Welcome Your Campers Home with 10 Lighter Takes on Mess Hall Favorites

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If you sent your little ones to camp this summer — be it a day camp, a weeklong skill-growing intensive or the full-fledged sleep-away experience — you likely relinquished control of their diet to the cafeteria gods. Your diligent meal planning and healthy eating lessons gave way to fried finger foods, endless carbs and thrice-daily snacks and sweets — which your kids easily burned off by running in circles all day.

But now that they’re back home and preparing to start school, you’ll need to transition your happy campers back to normal eating habits. Rather than rip the bandage off all at once, we suggest trying out better-for-them versions of typical camp foods — so they won’t even notice they’ve crossed the bridge back into healthy eating land.

Sloppy Joes (shown above)

This meaty mess of a sandwich is probably the most-iconic cafeteria food, ladled from a giant vat onto a hamburger bun. Ellie Krieger uses extra-lean ground beef for these Joes and relies on fresh ingredients (onion, garlic, peppers) and a handful of sauces and seasonings to imbue the meat with that deep, indulgent flavor.

Macaroni and Four Cheeses

To give this out-of-the-box favorite a lighter spin, use low-fat milk and part-skim ricotta, and add cheese-thinning (but dish-enhancing) pureed squash. This last ingredient is also what gives the dish that from-outer-space orange hue (which makes it appear decidedly more delicious).

Lighter Spaghetti and Meatballs

Your children probably consumed pounds of pasta per week. Lighten this carb-heavy plate with whole-wheat spaghetti and meatballs made with whole-wheat sandwich bread and low-sodium beef broth. And the sauce? Made from scratch, not the sugary jarred stuff.

Panko Chicken Nuggets

Chicken nuggets go from being the least-healthy mystery meat to a wholesome lunch or dinner option when they are made out of skinless chicken breasts, coated in panko crumbs (which yields ultra-crispy nuggets) and cooked in oil just until golden (not fried to a crisp).

Watermelon-Mint Water

You might have the hardest time of all weaning your kids off of “bug juice” — the fruit punch of questionable ingredients and sugar content served out of coolers both in the lunchroom and on sports fields. Instead, turn late-summer produce into fun, flavored waters like this watermelon-mint concoction. The best part? When they’re done with each glass, they can eat the sweet, refreshing fruit cubes.

Kale Caesar Salad

Everyone knows that Caesar salad is the “cheat” of the salad world, often packing way more calories than other non-vegetable-based meals. And it might just be the only vegetable source your kids enjoyed this summer. Let them hail Caesar a bit longer, subbing in nutrient-dense kale for the main greens.

Goji Berry Trail Mix

This protein-packed, energizing trail mix will take kids much farther than the carb-rich snack mixes they indulged in at camp. Goji berries and apricots provide tart and sweet flavors to counterbalance the four kinds of nuts and seeds.

Oven-Baked Parmesan Fries

“What?!” your son or daughter might cry. “I can’t have fries at every meal?” Wean them off the vats of oil by slicing 1/2-inch-thick potato wedges, boiling the sticks and then baking the lot until light brown. A sprinkling of Parmesan and a final bake render the fries nicely caramelized and crispy.

Frozen Chocolate-Banana Pops

Create a creamy pop that’s anything but ice cream: Puree bananas with cocoa powder, heavy cream and maple syrup, and then freeze the mixture into molds. The end result is a cross between that traditional treat and a fudge pop, rolled in peanuts like some ice cream truck favorites.

Cherry Couscous Pudding

Whole-wheat couscous provides a more wholesome base than the powdered mixes they might have enjoyed (along with gummy worms and crushed Oreos). Add texture to the almond-flavored mixture with dried cherries, sliced almonds and, if additional sweetness is needed, honey.