Summer is here and that means lots of kids are headed off to day camp! Yay! They are playing games, crafting, learning new skills and … eating lunch with new friends.
RRRRRRRRRRK! [That is supposed to be the sound of a record scratching to a halt. Remember records? Those kids you are sending off to day camp probably don’t even know what they are. Yes, you are old now.]
Lunches? Really? I thought we were done with that on the last day of school. And I bet there are some of you out there who don’t even have to pack a lunch during the school year because your kids eat in the cafeteria every day. Am I right?
The good news is that packing lunches for camp isn’t that much different than packing lunches for school. But there are a few special things about camp lunches you might want to keep in mind as you start loading up those backpacks with tasty on-the-go meals for your kiddos:
Ice Packs and Thermal Lunch Bags
Safety first! And in the summer that almost always means keeping food cold enough. Harmful bacteria multiply rapidly when food temperatures are in the danger zone — between 40 and 140 °F (4.4 °C and 60 °C) — and that bacteria can make people sick. We definitely don’t want our kids to suffer from upset tummies, so perishable food needs to be packed in thermal lunch bags and kept cold with ice packs.
A single ice pack will almost never keep a lunch cold enough — particularly if backpacks or lunch boxes sit in the sun for any length of time — so you should always pack at least two ice packs in your lunch bags. If you want you can swap one of the ice packs for a frozen juice box or a frozen smoothie that you’ve packed into a reusable food pouch.
Other tips to keep food cold:
- If you pack lunches the night before and refrigerate them over night it will help keep them cold longer. Even better you can pack them right into the lunch bag and refrigerate that too for extra cold-osity.
- If you pack lunches in the morning, pop your lunch containers and lunch bags in the freezer for a few minutes while you prep the food. When you put everything together the containers will already be cold and your ice packs won’t have to work to chill the box and bag in addition to the food.
Read the Rules
Always read the food rules for the camps your kids attend and be sure to follow them! Some camps ban all tree nuts in lunches, some don’t. Some only ban peanuts. Other camps have rules about keeping kosher or vegetarian food. In my experience here in California, there are very few camps that don’t have at least one or two rules about food.
Knowing our camp’s rules — and respecting them — is a no-brainer for me. My kid’s desire for a peanut butter and jelly sandwich does not even approach the importance of keeping other children safe and healthy. And it’s also no fun for kids to have items from their lunches confiscated when a parent breaks a food rule.
If your kid is a PB&J addict, try swapping out the peanut butter in her sandwiches for sunflower seed butter or cream cheese.
Other food safety tips to keep in mind:
- Read the labels on packaged snacks carefully to make sure they don’t contain nuts or other banned allergens. I’ve found chocolate chip granola bars are often a safe snack choice.
- If you eat peanut butter or other nuts at breakfast, take a second to have your kids wash their hands and faces before they head to camp. This will keep them from smearing allergens on tables, toys and other objects that are handled by lots of people.
In my experience, kids get hungrier at camp than they do at school. They exert far more energy shooting baskets and playing tag than they do sitting in a classroom all day, so I like to give them snacks with protein to help sustain them. Some ideas for protein rich snacks:
- veggies with hummus for dipping
- yogurt (especially Greek yogurt)
- rolled up strips of deli meat
- hard-boiled eggs
- bean or meat-filled taquitos with salsa for dipping (I buy these in the freezer section of the grocery store)
- chicken or turkey sausage with bbq sauce or catsup for dipping
- tortilla chips and bean dip
- sliced cheese and crackers
Don’t Forget Snacks
On the subject of snacks, many camps ask that parents provide morning or afternoon snack for their children in addition to their lunches. (If you go to a camp that provides snacks for kids, I bow to your wisdom and camp-choosing-abilities.) When I pack snacks for my boys, I like to separate them out into separate containers so they don’t have to unpack their entire lunch to eat them. I also like to keep some pre-packaged items for this purpose on hand:
- apple sauce pouches
- granola and cereal bars
- individual cups of olives
- seaweed snacks
- single serve packs of crackers
- string cheese
Consider a Divided Lunch Box
Another thing you might consider is investing in a lunch box with built in dividers. There are a couple of reasons for this:
First, one pretty common practice at summer camps is to have kids throw their lunch bags in a big bin first thing in the morning. That bin gets carted — and bumped — around all day as it’s moved from one activity to the next. A sturdy, divided lunch box keeps food from getting squished and also helps prevent it from mixing together.
And even if this isn’t a practice at your child’s camp, it’s worth it to have one big lunch box so your kids don’t have to worry about losing lots of small containers and lids in the chaos of lunch time. Bonus: parents don’t have to wash a million little containers and lids every night.
Some divided lunch boxes I like:
Figure out which one of these is best for your family using this handy chart.
Push the Water
Don’t forget to pack a water bottle! Active kids out in the hot sun are a recipe for dehydration. Make drinking water easy and appealing by packing a bottle that will keep water cool as long as possible. I like to use stainless steel thermal bottles because they’re free of sketchy chemicals and they keep water cold for a long time.
My family’s favorite style is the PlanetBox Bottle Rocket. This bottle is super-effective at keeping water chilled. I’ve put ice cubes in our Bottle Rocket in the morning, and they were still banging around in there at the end of the day. They were smaller, sure, but the fact that they weren’t completely melted was pretty remarkable. The only downside of the Bottle Rocket is that the $28 price is pretty steep, so if you’d like a lower priced, but still pretty good option, I recommend the Thermos Funtainer. It also does a good job keeping drinks cool and it has lots of fun character decoration options for younger kids.
Other tips to trick your kids into drinking their water:
- Stick the bottle in the freezer while you are packing the rest of the lunch to give it a little extra chill
- If your kid isn’t an enthusiastic water drinker, consider adding a couple slices of fruit to make it taste more juice-like. Lemons and limes are obvious choices, but a sliced strawberry or some lightly mashed raspberries or blueberries are yummy too. And I can’t speak for all kids, but one of my boys loves it when I add a cucumber slice to his water. Fancy!
Finally, remember to label your lunch gear. Lots of lunch boxes look alike so make sure you put your kids’ names on things so they can tell their lunches apart from their friends’ and so all that expensive gear comes home. You can use a sharpie to label things, but I’ve found that even the most “permanent” of pen marks wears off eventually in the dishwasher. A few years ago I invested in a big pack of personalized labels with our last name on them from Mabel’s Labels and it was money well spent. I put these labels on every single piece of lunch gear I send to camp (and school) so that when items are inevitably forgotten I can easily retrieve them from the lost and found. (They are good for sweatshirts too.)
Do you have any tips for packing lunches for day camp?
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