What type of dining service does your camp use? To get an idea of what is currently popular in camps, I conducted a survey among camp food service directors and received some insightful responses.

Buffet Serving Style

Some of the first buffet restaurants in America were established in the 1950s by restaurateur Johnny Garneau. These mimicked the traditional Swedish "smorgasbord" buffet-style meal, with a wide variety of food displayed on a table (Smith, 2013).

On March 10, 1959, Garneau filed a patent for his invention, the "Food Service Table." Designed to protect food from germs and bacteria affected by sneezing, it was eventually known as a "sneeze guard" or "food guard". Today, food guards are required by the FDA food code 3-306.11 under Food Display, stating, "Food on display shall be protected from contamination by the use of packaging; counter, service line, or salad bar food guards . . ." (Quiring, 2019).


Campers have more food variety and feel more in control of choices, which means more camper satisfaction. Survey respondent Travis Johnson, food service director at Asbury Hills Camp and Retreat Center in Cleveland, South Carolina, pointed out, "I feel people eat with their eyes, and I personally believe you can display your food better with a buffet." Buffets offer "effectiveness of serving guests quickly with hot, fresh food, which provides better customer service to our guests."

Survey respondent James Box of YMCA Camp Greenville, SC, said, "Buffet style costs less in labor. Meals take less time, seem to be more organized, and less instructions are needed."


Food safety challenges abound with buffet service. Buffets can harbor germs and bacteria that can cause foodborne illness, affecting one in six Americans annually, per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2019).

Hot and cold foods must be frequently checked to ensure equipment is holding safe temperatures: cold foods at 40°F or colder; hot foods at internal temperature of 140°F or warmer. Transfer of bacteria is easier because more hands touch serving utensils, and because younger campers may be too short to allow sneeze guard protection from coughing or sneezing onto food. Some younger campers also may find that maneuvering tongs or large serving spoons is too difficult and instead use their fingers, which can spread bacteria. Younger campers need supervision, and some states may require a minimum age for allowing food bar self-service (US Food & Drug Administration, 2018).

Another safety risk is serving utensil handles dropping into the food, requiring the entire pan to be discarded. Teach campers the following buffet style food safety instructions:

  • Never use the same spoon or tongs from one buffet dish and dip into another food, due to possible contamination related to food allergies.
  • Never touch food with hands or fingers.
  • Never scoop out of the buffet with your own fork or spoon.
  • Never reuse a dirty plate to serve yourself more food.
  • Never put items back into serving dishes.

More food variety equals higher food cost. Also, less predictability of foods that are favorable or unfavorable among campers could cause you to run out of items. Dissatisfaction among guests and a camp’s resulting tarnished reputation can be results of this food service faux pas.

An employee should be stationed to assiduously watch for needed food refills and for spills to be cleaned up, which are more prevalent with selfserve buffets.

Additional costs to consider with buffet service begin with more industrial hot food holding equipment needed, which is a major upfront expense. The necessity of more hotel pans in a variety of sizes and depths and more serving utensils are an added expense. These additional pans and utensils also require more cleanup.

Serving Line Service


Food safety generally rests with your kitchen prep and serving line staff, which includes their sanitation practices, proper preparation and holding temperatures, and the training they have completed. Servers are in control of portions, and portion control equals cost control and food waste management.


This style usually needs a larger block of time for dining due to long lines, which can affect your program. Camper decision-making regarding entrée and sides can also delay the lines. Food and drink items can be difficult to carry all at once, unless a large tray to hold all items is offered. The caveat to this is that younger campers will have difficulty balancing a large tray full of food and drink, making them more apt to drop items or drop the tray altogether. Compartment trays can offset this. However, I personally have found that these are more time-consuming to clean and seem more institutional, giving less of a "homey" feel.

This style requires plenty of staff to serve, which can drive up labor costs. Survey respondent Katherine Porter, food service director at White Oak Conference Center in South Carolina observes, "It’s a little more time-consuming. You must tell guests what (foods) you have . . . then wait for them to decide what they want."

Family Style Service


Benefits of family style dining are numerous. Students at each table are part of a family, so all are likely to feel included. Motor skills are sharpened by learning to use serving utensils and serving or passing food and pouring drinks. Family style dining is an opportunity for teaching etiquette, such as how to set a table and saying "please" and "thank you." This type of environment can build independence as campers make food choices and foster responsibility as campers pass food around the table, clean up spills, and clean up after the meal. At Dunes Learning Center in Porter, Indiana, "campers learn how to control their food waste by choosing what they like and how much they can eat at each meal," said survey respondent Diane Brown, food and facilities director.

Respondent Robert Money, food service director of YMCA of Northwest North Carolina’s Camp Hanes, said a program positive of family style is "It’s more beneficial for the program staff for everyone to be served at the same time, so they get a chance to sit down and take a moment to relax."


In addition to plates, cups, and utensils, serving bowls at every table mean extra dishes for kitchen staff to wash. It is also usually hard to manage portion control, which increases the possibility of running out of food, so your cooks will likely need to prepare an increased amount of food. Box shared that food is wasted "because once food hits the table, it has to be thrown away," according to regulations. Money emphasized how vital it is that program or registration staff communicate guest numbers correctly. He also shared the importance of consolidating your group numbers to match number of seats per table.

Money explained that if they have 150 guests, they prepare 15 trays of food, one to serve each table of 10 people. In some instances, guests "would spread out to 17 or 18 tables," requiring kitchen staff to use backup food to make those extra food trays, limiting seconds. Said Money, "[There’s] nothing worse than running out of food when you prepared enough, because it could have been prevented." Guests see this as the kitchen’s fault, not realizing the error in process or communication. Also, the tables with less than 10 people end up with food waste because there is more supply than demand.

Food allergies can be a challenge when serving family style. Specialty plate distribution (i.e., gluten free or vegan/vegetarian) must be separate from the food that goes to tables on family style platters. To cut down on logistical issues, Chef Maggie Vescio reported her camp used a buffet line for specialty diets and family style for mainstream eaters, adding the solution was only partially successful.

Brown said, "Our participant forms include a section for special dietary needs, which are considered when making the menu for each group of campers." They strive to allow everyone within each group "to eat from the same family serving bowls and platters." Whether it’s a time factor, a learning factor for programming, or cost savings to be passed down to campers, find a way to make meals the way that gives your campers the best experience.


  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2019). Food safety for buffets and parties. CDC. Retrieved from cdc.gov/foodsafety/serving-food-safely.html
  • Quiring, S. (2019, July 16). Are sneeze guards the only way to protect food? Lakeside. Retrieved from elakesidefoodservice.com/are-sneeze-guards-theonly-way-to-protect-food/
  • Smith, K. A. (2013, December 6). How the "sneeze guard" changed buffet tables forever. Smithsonian. Retrieved from smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/how-the-sneeze-guard-changed-buffet-tablesforever-180949279/
  • US Food & Drug Administration. (2018, January 26). Serving up safe buffets. FDA. Retrieved from fda.gov/food/buy-store-serve-safe-food/serving-safe-buffets

Family Style Resources

For more information on serving family style meals, refer to the following resources:

  • The National Center on Health, Health Services Newsletter: eclkc.ohs.acf.hhs.gov/sites/ default/files/pdf/health-servicesnewsletter-201503.pdf
  • New York State Department of Health: health.ny.gov/ prevention/nutrition/resources/servmealsfs.htm


Kimberly Whiteside Truitt is former food service manager at Camp Gilmont and Camp Zephyr, and has served on Camping Magazine’s Editorial Advisory Committee. Kimberly was a presenter at the 2018 North American Food Service and Maintenance Conference.