Guide to Camping with Food AllergiesDeveloped by Amy McGovern, as part of a Woodbadge Ticket for WB 2121
Allergies are becoming more and more common among children and it is important that the children are safe so they can enjoy their scouting adventures. Food allergies can be life threatening with even a small amount of the allergen so anyone preparing the food must be very careful with food preparation. This guide was developed to help campers without food allergies to be able to cook for and with campers with food allergies. If you have never dealt with food allergies before, it can feel overwhelming and this guide will help you.
Top eight food allergies
The eight foods listed below account for an estimated 90% of food allergies.
- Tree nuts
The top eight food allergies are required to be listed on the label in food produced in the United States. They are not required on items they clearly do not contain them such as bananas or apples.
In addition to the foods listed above, many people are gluten free. Gluten is contained in wheat, rye, and barley. It is also present in oats unless they are specifically labeled gluten-free. The FDA has recently passed a gluten-free labeling law and this will assist people in buying gluten-free foods as long as they are not sensitive to trace amounts of gluten.
Involve the scout and/or parent in the planning
One of the key ingredients to success in camping with food allergies is to involve the scout in the planning process. If the scout is not old enough, involve the parents. The scout and his or her parents have been dealing with food allergies for a long time and will be a valuable resource in your planning. If you do not involve the scout and/or his or her parents, it is likely the scout will not go on the trip. Since safety is key and food allergies can be fatal, scouts with food allergies will frequently not camp if they do not feel safe.
There is no such thing as “just a little!”
Remember that there is no such thing as “just a little” for those with true anaphylactic allergies. While some people have food intolerances and can tolerate small amounts of a specific ingredient without being sick, it is best to assume that they had a true anaphylactic allergy if they have told you they are allergic to certain foods or ingredients in a mix or processed food item. A tiny trace of the food can kill so be very careful in reading ingredients. This is one big reason to involve the scout or the parent because they have experience at reading labels!
While the top eight food allergies are required to appear on the label of any food that you buy that is made in the United States, not all ingredients that contain gluten must be listed if the amounts are smaller than 20 parts per million of the gluten protein.
Your scout may have a food allergy that is unusual or that may not appear on the label in a straightforward manner. For example, although looking for wheat, rye, or barley on the label can identify the presence of gluten, it can show up in hidden ingredients such as malt or soy sauce which are both made from wheat, in filler added to hamburger, in emulsifiers or binders in foods such as sausage, “sea legs” or man-made crab meat, processed cheese, ice cream, and many other foods. In addition some people process artificial food ingredients as if they are gluten. A few examples are guar gum, dextrose, maltose, sorbital and polysorbate, among others.
Another example of a hidden food allergy item is garlic. Although some foods list it as garlic or garlic powder, others may simply say “spices” or “natural flavors.” It may be necessary to call or email food companies to ask about ingredients. Or, you can stick to what the scout and his or her parent state are safe food products. Parents of children with unusual allergies have done the legwork to call the companies and ensure safe ingredients! Consulting with them can save you time and possibly save the scout from an unpleasant food reaction or even a medical emergency.
Some scouts will have negative reactions to food dyes and thus their families carefully read labels to avoid ingesting them. Some examples follow. Annato, is “natural” and “organic” and it is known to cause allergic reactions. It is made from the seed pulp of a tropical tree. As a result food processing companies can label their products as “no artificial colors.” Red dye 40 (which is made from coal) can cause seizures, hives and allergies in sensitive individuals. ADHD, allergies, and asthma can result from Blue 1, Blue 2, Citrus Red, Green 3, Orange B, Red 3, Yellow 5, and Yellow 6. This list is not all inclusive. It cites some of the more common food ingredients that cause allergic reactions.
Bottom line: if you are dealing with an allergy that is not in the top eight, do not assume that the allergy ingredient is listed on the ingredient list. Work with the scout and parent to ensure you have safe ingredients.
You’ve done your homework and you bought ingredients for the food that satisfy the allergies. Depending on the situation, you may be cooking allergy friendly food at the same time or in the same location as food with the allergy ingredients. You need to be very careful about cross-contamination because it can undo all of the careful planning and purchasing described above.
- Clean surfaces: Be sure you are preparing the food on clean surfaces. For example, if you are cooking something with flour, it flies into the air and settles all around. If you have a scout allergic to wheat, you would need to cook that food in a separate area that would not come in contact with the wheat.
- Clean utensils and cooking equipment: Be sure that your utensils and cooking equipment have been thoroughly cleaned. This seems obvious but can be subtle. A Dutch oven is not thoroughly scrubbed usually and can contain traces of many past meals. This “seasoning” can cause cross-contamination with an allergy ingredient. Scouts love peanut butter but you need to be sure that the knife used to spread it is very clean before a scout who is allergic to peanuts uses it to cut his or her dinner.
- Don’t share utensils when cooking: If you do not have a food allergy, you probably will often share the same cooking spoon when stirring multiple pots. If you are cooking gluten-free pasta next to a pot with gluten pasta, be sure you have two separate spoons to stir. Use clean utensils for the allergy cooking and be sure not to share them with the other pots.
- Clean hands: Anyone who is cooking should have clean hands. It is doubly important with food allergies that you thoroughly wash your hands after touching any ingredient with allergies. For example, if you are preparing an item with peanut butter and do not wash your hands before preparing the non-peanut sandwich, there may be enough contamination to cause a reaction in a peanut allergic scout. “A Scout is clean!” This means that if you are cooking for scouts with allergies, expect to wash your hands a lot! Or, you can prepare the allergic scout’s sandwich first, bag it or plate it, and then prepare the other food.
Separate serving areas
You should have the option for a Scout to have a separate serving area and preparation area. This may not be needed for all food allergies but some children are so allergic to peanuts that they cannot even breathe the smell. Such children cannot sit next to a child who has a peanut butter sandwich or next to the preparation area for the peanut butter and waffle breakfast that everyone else is eating. Be prepared for this and have a solution that keeps the safety of the scout at the forefront while being as inclusive as possible.
It is really important that the scout feel included with the rest of the scouts. For food allergies, inclusivity comes in two forms.
- Serve together, when possible: At events such as summer camp where there is one common kitchen for everyone, prepare the food for the allergic scout in the kitchen following the guidelines above. Then, if possible, serve the food to the scout at the same time and in the same way as everyone else. For example, the allergic scout can wait in line with all of his friends and simply be handed a special tray with his own food. Allergic scouts are singled out enough and often just want to fit in with their friends. This keeps them safe and doesn’t single them out. This is not possible for some severely allergic children but it is a goal to strive for when it is safe for the child.
- Serve as close to what everyone else is eating as possible: try to match what you serve the allergic scout to what everyone else is getting, as much as possible. For example, if everyone else is eating fried chicken and your scout is allergic to wheat, serve that scout baked or boiled chicken, but don’t serve hamburger. This is a big part of being inclusive because the scout feels safe and yet part of the group.
Relax and make it fun!
The food allergic scout at your event is likely to be worried about the food and whether he or she will be safe. Simply telling the scout that you have it covered is not likely to relieve anxiety in any but the very youngest scouts. Treat these worries seriously and discuss the preparations you have taken to ensure that the scout is safe. Then, try to relax and make it as fun as possible. This will help you in preparing the foods and it will help the scout and other scouts around you to see that it is possible to safely include scouts with food allergies in camping!
Prepared but unsure what to cook? See our list of allergy friendly recipes (under development)!