Food-savvy Jewish camps move toward healthier, more nutritious options

Food-savvy Jewish camps move toward healthier, more nutritious options

Campers at Camp Young Judaea Midwest will be enjoying healthier breakfasts this summer. (Photo provided by Noah Gallagher)
Campers at Camp Young Judaea Midwest will be enjoying healthier breakfasts this summer. (Photo provided by Noah Gallagher)

The focus on food at Jewish camps this summer is shifting from fun to nutritious, with more and more camps directing resources to cater to the specific food requirements of individual campers with food allergies and sensitivities.

While kids headed to Jewish day and overnight camps still can look forward to those familiar delicacies that help define summer — popsicles, s’mores and ice cream — they will also be treated to more healthy food choices that camp officials say are being requested by parents and campers alike.

The mantra in the kitchen at Camp Young Judaea Midwest (CYJ) in Waupaca, Wis., for example, is “produce, produce, produce,” said camp director Noah Gallagher.

“There is a strong push from parents and kids for more fruits and vegetables,” he explained, noting that a salad bar is offered every day at both lunch and dinner, and fresh fruit is served every morning for breakfast.

And a “never-ending fruit bowl” is available to the campers all day, said Robin Anderson, the camp’s associate director and supervisor of the kitchen.

The CYJ kitchen is dedicated to creating a variety of options, Gallagher said, adding that the camp works to accommodate a wide range of food allergies and dietary restrictions while providing a variety of choices for the campers.

“That’s a challenge,” he said, “but that forces us to be creative with our options.”

Everyone is encouraged to try new foods, and the CYJ kitchen staff ensures that no one will leave a meal hungry or unsatisfied, even those with picky palates.

One way to do that, Gallagher said, is to keep things simple, but to offer ways to enhance a meal for those who opt to do so. For example, an entrée of pasta with basic marinara sauce would come with veggies on the side that a camper could select to add to the sauce to boost its flavor and nutrition.

“Kids who might not eat it if the vegetables were already mixed in the sauce might decide to add one mushroom or one carrot,” he said.

Camp snacks, according to Gallagher, are also moving toward more healthful options.

“Sure, we’ll do a bag of cookies, or chips and an apple once in a while,” he said. “But more often the chef will serve some homemade oatmeal bread, or half of a veggie sandwich with a piece of fruit. We are serving a lot less junk.”

And that “junk,” Gallagher said, includes fruit juice, which a decade ago was considered a healthy drink for children.

“Ten years ago, you wouldn’t say that juice and sugar water are the same thing, but they are,” he said. “We serve juice at breakfast, but that’s it. And we serve no bug juice,” the onetime go-to camp hydrator of flavored sugar water. “We just have water at the table.”

To ensure proper nutrition at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh’s James and Rachel Levinson Day Camp in Monroeville, proposed menus are sent off to dieticians in advance for review, said camp director Lewis Sohinki.

“The dieticians give us advice,” he said. “Sometimes we will add different pieces to the meal to make them more nutritious.” Snacks are also “very intentional.”

“We have to give the kids a popsicle before they get on the bus,” he said, “but that doesn’t mean they can’t also have a piece of fruit.”

At Camp Ramah in Canada in Utterson, Ontario, snacks have likewise become healthier, said Edit Rosen-stein, the camp’s director of finance and operation.

“In the past, on a hot day, a popsicle was it,” she said. “No more. Now we are trying to come up with snacks that are healthier options as well, like hummus and carrots. That is something that will fill the kids up.”

Some Jewish camps are making significant accommodations for those children with a sensitivity to gluten or who have been diagnosed with celiac disease, which has quadrupled in the United States in the last 50 years, according to a 2012 Mayo Clinic study.

Emma Kaufmann Camp in Morgantown, W. Va., is now in the process of creating a new gluten-free space for food preparation in its dining facility, said Sam Bloom, the camp’s director. More than 30 of the camp’s 850 campers require gluten-free food, he said.

“For the amount of kids we have who have that allergy, it was important,” Bloom said. “Those kids and staff will now go to a special window to get their food and will eat on separate plates and with separate silverware.”

At Camp Ramah in Canada, there is a kitchen staff member who is dedicated to ensure that those campers with food allergies or sensitivities are accommodated, said Rosenstein.

“It’s personalized,” she said, adding if one camper has an allergy to tomatoes, for example, and tomato sauce is being served as part of a meal, that kitchen staffer will ensure there is a tomato-free sauce option as well.

A food allergy board is present in the dining hall, she noted, that lists “red flag” ingredients in the foods offered at each meal, such as strawberries, eggs, or sesame seeds.

“That gives everybody an idea of what they’re eating,” Rosenstein said.

Kids are more educated about food these days, she continued, adding that a salad bar is available at every meal, with a variety of different proteins and produce.

Still, Rosenstein said, camp officials know that food also should be fun, and the camp holds special food events, such as twice weekly all-camp barbecues outside on the lawn, bringing together the entire camp community.

And what would summer camp be without ice cream?

“Sometimes, we will announce in Hebrew on the loud speaker, ‘Who wants ice cream?’” Rosenstein said. “The kids know then there is a really nice ice cream bar outside for everybody, with all the toppings.

“We have a balance,” she added, “between child-friendly and healthy.”

Toby Tabachnick can be reached at

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