Summer Camp Kitchen Essentials

If only summer camp food service was as simple as serving hot dogs and s’mores cooked over an open fire. That romantic image isn’t the reality, however. Camp food service is just as complex as running a commercial catering or restaurant kitchen. You need an array of prep tools, cooking equipment and bakeware, serving dishes and tableware, and you need to account for campers’ food allergies.

One big mistake camp directors make is “not placing enough emphasis on the food and dining experience,” notes Don Fullmer, executive chef at Pali Mountain, a camp and retreat in Running Springs, CA. “Kids spend about three hours in the dining hall every day,” he says. “It needs to be an experience — an activity where they have fun!”

Trends in Camp Food Service

Two trends in summer camp food service are salad bars and special menus for campers with special dietary requirements, including allergies, according to a report from the American Camp Association.

One way to accommodate several dietary restrictions and offer a healthy eating option is a salad bar. A refrigerated salad bar unit keeps items at the correct temperature during service. To fit it out, you need containers and trays for the various items, as well as dressing dispensers and serving tools.

To prevent any issues with allergies, camps are advised to have separate equipment and serving items, and to store and protect them separately. In addition, supplying mini-fridges in cabins or in the dining hall enables campers with special diets to store their own foods and condiments.

It was these concerns that led Camps Kenwood and Evergreen in Wilmot, NH, to make their kitchens nut free to reduce potential allergens, create prep and cooking procedures to avoid cross-contamination, and offer gluten- and dairy-free dining options to serve campers’ special needs. The camp has even hired a chef whose only job is to serve these needs, director Jason Sebell says.

The Kenwood and Evergreen team also works closely with the camp’s food supplier to ensure everything brought on campus has been vetted for allergies. “That makes all the difference,” Sebell explains. “When you have a partner like that helping you bring in your food, then as long as you have a team of professionals in your kitchen who understand what can and cannot happen, and understand the nature of food allergies, all things are possible.”

To make sure your operation meets the latest requirements, check in with the local health inspector and the Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network.

Essential Gear

A camp kitchen needs the same basic items as most restaurant and catering kitchens. “Look for NSF-approved commercial items,” Fullmer says. These stand up to food safety and durability standards. Here are some of the essentials:

  • Prep & Cooking Supplies. “Some camps make everything from scratch, and thus would need mixers, slicers, convection ovens, warmers, a food processor, cutting boards and food safety tools,” notes Viki Spain, author of several cookbooks for camp directors, and the upcoming volume The Camp Director’s Guide to Extraordinary Food Service. She suggests a 1.5- to 2.0-horsepower food processor with attachments; and a minimum of a 20-quart mixer with paddle, whip and dough hook attachments. Grater and slicer attachments are helpful, but optional.
  • Service Items. The majority of camps feature family-style or buffet-style dining; few run cafeteria lines mostly because of staffing costs. “For buffet-style, you need steam tables to hold hot food and refrigerated prep tables to hold cold foods,” Fullmer says. Family-style requires large serving bowls, platters and spoons, and trivets to protect tabletops. Those plastic trays we remember from school are sometimes used in buffet service. For family-style, you can use bar trays or baking or jelly roll pans for carrying condiments, ferrying serving dishes or storing prepped foods.
  • Dining & Tableware. Because dining and tableware is used three times a day all summer long, purchase at least 1.5 times the total number of campers (most restaurateurs suggest 2.5 times seating capacity). Kids and staff often accidentally throw out flatware when scraping plates, so “it’s quite common for camps to order several dozen new spoons or forks during the course of the summer,” Spain notes. “Most camp directors always have a certain number or percentage of extra items on hand in case of breakage, etc.”

Food service budgets are always tight, but buying cheap items is a false economy. “You get what you pay for!” Fullmer insists. “Spending more on food service will give kids reasons to return, rather than a reason not to return!”

Margot Carmichael Lester is a freelance journalist and owner of The Word Factory, a creative agency in Carrboro, NC. She’s written about food, beverages and the restaurant business for several in-flight magazines, Playboy, and Margot loves to eat out and prefers dining at the bar. A native Southerner, she loved bacon and kale before they were cool; her favorite cocktail is the French 75.

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