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Summer Camp: Selecting the Best Option for your Gluten-Free Kid

Tips for sending your child to summer camp.

School’s out and summer is finally here! You know what that means – summer camp is right around the corner. Going to camp is a rite of passage for kids and those on a gluten-free diet shouldn’t miss out on any of the fun. Use this tip sheet to make sure your kid enjoys every minute of summer camp – while staying gluten-free.

Choosing a Summer Camp

Before you can select a summer camp, you first have to think about your child’s health needs, Kids at Campmaturity level and comfort with the gluten-free diet. Are they still learning the ropes? Do they try to sneak gluten-containing foods on occasion? Are they experienced with the gluten-free diet and successful in selecting appropriate options? No matter which stage of the game your kid is in, you can find a summer camp to best suit their needs.

The Dedicated Gluten-Free Summer Camp

You might be surprised by the number of gluten-free summer camps available. Sending your child to a dedicated gluten-free camp will not only give you both peace of mind, but you’ll help give your child the confidence they need to continue normal activities. Since a new diagnosis of celiac disease or non-celiac gluten sensitivity (‘gluten sensitivity’) can be upsetting for a child, knowing they can still participate in the same activities they used to enjoy will be a big comfort to them. Plus, they’ll be with other kids living gluten-free, which reinforces the fact they are not alone in their diagnosis.

A quick Google search will show camps across the country and you can also find several suggestions in the Gluten-Free Summer Camp List from Beyond Celiac, found on Kids Central.

Day Camp

Day camps are a great alternative to overnight camp, especially for a child with a new diagnosis or who isn’t comfortable eating camp-prepared meals. They will still be close to home and you’ll be able to pack them a gluten-free lunch and snack to take with them. They’ll still get to have fun and you’re still in control of the food. It’s a win-win for you and your kid!

Overnight Camp

With food allergies on the rise, many summer camps are attuned to the special dietary needs of kids and those needing a gluten-free diet are being accommodated more now than ever. While dedicated gluten-free camps are available, there are camps that can safely accommodate your child’s needs by using a dedicated gluten-free kitchen or implementing gluten-free safety protocols in a shared kitchen.

A camp that serves both gluten-free and gluten-containing foods can be a great opportunity for your child to get experience asking questions and choosing the right foods. It can provide real-life scenarios they’ll encounter in a gluten-filled world, but camp staff members can be there to help. Make sure to review the do’s and don’ts ahead of time!

Prepping the Camp Staff

No matter which camp option you choose, it’s still best to get in touch with the camp as far in advance as possible to discuss your child’s needs. It’s also a good idea to keep a running list of questions before you call the camp, this way you won’t forget anything. Here’s a sample list of questions to get you started:

  • Do you accommodate gluten-free needs?
  • What gluten-free options do you offer?
  • How will my child’s food be protected from cross-contamination?
  • Has anyone in your foodservice department completed a gluten-free training program, such as NFCA’s GREAT Schools, Colleges and Camps?
  • Can I send my child with gluten-free snacks?
  • I don’t want my child to miss out on any of the camp experience. Can I send them with gluten-free alternatives for the camp traditions, like making s’mores?
  • Are there other gluten-free campers attending?
  • Who should my child speak to if they feel sick or uncomfortable eating the food that is provided?

Prepping your Child

Campers getting foodAs you’ve quickly learned, the key to successfully maintaining a gluten-free diet is preparation. Once you’ve ensured the camp is suited to accommodate your child’s needs, it’s time to talk to your child to answer their questions and make sure they feel comfortable heading off to camp.

Remind them why they need to stay gluten-free.
It’s natural for kids to be tempted to cheat on the gluten-free diet, so it’s important to make sure they understand why they are gluten-free, especially if the diagnosis is fairly new to them. Remind them how sick they felt before and how much better they are while eating gluten-free. They don’t want to be sick and miss out on all the fun, right?

Send them with resources.
Even if your child is getting the hang of the gluten-free diet, it’s still a good idea to send them with a mini cheat sheet of off-limits and good-to-go foods in case they have any doubts. Remember, the smaller in size the cheat sheet, the better. This way, your kid will be more likely to use it and not embarrassed by carrying around bulky papers.

Introduce them to the camp counselor and foodservice director.
When it’s time to drop your child off at camp, be sure to find the camp foodservice director or dietitian your child should go see if they need anything. This way, your child will be comfortable talking to them on their own and the foodservice director/dietitian will recognize them come meal time.

Camp Care Packages

With all the preparation for making sure your child’s gluten-free needs are met, don’t forget about the basic essentials! Here’s a cheat-sheet for Mom and Dad on what to pack for your child’s summer camp trip*:

  • Toiletries: soap, shampoo, conditioner, lotion, deodorant, toothbrush/toothpaste
  • Sunblock and lip balm
  • Bug spray
  • Sleeping bag, pillow, blanket
  • Nail clippers
  • Sneakers and plenty of socks
  • Bathing suit
  • Pool towels
  • Shower shoes
  • Wash cloths and bath towels
  • Hat and sunglasses
  • Umbrella/raincoat/poncho
  • Light jacket
  • Sports gear (baseball gloves, tennis rackets, etc.)
  • Medications/prescriptions
  • Re-useable water bottle
  • Flashlight
  • Backpack
  • Laundry bag
  • T-shirts, shorts, underwear, tank tops
  • Hair brush
  • Gluten-free snacks (if the camp allows)
    • Snack bars
    • Dried fruit
    • Nuts and seeds
    • Candy
    • Gluten-free pretzels/crackers
    • Fruit snacks
    • Cookies or brownie snack packs

*All camps have different rules on what campers can and cannot bring. This is a general list of suggestions.

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