Just like parents back home, residential camps face the challenge of how to best feed their kids. Healthy food is key, but so is making sure campers actually eat. And just like home, not every meal appeals to every child. So how do camps do it?

A handful of camp directors described their approaches – and shared some camper favorites at mealtime.

Steven and Brooke Bernstein own and direct Poland Spring’s Camp North Star. For the 150 kids served by the co-ed camp, Steven said they seek a balance of “healthy food that’s also kid-friendly.”

That means eliminating fatty and processed foods. It means grilling and baking. No soda, no candy, no drinks with high fructose corn syrup.

“Luckily for us, kids are used to eating healthy foods,” he said. “We want to give campers a lot of knowledge about what’s healthy and what’s less healthy.”

Bernstein said he and the camp’s head chef set the menu. Mondays are cookout night; Tuesdays, taco night. Entrees include chicken, turkey, pasta and beef. Pasta is an option at every lunch and dinner. So is the salad bar. And kids always have a vegetarian option.

The camp also tries to expand kids’ food horizons. “Mediterranean Night” takes place twice a summer, and kids can enjoy lemon chicken, falafel, tabouli, and rice pudding for dessert.

On the last night of each session, campers get to choose what they eat: steak, chicken marsala, grilled salmon or a vegetarian option.

Kids who get hungry during the day also have options. Bowls of fresh fruit are available all day, Bernstein said. The camp also serves an afternoon snack.

“They’re active. They need to be well-fed.”

At West End House Camp in Parsonsfield, a traditional boys’ camp serving between 120 and 130 boys, director Steve Lepler said campers eat “kid-friendly, healthy food.”

“We don’t pretend to be gourmet,” he said. “But it’s healthy, hearty food that kids like.” That means a full salad bar and a side table with an alternative meal option if the main course doesn’t appeal. The camp serves a variety of ethnic foods as well as a traditional favorite: Thanksgiving dinner.

Another favorite is “Egg McWest End,” said Lepler. Friday night is pizza night. “They look forward to that,” Lepler said.

And a banquet at the end of each session means a buffet, including chicken parmesan, baked ham, and fettucine alfredo.

At co-ed Hidden Valley Camp in Freedom, Peter Kassen serves as director with his wife, Meg. Kassen said the camp seeks to offer a variety of fresh and natural food, “with as much prepped at camp as possible.” Campers are encouraged to try new foods, like Indian and Jamaican offerings.

“I have had parents tell me their kids said the camp food is better than at home,” Kassen said. Of course, cooking on an institutional scale – the camp serves 250 kids per session –allows more variety than home, he adds.

The camp offers a “huge salad bar,” he said; makes its own granola, and prepares free-range eggs. Afternoon snacks include popcorn and granola bars, plus natural soda or seltzer water.

“It’s fresh and wholesome,” Kassen said. “Kids get accustomed to it.”

Favorite meals? Pizza night ranks among them, Kassen said. But he said the real pleasure comes simply from “sharing a good meal with friends.”

In Raymond, at girls’ Camp Wawenock, director Catriona Sangster said feeding campers requires
a balance between offering healthy food and “wanting to make sure they are eating.”

But the art of nourishing campers has evolved, she said. “Years ago, a lot of what we were serving was ‘pre-fab.’ We’ve gone to much more scratch cooking. It’s a healthier thing for kids.”

Girls have their preferences, though. “When I tried to take chicken patties off the menu, I almost had a revolt on my hands,” Sangster laughed. So the occasional chicken patty or chicken nugget still appears on the camp menu.

Still, the camp tries to introduce new different foods, Sangster said.

“We know that in seven weeks we’re not going to change habits instilled at home,” she said. “But we have an opportunity in an environment where there is a lot of peer influence and role modeling with staff.”

Sangster said Camp Wawenock takes advantage of local produce from Raymond’s Mulberry Farms, which means a greater variety of vegetable offerings. The camp also has something called “no, thank you helpings” – small servings of foods girls are encouraged to try even if they are reluctant.

Standard favorite foods include macaroni and cheese, lasagna, and, as at West End House Camp, Thanksgiving dinner.

“Kids like different things,” Sangster said. “It’s good to have variety.”

Camp is a high-activity environment, and camp directors know they have to nourish kids with healthy and appealing menus. That can be a balancing act.

But with plenty of choices, a chance to experiment, and some old stand-bys like a traditional turkey dinner, kids in camps across Maine this summer will sit in dining halls with friends and staff to enjoy community and carefully prepared meals to fuel their fun.“