Great hotels have long known that offering cooking programs for kids to participate in commercial kitchen production can be exciting and offer variety to their activities.
Adapting your camp kitchen to offer various kids' chef programs can be a great source of new activities to offer your campers using a facility that is already there.
Following a few simple safety rules and basic organization can pay off in nurturing a lifelong love of good food and good nutrition.
Few kids have seen the large volume of food that is regularly prepared in a camp kitchen. This in itself can be impressive. Kids will go home and tell their parents that they made soup for 100 people or made 250 cookies for lunch.
Offering a few levels of activities, depending upon the age of the camper, will keep cooking safe and fun for all.
If you're working with young children up to 6 or 7 years old, give them simple jobs such as using cookie cutters, stirring things into bowls or decorating a plate or food pan with garnishes.
For older children most can use peelers or small paring knives to cut fruits or vegetables. For complete safety, avoiding knives for children up to 12 or 13 years old is a good rule of thumb.
Kids up to 12-13 years old can do many fun activities that do not require knives. Preparing, baking and decorating cookies can be one of the easiest activities for kids.
Portioning side dishes or desserts is a great way for them to see how advanced planning and preparation makes the service move smoothly. This is a great way for children to relate math, science, reading, and even art in a "real life" fun way.
No matter what the child's age, close supervision is the most important safety consideration -- that and teaching a child respect for the heat of an oven or a stove.
Learning about all the "big" equipment and utensils and what they are used for can be fun in itself. Include the Kid Chefs of the Day on the serving line as they dish out the items they helped make.
Cooking activities at camp can be as simple as a young helper in the kitchen and on the serving line to more formalized skill training for older children.
Consider contacting the chef at a nice restaurant or hotel in your area to visit and prepare something (kid friendly) they specialize in with samples for the kids to try. You could also ask the chef to participate in a special theme menu of the day that is served to the whole camp where the guest chef works side by side with the kid chefs.
Keeping the menu simple with fun twists can make this type of activity fun for all involved. The whole camp enjoys a special theme meal and the kid chefs are proud they helped and worked in a real camp kitchen. When the kids return home, they may even have a healthy respect for the meals they are served from their school kitchen.
Here are some points to ponder as you teach kitchen skills to your campers:
• Using proper measuring techniques to get a desired result is a fun way to show how math, science, reading and art all come together in the kitchen.
• Some equipment to avoid on Kids in the Kitchen Days include fryerlators, electric choppers, mixers and slicers. These are powerful professional tools and kids should not use them.
• We have spoken about safety in the kitchen for the children, but also stress good food safety and sanitation practices. Teaching children to wash their hands thoroughly, clean as they go and keeping their work area organized are great skills to learn at all ages.
• Keeping the class small and having enough supervision assures a safe and fun experience.
• Kids will make mistakes in the kitchen. Teach them that it's okay to make a mistake. Mistakes are excellent learning forums as children can take what they learn from the mistake, adjust to the situation and move on to fix it. Many times a mistake hasn't even been made; it's just frustration at not getting something exactly right. Teaching kids that it's not the end of the world and how to adjust is a great life lesson that goes far beyond cooking.
• Show your kid chefs the beauty and art in making something from scratch by hand. Rarely will something come out exactly the same, and that's the beauty in cooking. Culinary perfection is not doing every action without a flaw -- it's in following a safe, organized procedure and the excitement of serving an item you helped create to a satisfied guest. Kids love to cook. Share the passion and satisfaction for creating something in your camp cooking programs.
• Cooking is a wonderful way to even the playing field for all campers. Many times campers compete in other activities every day. There are always standout athletes, musicians and artists, but in the kitchen it's not a competition. Kitchen time means everyone works together, pays attention to the instructor and completes the task. Everyone wins and has a part in the accomplishment. Depending on the task there's even room for individual artistic expression (like decorating cookies).
For larger camp programs, consider offering more specialized mini classes. Work with your local culinary school to design skills classes that your campers could choose what areas in which they are interested. Such classes are for older children and are easier to plan and teach since the class becomes a training of a specific skill. Three- or four-day programs allow enough time to thoroughly cover all areas.
Day 1: Kitchen equipment and layout, safety (what's sharp, what's hot and other rules) and sanitation. Review ingredients and what they are for, proper Measuring, mixing and what tools they will be working with. Walk through the recipe process, which includes reading to understand, planning your project, gathering and preparation, cooking action and the result. This is the most important area to teach because this is a wonderful way for children to learn the basic steps about how to approach any project. Cooking provides immediate feedback on the result of your planning and effort in a tasty way.
Day 2: Prep Day -- Organize the ingredients, measure everything needed and put in the order of the recipe. Pre-make or hold for the next day, depending upon the project. Pre-bake cookies and cakes, etc.
Day 3: Finish and serve your creations. This is the fun day. Have the kid chefs serve their creations to the whole camp. If many are involved have different theme areas with kid chefs serving and explaining how they did what they did.
Some mini-class topics include baking breads using easy proof and bake dough that children can enhance with flavors and seasonings, cookies and pastries (making the dough, the science of baking it, handling the hot pans, decorating and making puddings and cakes, if your kitchen space allow for it), soups and salads, sauces and entrees (older kids), side dishes and knife and hand tool skills (cuts and safety).
Everyone likes to eat. When children are invited into a commercial kitchen as active participants and they see how much fun cooking can be, they're learning lessons about project planning and eating well that will take the mystery out of cooking for their whole lives. This is exactly what the camp experience is all about. Consider adding to or expanding your cooking program. The time you spend is well worth it.
Scott Gilbert is a corporate chef for Nestle Food Services Inc., and lives in Medina, Ohio.