Margot Perlmutter wants to change the way kids eat at camp. The director of Camp Tamakwa in Algonquin Park, Ont. had a food epiphany a few years back when she watched an eight-year-old camper dumping a week's worth of sugar onto his Frosted Flakes and realized that perhaps not all camp traditions were good ones. In her new book Camp Food Matters, Perlmutter tells the story of her small-steps revolution, a quest to make nutritious eating a part of the camp experience. Here, she talks to The Globe and Mail about selling campers on quinoa, that time she took away tuck and why shepherd's pie will always be a Tamakwa staple.
You were a camper at Tamakwa back in the 1980s and 90s. What are your camp food memories like?
The food wasn't that good, though I was never really a picky eater, so I just tended to eat whatever was on my plate. I do remember asking my mom if I could sign up for the vegetarian option one summer because that food seemed more appealing. That's something I noticed when I came back in the early 2000s – campers are still lying about being vegetarian so they don't have to eat the shepherd's pie or whatever it is.
I remember loving camp food – grilled cheese, burgers, unlimited chicken fingers! Is nothing sacred?
You're still going to get the beloved camp staples. We're feeding people from age seven to age 70 – the picky seven-year-old who will only eat white food and then the 20-year-old staff member who wants healthier options. What I'm looking at is, how can we cater to what everyone loves to eat and also increase the nutritional value? So you're still going to get a chicken finger, but how about one that isn't coated in crappy corn starch and that actually has chicken in it?
Was there a particular incident that motivated your decision to improve the quality of food at your camp?
When my son was about to become a camper. I realized he was going to be at the tuck window, when kids get to go choose a treat, choosing a chocolate bar three times a week and then he's going to have a cookie at night and a cookie after lunch and he's going to eat Fruit Loops every morning and drink juice every day. That is a lot of sugar and it was kind of a moment for me to realize how much all of these kids are just bombarded by sugar.
In the intro to your book you say that you sometimes hear from parents that "It's camp – let them eat what they want!" You obviously don't agree.
I have heard that a lot and I'm hoping I will hear it less. What I try to explain to parents is that I'm not a crazy mom – I don't run a household that is free of gluten and white food and processed sugar. What I'm trying to do is baby steps and just making things a little bit better. I just don't believe that an excellent camp experience has to involve a lot of sugar. Camp is a place to have fun and also a place to learn. It's okay if they also learn what quinoa is.
Has there been a change that has gone over really well?
The salad bar has been such a huge success. People like it and it just increases the options tenfold. Some kids just want to grab a plate of sliced cucumber, and if that's all they want, that's fine. We are always adding options – dried cranberry and dried chickpeas. Last summer we added hemp hearts. I just stood in front of the breakfast bar and tried to convince campers to try them.
What about a change that wasn't so popular?
When I decided to remove one out of three tuck days, I got a lot of resistance on that. Some of the new healthy snacks I have introduced have gone over better than others. The dried seaweed was a huge hit, but there was another snack that I tried a few years ago. I loved it, but the kids did not. To this day, people tease me about it.
What was it? Was it kale chips?
No, it wasn't kale chips. It was this crunchy sunflower-seed snack. I don't want to say the brand because I feel bad. I thought it tasted great.
How has the rise in kids who follow gluten-free, dairy-free, vegetarian and vegan diets affected how you plan your menus?
It's a huge issue. We had to rebuild our kitchen to accommodate special dietary needs. We have celiac kids and we have anaphylactic kids. Nuts aren't really a problem because we're a nut-free camp, but we have kids who can't eat eggs, sesame, dairy. It's very daunting and time-consuming and it requires a lot of vigilance, especially with younger campers.
Speaking of camp traditions – what have today's youth got against shepherd's pie?
Some of them like it. I'd say it's a 50-50 split. I still love it and it's such a balanced meal. We have decreased the frequency of shepherd's pie, but we're not getting rid of it. It's part of our camp song, so we can't.