Bag full of raw almonds.

Food Allergies at Summer Camp: What to Know and What to Do

At CampMinder, we  take food allergies seriously. We all know someone who is affected, and every camp needs to have plans to address them for incoming campers and staff. While food allergies and their consequences are certainly cause for taking action, increasing our knowledge about this important topic can help us plan the ideal summer camp menu that all children can safely enjoy.

What are the most common food allergies?

The eight food allergies listed below are considered the most common.

  • Fish
  • Shellfish
  • Peanuts
  • Tree nuts
  • Eggs
  • Milk
  • Soy
  • Wheat

This list is certainly not exhaustive. Food allergy possibilities are numerous and can include the most unexpected food items such as red meat, avocados, marshmallows, melons, or even hot dogs.

What are food allergies and why do they exist?

According to Food Allergy & Research Education, a food allergy results from the body’s reaction to “a harmless food protein.” The body’s immune system interprets or “overreacts to” the food protein, mistaking it for germs that must be warded off in order to keep the body healthy. Genetics may also contribute to food allergies, although little empirical evidence has been found to support this claim. Food allergies are also largely associated with other conditions such as eczema and asthma ( Food allergies can emerge in both childhood and adulthood.

What is the difference between a food allergy and a food intolerance?

Food allergies involve potentially life-threatening immune system reactions. Food intolerance is a less serious issue that usually involves the body’s inability to properly digest a given food. While food allergies can be fatal, food intolerance typically only results in digestive discomfort. In addition, those who have food intolerance may still eat their problem food in small quantities. Not so for people  with food allergies. The effect of continuing to eat the offending food and repeated exposure can worsen the body’s immune system reactions.

What does an allergic reaction to food look like?

Food allergies have varied symptoms. The following is a list of the common symptoms of a food allergy. If you notice any of the following, they are warning signs for parents and camp staff to get treatment.

Mild symptoms include:

  • A few hives; mild itch
  • Mild nausea or discomfort
  • Itchy, runny nose; sneezing
  • An itchy mouth

More moderate symptoms include:

  • Hives, rash, itching
  • Tingling or itching of the mouth
  • Abdominal pain, nausea, or diarrhea
  • Redness or swelling of the face, lips, tongue, ears, throat or other parts of the body
  • Trouble breathing (wheezing, gasping, or nasal congestion)
  • Dizziness, lightheadedness, or fainting

Severe symptoms include:

  • Trouble swallowing
  • Shortness of breath or wheezing
  • Turning blue
  • Drop in blood pressure (feeling faint, confused, weak, passing out)
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Chest pain
  • A weak or “thready” pulse
  • Sense of “impending doom” (a feeling that something bad will happen)


How long do allergy symptoms last?

Reaction to a food allergy will last as long as the child is exposed to the allergen, from minutes after the allergen is ingested to hours afterward. After the first reaction dies down, a second reaction, known as biphasic reaction, may take place hours later.

What is anaphylaxis?

Anaphylaxis is a serious, life-threatening reaction to an allergen. It usually occurs within seconds or minutes of exposure to an allergy and warrants the use of an epinephrine pen (Epi-pen).

Can food allergies be cured or outgrown?

While there is no cure for food allergies, in some cases allergy-sufferers can outgrow them. Children are likely to outgrow allergies to foods like milk, egg, and soy, but that is not usually the case for fish, shellfish, and nuts. Unfortunately, food allergies can be life-long conditions.

You should know…

Increased exposure to an allergen reduces the likelihood that a child will outgrow a food allergy and can worsen future reactions. For example, if a child is allergic to tree nuts, with each new exposure to tree nuts, the likelihood of outgrowing the tree nut diminishes. Plus, each subsequent reaction may increase in intensity, making it harder to predict what the next reaction would look like.

Food allergies aren’t limited to food…

Unfortunately, parents, teachers, and counselors not only have to concern themselves with offending foods but also with non-food products that use the allergen in their production. Here are some non-food items to be on the look-out for:

  • Playdough contains wheat. If you want to do a summer activity, there are plenty of easy dough recipes that don’t use any of the items on our common food allergy list.
  • Stuffed animals or bean bags can contain peanut or tree nut shells in their stuffing. Synthetic and polyester filling does not contain these allergens, however.
  • Pet food can contain multiple common allergens such as shellfish, eggs, fish, milk, or even peanut butter.

Treatments for mild allergic reactions

An important note: allergic reactions to foods can be quite unpredictable. In other words, what may look like a mild reaction can soon turn into something much more serious. Always have an epi-pen on hand for any child with a food allergy in case of anaphylaxis and watch the child closely for several hours following exposure. That being said, sometimes a food allergy can show only mild symptoms (like we discussed above). If you see a few hives or the child describes mild stomach discomfort, you can administer an antihistamine.

Treatments for severe allergic reactions

If a child exhibits any of the moderate or severe symptoms listed above, do not hesitate to administer epinephrine. Anaphylaxis (severe allergic reaction) is a medical emergency. At the first signs of moderate or severe symptoms, call 911 and administer the epi-pen. Of course, if the child is away at summer camp, inform his/her parents or guardians immediately.

*** Remember that allergic reactions to food may not present in the same way every time, so it’s always better to be overly cautious if you think a child may have been exposed than to downplay the severity of the issue.

How to create a safe (and fun!) summer camp menu

When creating a summer camp menu, you’ll have to take into account the many common (and sometimes not so common) food allergies of some of the campers. Here are some helpful ways to work-around these dietary restrictions and some tips on what to avoid so that you can provide a safe and delicious menu for all the kids.

Peanut or tree nut allergy: Since this allergy has become so common (and since reactions are usually severe), many education programs have decided to become nut-free facilities. If you decide to implement a no-nut menu, summer camp menu planners can breathe a sigh of relief.

However, if you’d like to incorporate peanuts and tree nuts, here are some foods to avoid along with replacement options.


  • Nut butter of all types, including Nutella. You may be surprised to find out that peanut butter is, in many cases, processed along with other types of nuts. Therefore, when dealing with a tree nut allergy, don’t assume that peanut butter is a safe bet.
  • Cooking with oils made from nuts or seeds (grapeseed oil, peanut oil).
  • Baked goods that come from homes (ones in which you do not have a label to check).
  • Baked goods from the bakery area at supermarkets. There is a higher potential for cross-contamination in grocery store bakeries- it’s certainly not worth the risk.
  • Bread baked with nuts and seeds (check the label- you may be surprised how many breads are processed with various kinds of nuts).

Tip: Always read labels. We once found tree nuts in valentine “Sweetheart” candies. You never can be sure when it comes to food allergies, so checking the label is imperative, even when the item seems safe.

Replacement options:

  • Instead of nut butter (which we usually serve on sandwiches at camp lunchtime), consider deli meat sandwiches where the children can add their favorite healthy toppings.
  • Pre-packaged and clearly labeled baked goods.
  • Cook with olive or canola oil instead of nut-based oils.
  • Include bread options that are free from any nuts or seeds.

Milk allergy: This is a tough one. Milk is used in the processing of so many foods, even in the batter that is used to create crispy french fries at your local restaurant! That’s why parents of children with milk allergies are the best asset for knowing what to avoid and what is safe. However, here are some tips to keep in mind.


  • Serving breakfast cereals that kids with a milk allergy would not be able to enjoy.
  • Any unlabeled product (as you should with all kids with food allergies).

Replacement options:

  • Provide breakfast foods that don’t require milk such as eggs, breakfast meats, or granola bars.
  • Serve healthy juice or water instead of milk at mealtimes.

Fish and/or shellfish allergy: It’s much less likely that your summer camp menu would contain large quantities or fish or shellfish, especially in comparison to milk or wheat.

However, if you do plan to incorporate fish or shellfish, it is important to note that if the food has been prepared ahead of time, these two (fish and shellfish) are sometimes prepared together. For example, seafood fillers often contain fresh fish because of its affordability. This can cause serious issues if a child is allergic to fish, not shellfish, but ends up unknowingly consuming filler containing fish when he consumes, say, stuffed shrimp.


  • Any seafood combination like stuffed shrimp or crab cakes, where you aren’t sure about what type of filler was used.
  • Cooking any meat on the same grill where you’ve cooked fish or shellfish.

Replacement options:

  • It’s easy to substitute another type of meat- like chicken, pork, or beef- when serving fish or shellfish. Once again, just be careful not to cross-contaminate by using the same surface to prepare or cook the fish or shellfish and the replacement meat.

Egg allergy: If eggs are the culprit for any of your summer campers, there are some easy replacements that you can incorporate to keep those kiddos safe.


  • Baking with eggs. We know it seems tough to make a cake, for example, without eggs, but there are tons of substitutions that will make all of your baked items safe for all kids.
  • Serving only eggs as the main course for breakfast.

Replacement options:

  • Believe it or not, applesauce and mashed bananas are great substitutes for eggs in baking recipes. Replace each egg with ¼ cup of applesauce or banana puree.
  • Provide some pre-packaged breakfast options (of course, without eggs!), such as granola bars, cereal, or fruit.

Wheat allergy: Celiac disease is commonly confused with wheat allergy; however, celiac disease causes severe digestion issues in response to gluten, but is not an allergic reaction. So for children with wheat allergy, you must avoid wheat altogether, checking all labels for this allergen before serving anything to the child. The good news? Children with wheat allergy can actually eat other grains, unlike those with celiac disease who cannot eat any grains at all if they contain gluten.


  • Bread and baked goods that contain wheat as the grain source.
  • Any baked goods that do not contain a label.
  • Wheat flour when baking.
  • Soy sauce.

An important word of caution: Wheat comes in many forms and can be found in many unexpected places. Unfortunately, the summer camp cook must be pretty wheat-allergy-savvy to stay up to date on all of the many ways wheat presents itself. For an exhaustive list, go here:

Replacement options:

  • Any grain-based foods that use other grain sources such as rye, barley, rice, quinoa.
  • Wheat-free flours for baking.
  • Pre-packaged wheat-free snacks.

Soy allergy: You may be wondering why soy seems to be found in just about every food at your grocery store. It’s because soy, a tiny legume, is inexpensive and versatile and can be used to emulsify fat and bind water, create a creamy texture in drinks, and- ironically enough- provide an alternative to foods to which people are commonly allergic.

An interesting note: Most people with a soy allergy can actually tolerate soy lecithin, a food additive prevalent in processed foods. Make sure you are sure of these details (whether a child is allergic to soy or soy lecithin or both) before checking labels and purchasing food for your summer camp menu.


  • Soy sauce.
  • Soy-based “dairy products” like cheese, milk, or yogurt.
  • Some canned soups
  • Soy-based fiber, flour, grits, nuts, or sprouts.
  • Some deli meats
  • Soy-based sauces
  • Pre-packaged Asian-flavored dishes

Replacement options:

Luckily, soy-free options are available for almost all of the foods listed above. Since soy is usually an alternative for those with other allergies, most commonly-eaten soy products have a soy-free counterpart.

A Final Note:

FDA law requires that all the most common allergens be identified clearly on the nutrition label of all foods, so checking labels is the key to keeping kids safe, healthy, and reaction free this summer. If there is no label, we highly recommend that you don’t take the risk. We wish you happy and safe meal planning!

Header image provided by: I. Patron