Chow Time

Every year around this time radio stations across the country dust off Alan Sherman’s “Camp Granada.” “Hello Mudda. Hello Fadda. Here I am at Camp Granada,” the lyrics start and proceed through a discouraging first day at camp. Dinner is less than exemplary as Sherman sings: “Remember Leonard Skinner? He got ptomaine poisoning last night after dinner.”

Prep Work Can Be Fun

We wouldn’t wish that on any camper or any camp.

But camp dinners, and breakfasts and lunches, can prove challenging. How do you encourage your campers to eat healthily? How do you mix up your menus and have the kids begging for more? Do you allow carbonated soft drinks and potato chips or not?

Camp Business went to two very different, very successful camp kitchens and found some basic similarities. Camp Gray is a Catholic camp in Reedsburg, Wis. Amber Nelson is the food service director and will be starting her third year. Her counterpart at Camp Young Judaea Midwest, a kosher camp in Waupaca, Wis., is Pam Pabelick. Pabelick, a Christian who has been food service director for nine years, learned to cook kosher–a challenge in itself.

Both women receive rave reviews on camper evaluations and state inspections. Both women have endeared themselves to campers not only by getting out of the kitchen to meet the kids, but by inviting the kids into the kitchen. Both have valuable tips to share.

Camp Gray

Amber Nelson’s bio on the camp Web site states, “She laughs so loud you can hear her across camp some days.” Nelson loves what she does! And what she does is serve 150 to 180 people three meals a day. The camp is used as a retreat center during the off-season, but the children are her favorites. She is continually looking for ways to improve camp food and aims at campers never having to ask for PP&J. Among her peers she is developing a reputation as a menu fixer, and will offer suggestions to improve colleagues’ menus if asked.

For the first time this year, families of special nutritional-needs children (for example, with celiac) will not have to provide their own food. “Families will review food labels for ingredients and approve menus prior to their child’s arrival at camp,” she says. Nelson will also institute a new prep system to get special meals out to campers the same time everyone else is served. The prep system will also allow for quicker replacement if a shortage is identified. Nelson makes an effort to have the special diets served tableside rather than have the children come into the kitchen for pick up. E-mails home will let parents know how their child is faring.

All meals are served family style with grace recited before each meal. Catholic values are an integral part of Camp Gray. There are some drawbacks to family style serving–she plans for 1 1/2 servings per camper, and occasionally will run out of a favorite, and the food does not always stay as warm as she would like. One positive is an opportunity to eat in a family circle that many children do not get to enjoy at home due to busy work and activity schedules. “This is one thing Phil (Phil DeLong, Camp Director) feels very strongly about and will never change,” says Nelson.

Her camp menu is on a four-week rotation. “If the kids like grilled cheese sandwiches and tomato soup, they have to come Week 8,” she laughs. “Week 7 is chicken nuggets!”

Variety is the key! She rarely repeats an entrée during the four-week rotation, and she never has similar foods back to back, for example, hamburgers for lunch and tacos for dinner. During the day she features one “kid-friendly” meal and one hearty meal–lunch and dinner respectively. She’s not worried about the calories in the “kid-friendly” meals–the kids are starving after strenuous camp activities. She also never serves two pasta meals back to back.

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