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The Healing Power of Healthy Food: Meals and Nutrition at Open Sky

The Open Sky Team

A key priority of Open Sky’s wilderness therapy approach is focusing on healthy eating and nutrition. Not only is eating healthy food important to maintain physical health for Open Sky students, but the emerging field of nutritional psychiatry highlights the link between diet and mental wellness. 


Food Philosophy

As part of Open Sky’s whole-person wellness approach, we believe in the healing power of foods and understand that healthy nutrition is a simple but powerful way to teach students about mind-body health. Our menu includes a balance of the highest quality whole foods and organic meats, fresh fruits, and vegetables, free of pesticides, hormones, and antibiotics. 

Fresh vegetables and healthy food sit on a green tarp in the field at Open Sky Wilderness Therapy.

“We know that food builds a foundation for all areas of health,” said Kaleb Rittenhouse, Open Sky’s food coordinator. “Health and well-being begin with the body, and along with rest and exercise, a high-quality and balanced diet can contribute positively to the overall state of a person’s being.” 

Food Logistics

Open Sky’s food comes from various sources, including organic farms and a local meat processing facility, Sunnyside Meats. 

Each week, operations or field staff members divide up food, load coolers and bins into a trailer, and drop them at the locations of each student team in the field.  

Food is distributed to each team collectively, and each student receives a supply of personal food items, as well. Team food includes meats, fresh vegetables, whole grains, dried foods, and drinks, such as electrolyte powders, and a variety of herbal teas. Students receive healthy snack food items such as trail mix, peanut butter, cheese, and fresh fruit. 

Open Sky adapts food options for students with dietary restrictions and provides certified nut-free, gluten-free, soy-free, dairy-free, and vegan and vegetarian options.   

Open Sky Wilderness Therapy students receive personal snacks such as trail mix, apples, peanut butter, and cheese.

Meal Preparation

Meals are prepared collectively in the field, primarily by students with direct supervision and support from guides. Students learn practical wilderness skills as they prepare food in the field, such as fire building by bow drill and cooking over an open fire. As they master these skills, their confidence grows as they adapt to living in the wilderness. 

Master Senior Guide Mike Kangley explains when teaching students how to prepare meals in the field, guides use an “I do, we do, you do” philosophy. This means guides first complete a task, then the guides and students do the task together, and finally, the students do the task themselves.     

“In the beginning, I cook for the students, teaching them how to prepare good, nutritious meals and generating excitement for the process,” said Mike. “Then the students want to help until eventually, they are making delicious meals for each other that they can feel proud of. This kind of task completion helps them build self-efficacy and confidence. 

Students also contribute to meal planning each week after each team receives their food supply. Teams often have favorite meal themes that they incorporate into their meal planning, such as Thai night and burrito night. 

Two students at Open Sky Wilderness Therapy prepare dinner together while on expedition.

The Therapeutic Value of Food

Open Sky’s focus on the importance of healthy food provides students with real opportunities for learning and growth. When provided nutritious, wholesome ingredients that become part of delicious, collaboratively made meals, students can more clearly see the link between mind and body health.  

Many students come to Open Sky with various food issues, including allergies, intolerances, dislikes, addictions, and disordered eating. As each student’s nutritional needs are met, we often hear that they feel more energetic, are sleeping better, and feel more alive. Students come to recognize food as medicine and fuel, a necessary part of being strong, healthy, and capable. 

“We have seen students with unhealthy habits towards food become healthy, students with limited palates discover a love for veggies, and self-proclaimed ‘I could mess up boiling water’ students create magnificent meals,” said Ashley Higgs, Assistant Field Director at Open Sky.   

The therapeutic value of healthy eating benefits all students but particularly those who struggle with disordered eating. Being at Open Sky provides an opportunity for individuals to rebuild a positive relationship with food with the support of their therapist and a personalized strategy to meet their needs.  

An Open Sky Wilderness Therapy field guide prepares dinner in the field.

Holiday Meals

Special meals are prepared for holidays, including Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Fourth of July. Students learn how to cook a turkey underground or bake a ham in a Dutch oven in a fire pit. These special meals include mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce, stuffing, butternut squash, veggies, and pumpkin and apple pies. Teams with students who practice Judaism are supplied with all the makings for latkes – both regular and sweet potato. Students are excited and highly invested in creating special meals together for the holidays, and often our holiday dinners provide students with opportunities for extended sharing about their families, traditions, and gratitude. During Thanksgiving, we encourage acknowledgment and appreciation towards Native/Indigenous communities and offer related teachings to the students, including building an awareness of the land that we live on and the people who have lived here before us. 

Two Open Sky Wilderness Therapy students laugh as they enjoy dinner together in the field.

Intentional Connection

Open Sky has a culture of connecting with one another around food and meals. Each night at dinner before eating, students and guides check in to reflect on experiences that occurred throughout the day, share how they are feeling in that moment, or express gratitude. This simple act increases appreciation for the food and company shared from a place of greater connection. 

“From the healthy foods that Open Sky provides, to the added challenge of students cooking them together, sitting around a fire the way our ancestors used to, there is so much to be learned through this process,” said Brooke Lederer, Clinical Therapist for adolescent girls. “The students inspire each other and themselves to get creative with the food they are given, and each team has their own thriving culture based on the types of meals they like to prepare. Through this, I believe they create a deeper connection to themselves, each other, the foods they eat, and the larger world around them.” 

December 17th, 2021

The Open Sky Team