How To Get Your Child To Stop Being a Picky Eater: Send Them To Summer Camp

Summer camp can help picky eaters be more adventurous at mealtimes.

Last year we had a camper who, on the first day of camp, insisted quite strongly that he didn’t like spaghetti. Unfortunately for him, our first night of camp is Spaghetti night. “Poor kid,” I thought to myself. But later that evening I saw this little boy devouring his serving of spaghetti and garlic toast. As soon as he’d cleaned his plate he asked me if he could have seconds. “I thought you didn’t like spaghetti,” I teased. “Well, this is camp spaghetti,” he replied matter-of-factly. “So it’s different.”

I see this time and time again at camp—kids claim they don’t like a certain food and then gobble it up five minutes later. Picky eating seems to be one of those issues that sometimes improves when kids spend some time away from parents and in a new, exciting environment. Summer camp is a great way for kids to get out of their comfort zones, break old habits, try new experiences, and taste new food.

Peer Influence and Modelling Affect Eating Habits

When kids go to camp, they suddenly find themselves in a whole new environment, surrounded by unfamiliar faces, and unfamiliar food. Sure, it can be disorienting, but it is also an incredible opportunity for growth. In order to make friends and fit in, kids tend to mimic the behavior of other kids—even in the dining hall. At Kennolyn, all of the campers eat meals together, giving them the opportunity to pay attention to each other’s eating habits. When they see so many of their peers enjoying foods they may typically avoid, they are often more inclined to try them themselves.

Do you ever notice that the way you eat changes depending on who you are eating with? It’s not uncommon for us as adults to adapt our eating behaviors to match those we are eating with. In the study, participants were paired with a model, who ate a certain quantity of food. When participants strongly identified with the model, they were more likely to precisely match the model’s eating behavior, with regard to quantity. Children are similar in that many will alter their eating behaviors to match their peer group’s, especially if they identify with them in some way or are seeking social acceptance. So, if a child feels he or she must eat a certain way to fit in, chances are greater that they will.

Healthy Play, Healthy Appetite

Another factor that encourages kids to drop their picky eating ways when they come to camp is that they get really hungry! Kids nowadays often lead fairly sedentary lives and typically have an abundance of food at their fingertips. Therefore, they never really get the chance to build a strong, robust appetite. Often, they are not truly hungry when they come to the dinner table, and naturally, many foods may not appeal to them.

At camp, kids are typically more physically active than ever. Between sports, swimming, and nature hikes, and an abundance of fresh forest air at Kennolyn, our campers get a lot of exercise. So, when it comes to meal or snack time, they need the energy! We all know that any food becomes more appealing when we are tired and famished. Plus, there’s the added anticipation of food when the bell rings and kids excitedly hurry to the Dining Lodge to claim their seat for mealtime and wait to be excused to go get their food. A deeper level of hunger and the building of anticipation for a meal makes kids more likely to dig into something new when their appetites are at an all-time high—especially when choice is limited.

Options vs. Fixed Menu

At camp, kids often have some choice when it comes to food, but the variety of items available is finite. At Kennolyn, for example, we offer one option for a main meal that includes several varieties and even a vegetarian option. Dinner one evening may be spaghetti with a choice of pesto, meat sauce, alfredo sauce, a side of green beans, and garlic bread. If kids don’t like their options, however, there is a salad bar full of veggies, beans, and fruits that kids can build their own meal out of. Sometimes, simply having ownership and choice when it comes to food makes the world of difference for a child, especially if picky eating stems from a need for control.

There’s much debate over whether offering picky eaters more choice is a good thing or not, but as a parent, you get to the point where you just want your child to eat something. Rather than forcing kids to eat what is in front of them, giving them a choice could be the best option. As many as 72% of young adults who had been forced by their parents to eat foods they disliked when they were children continued to avoid that food into adulthood. So, if you don’t want Jimmy to hate broccoli forever, perhaps it’s best not to force it.

After Camp: How to Keep the Picky Eating at Bay

If your child comes home from camp a more adventurous eater, you’re going to want to make sure they keep it up when they return home. A great way to encourage your child to keep expanding their palate is to invite their friends over for dinner regularly. Although you won’t have a  whole camp full of kids, peer influence is still effective at home. It’s less likely that your child will put up a fight at the dinner table if their friends are over, and it’s a lot less likely if those friends aren’t picky eaters themselves.

You can also ask your child what meals they enjoyed from their time at camp and recreate them together at home. When kids gain experience in food prep they are more willing to try new ingredients and dishes. At Kennolyn, kids learn to cook their own food over a fire at overnight outpost. A simple stew cooked in foil becomes magical to children when made over hot coals under the stars at a campout. And sometimes, all it takes is making the experience of food magical to get kids to give it a try.

At Kennolyn, we are known for having delicious food and a variety of healthy choices for our campers, including a twice daily salad bar. Vegetarian options and meals for children with allergies and specific dietary needs are also available. To find out more about our dining services and discover if our camp is right for your child, contact us today.


Image Source: Flickr user rwkvisua

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