As a camper, I distinctly remember the silver cafeteria trays and the colored globs of food that were plopped into the tray’s individual sections. That was then and this is now. The cooking arena in camp kitchens today needs to not only focus on better presentation but a wholesome diet as well.

The role of the food service director and food service staff in the camp industry is vital. What gets served from the camp kitchen supplies nourishment, warmth (both literal and figurative), and energy to the campers. It is up to the food service staff to provide a healthy, yet enticing menu so all concerned will leave the tables full, satisfied, and properly energized.

The Tried-and-True Kid Rules

Believe it or not, healthy, wholesome food that campers will actually eat is not hard to figure out. Just follow the tried-and-true kid rules:

  • Food cannot be all mixed up together in that dish called a casserole.
  • Campers want to put their food together themselves (hamburgers, burritos, etc.).
  • Campers want to make a few choices of their own at each meal (hot vegetable versus a salad — or both).
  • Campers want food to look good; in fact, a positive visual presentation of the food can sell even unknown foods you want them to try.
  • Campers don’t want to leave the table hungry; a balanced selection of carbohydrates, protein, fruit, and vegetables is necessary to fill them up properly.

Focus on the Basics

To create wholesome, enticing foods for campers, focus on the basics that guarantee success. The basics include breads, simple meats and other proteins, pastas, lots of fresh fruits and vegetables, starches, and a few treats thrown in to make campers smile.

In the salad arena, try interspersing a few dark green leafy additions such as spinach, green or red leaf lettuce, or even some of the other specialty leaves that can add a touch of color as well as quite a few more vitamins. Try a few creative tricks with other colorful vegetables (corkscrew cucumbers and flower-sliced carrots).

Healthy Cooking Tips

A properly balanced and health-fully prepared diet can still be quite appealing. Here are a few suggestions:

  • Cooking meats: Meats, especially ground beef, need to be cooked and drained completely to reduce the fat content.
  • Salad dressings: Try using half the fat in salad dressings when making them on site. Most ranch or Italian mixes call for a gallon of mayonnaise or a gallon of oil. Cut the mayonnaise or oil in half and you’ll be surprised at the taste and quality that is retained.
  • Butter and margarine: Serve butter or margarine on the side and not always included with the preparation of rice, pasta, potatoes, and breads.

Baking versus frying
When you are ready to sit down and rethink established menus with a more wholesome approach, one of the first issues to start with is baking versus frying. Chicken, French fries, sausage and bacon, and other typically greasy foods cook and brown in the oven just as well or even better than frying, especially if a convection oven is available.

Cheese and oil
In a typical presentation of a popular meal like pizza, a low-fat (part skim milk) mozzarella cheese can be used with delicious results. Using a small amount of olive oil in a scratch pizza sauce or a fully-
prepared pizza sauce helps maintain a consistent coverage of sauce without being permeable.

Offer fats, gravies, and sauces separately
A meal like tacos or burritos can be quite successful with all the ingredients offered separately for those who may or may not want certain items. You can also offer low-fat or non-fat cheeses and sour creams for those who want them. Always offer fat-containing sauces and gravies on the side for those who choose not to eat any or those who want small quantities.

Vegetarian and meatless choices
For those campers who choose not to eat meats, vegetarian or meatless choices need to be more than just peanut butter or cheese. Both peanut butter and cheese have a higher fat content than protein, and need to be used sparingly – not as a main course. Find and offer meatless patties such as the Garden Burger. Prepare items made with high-protein tofu or eggs for those who eat them. When preparing spaghetti sauce, cook some with meat and some without. Select cheese ravioli instead of the meat variety. And when frying eggs, don’t fry them on the same grill used to cook bacon or sausage.

Campers will respond surprisingly well to healthy foods. Make an effort to present all foods in a visually appealing manner. Campers will be more likely to eat more balanced meals, and as a result, have more energy and a better attitude in general. The healthy camper plays better, doesn’t get as tired and crabby, and even appears to blossom before the director’s eyes.

Go ahead, focus on healthy, wholesome meals. Try it, campers will like it.


Originally published in the 1999 July/August issue of Camping Magazine.