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Serving up vegetarian: a matter of understanding.

I am not a vegetarian and I don't think I ever will be. In fact, I used to think of anyone who chose to eat differently as a "problem." I've since opened my mind to learn more about vegetarians and have become a better camp food service manager because of it.

My first summer at camp I developed a negative attitude toward vegetarians. Not only did I have to figure out how to feed 150 campers, I also had to feed a handful of vegetarian and vegan staff members.

I had never before thought about individuals who chose an alternate diet and I certainly viewed it as an inconvenience. Every time I saw a vegetarian that summer I felt as if I were being attacked by some holistic monster who was out to make me miserable until September. I resisted the thought of trying to please vegetarians because in my mind there was no pleasing them.

Imagine how the food service staff reacted to my attitude. They talked about vegetarians as if they were a poisonous bacteria growth. My staff's attitude eventually became worse than mine.

The second summer was similar, but I tried harder. I let vegetarians select from a small list of items, such as yogurt or nuts, at each meal. We worked out a time when vegetarian staff members could use the cookout house to cook items for themselves. The food service staff froze the meals and agreed to serve them later. Sometimes we forgot to thaw and heat the meals and other times there wasn't enough to serve all the vegetarians.

Out of frustration I decided it was time to educate myself and spend some time talking to vegetarians. I began to learn about their views and exactly how my camp food service staff could support them. After a year of research, my attitude and views changed. I presented myself with a personal and professional challenge to make a difference the next summer.

About vegetarians

The term vegetarian was coined in 1847. The word is derived from the Latin vegetus, meaning whole, sound, fresh, and lively. Before 1847, non-meat eaters were known as Pythagoreans, after the ancient Greek vegetarian, Pythagoras.

There's more to a vegetarian diet than a no-meat rule. In fact there are several types of vegetarians:

* Vegans avoid eggs, dairy products, honey, and all foods that contain any animal by-product.

* Lacto-ovo vegetarians include eggs and milk in their diet.

* Lacto vegetarians do not eat eggs; they do drink milk and eat milk products such as butter and cheese.

* Ovo vegetarians do not drink milk; they do eat eggs and egg products.

People choose a vegetarian diet for many different reasons, including religious faith, health concerns, compassion for animals, concern for the treatment of animals, or simply being unable to afford meat.

Creating a vegetarian menu

Creating a vegetarian menu was difficult at first. At the same time I was learning why I couldn't use chicken bouillon in vegetarian gravy or soup, I was also becoming aware of eating trends in the general population, such as less red meat. My job was to figure out the best way to meet everyone's nutritional needs and diet preferences.

I began what I called Project V. I collected vegetarian recipes. The camp invested in vegetarian cook-books. Once a week I cooked a new recipe and asked the staff to taste and critique it. I stayed with recipes that didn't add a lot of additional cost and that used products I had in stock.

My supervisor and I discussed guidelines and standards for a vegetarian menu.

We decided it was too difficult to accommodate vegans in our menu, but we welcomed them to store items in the kitchen to supplement their meals.

Campers and staff who preferred not to eat red meat could eat the vegetarian option when red meat was etarian option when red meat was served. We asked campers and staff to choose which menu option they wanted for the camp session: vegetarian, vegetarian only when the main option is red meat, or the main menu option. To help us plan, everyone had to stick with their option the whole session. Though it was a challenge for my staff to make the time to prepare it, we had a vegetarian option every day.

Sources of information

There are many good books on vegetarianism. Two that helped me are Diet for a Small Planet by Frances Moore Lappe and Laurel's Kitchen by Laurel Robertson, Carol Flinders, and Bronwen Godfrey. My favorite vegetarian cookbook is Vegetarian Recipes by Better Homes and Gardens. Moosewood Cookbook by Mollie Katzen is also worth the investment.

The World Wide Web is another great place to look for vegetarian recipes and information. One of the most prominent indexes of on-line vegetarian information is the Vegetarian Pages,

The American Dietetic Association also has information about vegetarianism. Find the association online at or call 800-366-1655.

About three years ago I hired a cook who had a negative attitude toward vegetarians. When we talked about the problem I discovered it was due to her lack of knowledge. She set a goal to try new recipes; now she also enjoys cooking vegetarian meals. Understanding more about vegetarian diets and why people choose to eat them can make all the difference for your food service staff.

RELATED ARTICLE: Campers with special dietary needs

Many young people have special dietary restrictions other than vegetarian, including diabetes, lactose intolerance, gluten intolerance, and allergies to specific foods.

Make it easier on your campers, food staff, counselors, and medical staff. On all camper enrollment forms, ask parents to indicate their camper's dietary preferences and restrictions. Keep it simple and explain that the information is to help the camper have a healthy, pleasant stay at camp.

"Please list any special dietary preferences or restrictions:

* vegetarian meals only

* no red meat

* no milk/dairy products

* no wheat products (please indicate allowed grains: _____)

* sugar restrictions (please indicate: _____)

* no shellfish

* no peanut butter/nuts

* other (please be specific: _____)

We will do our best to accommodate your camper's needs. Someone from the camp will contact you before the session with questions or to make special arrangement."

When an enrollment form indicates special dietary needs, the camp director should share the information with food service staff members. Decide which restrictions you cannot meet. For example, gluten (wheat) intolerant campers cannot eat regular pasta, products made from commercial mixes (including white bread), or sauces made with wheat flour. Fresh fruits, vegetables, and meat (without breading) are all okay. Call parents and discuss your regular menu, including special (e.g., vegetarian) options you plan to offer.

Together with the parent, decide if the camper will get enough calories and nutrients from the regular menu and snack offerings. If not, arrange for the parent to send special food items, such as frozen gluten-free bread, with the camper. Explain that you will offer a special place in the kitchen for the camper's items.

Also alert counselors and medical staff to a camper's dietary restrictions. Young people sometimes feel uncomfortable being "different" and they might cheat on their diet instead of what they perceive as making a big deal out of it. This is especially true during cookouts and snacks away from the dining hall. Make sure staff know common reactions to food allergies, such as diarrhea, stomach cramps, rash, and in some cases seizures.

Remember that young people don't like to be put on the spot in front of peers, so help staff know how to handle situations that might arise when a camper has dietary restrictions or preferences. Examples of situations: campers making fun, wanting to know more about a food allergy or diet choice, pressuring a camper to try a food, or a camper wanting to veer from the diet to "fit in."

Camp is for everyone, including those with special diets. When staff members pitch in to get campers the food they need, campers can concentrate on all the other good stuff at camp.

Cindy France is the food service manager for Camp Algonquin. She is the co-founder of Food Service Education Resource and Support Association. Members from Illinois and Wisconsin share information about food safety, hiring and training good employees, and many other food service issues.
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Title Annotation:includes related article on special diets; camps
Author:France, Cindy
Publication:Camping Magazine
Date:May 1, 1997
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