The end of another school year has arrived! Day trips to zoos, theme parks, baseball stadiums and water parks are all fun ways to relax and enjoy the weather. Other kids may be getting ready for what is for many a summer rite of passage—the sleepaway summer camp. Trips like these are part of what makes for great summer memories, but the gluten-free diet presents a set of challenges for both kids and parents. With a little planning and research, however, these trips can be the highlight of your family’s summer.
A week without worry
Gluten-free summer camps can provide peace of mind to parents that food won’t be an issue when their kids are away from home. For the kids, it also provides a chance to take a break from being different than others due to their diet. “Gluten-free kids are used to being the odd ones out at school or birthday parties,” shares Laura Hahn Carroll, chef at Camp Celiac in Rhode Island. “At our camp, they don’t have to think about being gluten free the whole week. They just get to enjoy.”
Since July 2000, Camp Celiac has been treating gluten-free kids to a week without worries about food. “We don’t talk about being gluten free at all. The kids don’t take seminars or classes,” Hahn Carroll shares. “They hike and fish and boat and play fun team-oriented games.” Hahn Carroll also relishes watching the bonds that campers create over the week: “There are no cliques here with cool kids or jocks. The kids are all best friends; it’s such an awesome thing to see.”
While gluten-free food isn’t the focus of the week, that’s not to say it isn’t important. “Kids who are new to the camp are surprised at their choices,” says Hahn Carroll. “For example, we have a pizza party, a pasta bar and cookies at any time of day.” She recalls one little girl sharing that this was the first time she could ever safely steal a donut off a friend’s plate.
Hahn Carroll has been gluten free herself for many years and understands what goes into providing safe dining experiences for the campers. Because the camp hosts other groups over the summer, advanced planning goes into making sure the kitchen is ready to go when kids arrive. “We sanitize the kitchen top to bottom twice before the camp begins, and we bring all our equipment—our pots and pans, strainers and spatulas. They are all wrapped in plastic in a separate room,” she says. “We have exclusive use of the kitchen that week.” She also selects her staff carefully. “My assistant chefs are all former campers who know what it takes. It’s an amazing experience for them to come back as an adult and see what camp does for these kids.”
Research supports the positives that Hahn Carroll sees at the camp. A 2010 study found that children who attended gluten-free camps showed improvements in quality of life, specifically how they viewed themselves, emotional adjustment and well-being. The study found the most positive effects in kids who had been gluten free for fewer than four years.
If a gluten-free summer camp isn’t in the cards, it’s still possible for kids to have a safe, fun experience. Start researching options early, encourages Mary Kay Sharrett, registered dietitian nutritionist at Nationwide Children’s Hospital Celiac Disease Center in Columbus, Ohio. “I advise parents to do a little homework and call the camp to see what ability they have to do gluten free. In this day and age, they’ve probably been asked that already.”
If the camp personnel you speak with have had experience with gluten-free campers, ask to review the menu for the week to see what options might work or where you can provide similar items:
- Can your child enjoy the fruit, vegetables, salads and beverages that other kids enjoy?
- Are there some specifically gluten-free-labeled cereals available at breakfast time?
- If you send food along with your child, can it be kept in an area of the freezer or refrigerator separate from other food?
- Is there a staff member that can assist your child in getting those items at mealtime?
- Are there special activities that involve food that you should be aware of such as cookouts, s’mores or craft projects?
It is also a good idea to get in touch with camp medical staff. Consider sending an information packet along with medical history and a list of symptoms your child might exhibit if he or she is accidentally exposed to gluten. Just like on any other day, it is important to remind your child not to trade food with other kids or eat foods that he or she is unsure about.
For little ones who may not be ready to stay away from home overnight, day camps can offer wonderful experiences. As with sleepaway camps, getting in touch beforehand is important. “Many day programs have kids bring their lunch,” says Sharrett. “Still, for really little ones, I recommend considering a pin or a button that says ‘I’m gluten free’ to help remind the staff.” She also advises parents to ask if food is part of craft projects, recalling one camp that had kids make cereal necklaces and allowed them to eat their creations. “If there is any doubt, provide a safe alternative item.”
Parking it gluten free
A day trip to a theme park or water park can be a fun getaway when time is short, but some parks are more accommodating to gluten-free customers than others. For Tracie Baker from Bellefontaine, Ohio, planning ahead is the key to making sure her 15-year-old daughter, Dharma, can eat safely. “The worst thing is to arrive at your destination and find out that you have little to no options. That will make for a miserable trip for everyone,” she says.
Baker and her family have visited several water parks in Ohio and found that Great Wolf Lodge in Sandusky had menu options: “Dharma has food allergies beyond celiac disease, so we always have fewer choices than other families might have, but we make it work.” Baker always requests a room with a refrigerator or microwave for her family if they are staying overnight, and they pack most of their food. “Great Wolf had fruit options for breakfast that could supplement what we brought along and even had a nice restaurant that had eggs,” Baker says. “They had cleaned everything before they fixed her breakfast so as not to contaminate.”
Great Wolf locations feature the Lodge Wood Fired Grill restaurant with clearly labeled gluten-free items on its menu, from entrées to side dishes, appetizers and Mason jar salads. French fries, sweet potato fries and calamari are all prepared in dedicated gluten-free fryers. Deemed a “gold standard” destination by the website Allergy Eats (allergyeats.com), Great Wolf has 13 locations in the U.S. and one in Canada.
Several theme parks can accommodate gluten-free guests, most notably Disney World. “Disney was doing it right long before anyone knew about gluten free,” states Pamela Cureton, registered dietitian nutritionist at the Center for Celiac Research and Treatment at Massachusetts General Hospital. “Twenty years ago, a child could go to Disney and get treated with meals that were safe and delicious.” Cureton experienced the magic of Disney’s gluten-free meals herself when she recently attended a workshop at the park. “They had a regular buffet and a gluten-free buffet. The chef came out to speak with me when I had questions and even showed me what brand of pasta they used. They do a fantastic job.” Cureton also recommends Hersheypark in Pennsylvania: “They have lots of selections, such as gluten-free buns, chicken tenders, pizza and French fries, in several places in the park.”
Making it work
Many well-known theme parks across the country can easily serve gluten-free guests, but how should you deal with a park or a zoo that offers limited options? Sharrett recommends calling ahead to see whether food can be brought in a cooler. “The Columbus [Ohio] Zoo will allow you to bring in food if you have a medical reason,” Sharrett says. “They don’t have a lot of gluten-free options at the zoo beyond the GoPicnic meals available in the kiosks.” Zoombezi Bay, the water park adjacent to the zoo, has different rules than the zoo itself. “Zoombezi will hold the coolers at the gate and then let you go back and eat in the zoo. It’s a good reminder to know what the rules are, even for parks that are right next door to each other,” instructs Sharrett.
Baker also suggests not going to a theme park or zoo too hungry. “We always try to get Dharma a good meal before going to the parks just to be safe,” she says. “If we plan to be there all day, we take food with us.” (For tips on stocking your day trip cooler, see “Keeping it cooler” sidebar.)
Cureton also recommends checking if there is a local celiac support group in the area of the theme park or zoo that may have suggestions on gluten-free food options in the park or conveniently located restaurants. “Utilize the websites of the parks, utilize phone apps, even old issues of gluten-free magazines that feature individual cities or destinations,” she says.
What would summer break be without the nation’s favorite pastime? Ballparks carry naturally gluten-free items like cotton candy, Cracker Jacks, nuts, bottled water and soda. In recent years, nearly all Major League Baseball parks have expanded their options to include a variety of choices. Some are located in specific gluten-free carts, like at Coors Field, home of the Colorado Rockies, which offers hot dogs, hamburgers, chicken sandwiches, cookies, brownies and Redbridge beer. Nationals Park, home of the Washington Nationals, sells its gluten-free items in one section of the park. Others sprinkle gluten-free options in various stands throughout the stadium. Research where these items are located before the game—it may even help you determine the best place for your family to sit. Visit the website of the individual ballpark or other resources such as Urban Taste Bud (urbantastebud.com) for more information.
No matter how you plan to spend the lazy days of summer—whether it be fun in the sun at a water park, a visit to the zoo, or behind home plate—planning ahead for safe gluten-free eating can make relaxation the most important point on your agenda.
Packing for your gluten-free camper*
- Shelf-stable meals (like GoPicnic)
- Nuts (if allowed by camp rules)
- Snack bars (i.e., Kind, Lärabar)
- Cold cereal
- Pudding and/or fruit cups
- Pretzels and/or chips
- Pop-tab cans or pouches of chicken or tuna
- Beef jerky (check label to ensure it’s gluten free)
Keeping it cooler
Pack your family’s cooler for a day trip with a variety of these safe and satisfying options.
- Hummus and gluten-free pretzels or sliced veggies
- Chips and salsa
- Fresh fruit, either whole or sliced
- Pudding cups
- Protein bars (keep them cool, especially when it’s hot outside)
- Pop-tab or pouches of tuna or chicken
- Yogurt tubes (freeze them before you go)
- Sliced lunch meat; try rolling them up with veggies inside (sliced peppers work great)
- Cheese sticks or cubes
- Sandwiches made with gluten-free bread or tortillas—or skip the bread and use lettuce as a wrap
- Trail mix (make your own with your favorite nuts, gluten-free cereal, gluten-free pretzels, dried fruit and chocolate chips)
Don’t forget to stock your cooler with plenty of ice or ice packs, water bottles (add ice or freeze them), hand sanitizer and wet wipes, silverware, napkins, plates and a small bag for trash.
-By Amy Jones, M.S., R.D., L.D.