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.”

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.

A comfort dinner of spaghetti, garlic and cheese bread, salad bar and homemade apple crisp dessert is always served the first night to ease the transition for new campers. The last lunch is usually pizza, salad bar and fresh fruit. “I want them to leave thinking of a good meal,” she says.

To entice the kids into eating more fruit, Nelson will cut up pineapple, cantaloupe and kiwi and add them to pudding. A favorite is banana pudding and mixed fruit. She will also prepare apple churros or her signature homemade apple crisp.

There is no pop machine at the camp, and the canteen limits ice cream treats to one per camper per day.

To appreciate the hard work done in the kitchen, counselors-in-training are required to work there. “It’s hard work, and the director will often use kitchen duty to evaluate staff members who wish to return,” says Nelson.

She is excited about a program the camp hopes to start no later than next summer--a greenhouse and elective gardening program for campers. It will be fun for the children to grow and eat their own produce.

She shares the following tips:

1. Look for nutritional bang for your buck. Although the camp participates in the government’s Summer Food Program, she shies away from food that has a high percentage of the filler TVP.

2. Look for breads and cereals that are vitamin-fortified.

3. Learn about special needs from Web sites and vendors. She especially likes, Sysco Food Services and Reinhart Food Service.

4. Use variety, variety, variety!

5. Buy fresh, not processed food.

6. Look for foods with “all natural” ingredients--they are better quality.

Camp Young Judaea Midwest

Pam Pabelick will most certainly agree with Nelson’s #6--it describes kosher food to eat! She eats kosher, even when not at camp. The meat is a better quality and has no additives or preservatives. After nine years in a kosher kitchen, cooking with separate dishes and silverware for meats and dairy has become second nature. Not cooking on Saturday, yet having good meals is no longer a challenge. Meals are baked and not fried--a definite health advantage.

“Our kids (about 225 per session) eat like any other camp kids, she says … only the food is prepared and served separately.” For instance, she will serve casseroles, but they will be vegetable and meat casseroles. If she serves lasagna, it is meatless. But regardless of what she serves, it is never repeated in the same session.

As the oldest member of the staff, Pabelick is known as “Grandma” and says she makes a “pretty good Jew.” The Shabbat services have become the highlight of her week, and she loves to listen to the children sing and watch them dance. As with Camp Gray, the faith of the children is an integral part of the camp experience. “It’s a joy to watch the kids grow up,” she says. Most come every year. “I love them all,” says Camp Grandma, who chooses to spend 16-hour days at camp.

Pabelick’s charges eat a lot. Because of the expense of kosher foods, her budget is roughly $5 per child per meal. “I always stay under budget because I only make homemade foods,” she says. That may be why some kids say they eat better at camp than at home!

Breakfast may include scrambled eggs, cereal, oatmeal, potatoes, homemade muffins or cinnamon rolls and, once a week, bagels. A favorite lunch is grilled cheese sandwiches and tomato soup, but you can also find tacos, sloppy Joes and BBQ beef on the menu. Dinners are not served until 6:45 p.m. and are the heartiest meal of the day. Snacks are served around 5 p.m. to help the starving campers make it to dinner. Dessert is always served and always homemade. “The kids expect dessert, and they get it,” says Pabelick.

Like Nelson, Pabelick always has fruit available and a salad bar at the lunch and dinner meals. She adds to the “always” list cookies and juice. Milk is only served with breakfast because of kosher requirements. She provides for special dietary needs, and like Nelson, the first and last meals of the camp session are comfort foods and specialty dinners.

Pabelick offers the kids some interesting options. She will have a theme day once a week, such as Mexican Day or Chinese Day. Toward the end of each session, the counselors develop a theme for the closing banquet, and the dining hall is decorated accordingly, and food follows suit. For the International banquet, Pabelick prepared foods from eight different countries!

She also stimulates interest in the kitchen and more respect for the staff. The children help serve the meals, and at 16 the kids come into the kitchen to help. She also offers a popular cooking class. The kids peruse her cookbooks, make their own menu, prepare the food, and cook it for camp. When the class started, Pabelick had 10 children try it. Now she routinely gets 20 for cooking class. “The kids love to taste the food they are cooking, and I don’t get so many complaints. They have a better understanding of what goes into food preparation.”

What Makes It Work

Both of these women truly love what they are doing and love the kids. To that end, they provide quality, quantity, and variety in the foods they serve. They try to keep special diets special without singling out the recipients as different. Both women provide special opportunities for the children to have an active role in food preparation and presentation. In short, these women treat their campers as one would treat beloved sons and daughters.

Linda Stalvey is a freelance writer and regular contributor to Parks & Rec Business and Camp Business magazines. She gave up Washington, D.C., public relations to indulge her passion for parks, the environment and outdoor activities in Medina, Ohio. You can reach her via e-mail at


Quick and Easy Camp Recipes

Amber Nelson’s Breakfast Casserole

Mix thawed hash browns with cream of chicken soup, diced ham, sausage and bacon.

Place in buttered pan.

Pour fresh beaten eggs or thawed frozen eggs over the casserole mixture.

Top with mozzarella and cheddar cheese.

Cover and bake.

Pam Pabelick’s Fudgesickle Cake

Crush oreo cookies and place in pan for crust.

Add canned chocolate pudding (or experiment with other flavors).


Top with whipped cream.

Bryan BuchkoComment