only will the kitchen receive rave reviews on the great lunch, but also warm thanks from the worried campers who thought they were going to starve.

The special diet issue does not need to be a problem in your camp food service operations — with advance planning and a multitude of tasty and affordable food options available for nearly all special diets. Meeting the food and dietary needs for vegetarians, vegans, lactose intolerants, additive sensitivities, allergies, and a wide variety of other dietary concerns can be handled easily if everyone embraces a true customer service focus.

Customer Service = A Great Food Service Operation

There are many aspects to the concept of customer service, and the camp food service operation is a major factor in the camp’s ability to achieve a positive customer service goal. Essential for providing a positive experience at camp for guests is taking care of their dietary needs. More and more individuals and groups are changing their diets and many opt for vegetarian or meatless meals. To be successful, camps need to address these issues and create a “no problem” environment for special requests.

Vegetarian, meatless, and other dietary restrictions
This topic is a hotly debated subject that has or should have the attention of every camp director and food service director. Camp cooking is exposed to a wide spectrum of vegetarian and meatless needs, and there are creative menu alternatives — ways to plan for vegetarian groups and staff without breaking the budget and at the same time keep everyone happy.

Most people in the United States who claim to be vegetarians fall into the category of lacto-ovo vegetarian, which excludes meat, poultry, and fish but includes eggs and dairy. There are many other variations, including vegan, and each camp cook needs to work into his or her menu and budget a vegetarian or meatless alternative if it is requested.

Many cooks find that the simplest way to provide for vegetarians is to serve main meal items separately. For instance, when serving spaghetti and meatballs, serve noodles with marinara (red and meatless) sauce in one dish, and serve the meatballs in another dish. Those who do not want meatballs can have spaghetti with parmesan cheese, and anyone else desiring meatballs can add them to his or her own plate. If there are enough requests or an entire group requests a vegetarian alternative, prepare some textured vegetable protein (TVP) meatballs or a TVP sauce.

Reasons for being a vegetarian
There are many reasons people choose a vegetarian diet or are told to eat a meatless diet, and everyone in the food service and customer service industry needs to not only be aware of these needs but be happy and willing to provide alternative food items.

Some of these reasons include:

  • Health (heart disease, cancer, diabetes, etc.)
  • Ethical
  • Animal rights
  • Factory farming
  • Religion
  • Ecology
  • World hunger
  • Dislike the taste of meat
  • Family or friend influence
  • Allergic to meat
  • Economics or budget

Common foods that are vegetarian
Many people eat vegetarian or meatless foods without even realizing they are eliminating meat for a particular meal. Nutritionists have determined that avoiding meat or animal products one day a week can significantly improve the health of normal individuals. With the help of the following foods, people can enjoy a meatless meal once in awhile — pizza, French fries, salad, carrot sticks, raisins, peanut butter, cottage cheese, macaroni and cheese, cereal, pasta, bean burritos, pancakes and waffles, grilled cheese, oatmeal, eggs, ice cream, and milk.

Uncommon foods that are vegetarian
Most non-vegetarians are not interested in trying uncommon foods like tofu, soybean milk, tempeh, bean sprouts, and some beans, but they could benefit from the dietary advantages.

Nutrition concerns in the vegetarian diet
The major concern nutritionists have with vegetarians is their intake of protein — a necessary nutrient for daily living. However, the National Center for Nutrition and Dietetics of The American Dietetic Association (216 West Jackson Blvd., Chicago, IL 60606-6995) has recently issued a nutrition fact sheet on vegetarian diets that states, “Vegetarians do not need to worry about combining foods as the old ‘complementary protein theory’ advised. The body will make its own complete protein if a variety of foods and enough calories are eaten during the day.”

This concept of combining two incomplete proteins, such as beans and rice, together to form a complete protein is still advisable in general consideration, especially if the proper variety of foods is not being eaten.

Food sources for calcium, iron, vitamins B-12 and D are readily available for vegetarians in plant foods — with studies showing that vegetarians absorb and retain more calcium from foods than non-vegetarians do. Calcium can be found in dark, leafy greens such as kale, mustard and collard greens, bok choy, broccoli, beans, and tofu. Additionally, lacto-vegetarians can get plenty of calcium from skim milk, nonfat yogurt, and low-fat cheeses.

Iron can be found in dried beans, dark-green vegetables like spinach and beet greens, dried fruits, prune juice, and fortified breads and cereals. Nutritionists recommend eating iron-rich foods with vitamin C sources (citrus fruits or juices, broccoli, tomatoes, green or red pepper) to help the body absorb the iron from plant sources.

Vitamin B-12 is found in all foods of animal origin including eggs and dairy products, and an adequate intake of vitamin B-12 is generally not a concern for vegetarians who eat some dairy products or eggs. Strict vegetarians or vegans, however, may need to supplement the diet by choosing a fortified breakfast cereal or by taking a vitamin B-12 (cobalamin) supplement at no more than 100 percent of the RDA for B-12.

The importance of vitamin B-12 intake is crucial to understand, as its role in the production of red blood cells and anemia consequences can affect the body’s ability to create and maintain the oxygen-carrying elements in the blood.

Nutritionists and doctors agree that anyone interested in embarking on a new diet of any proportion should consult and work with a licensed nutrition, dietician, or physician to achieve maximum health and success.

For the camp food service director and cooks, concerns for a healthy diet and variety of foods offered for all campers, regardless of special dietary needs or wants, should be exercised with love and willingness to serve all who come into the dining room.

Viki Kappel Spain is currently the food service director for the Valley of the Sun YMCA Camp Chauncey Ranch located in the high chaparral above Phoenix, Arizona, and has been cooking in the camping industry since 1985. She is the author of numerous journal articles and The Camp Kitchen Guidebook, available through the American Camping Association Bookstore at, or you can visit her Web site at What kind of vegetarian are you?


Originally published in the 2002 September/October issue of Camping Magazine.