Forget The Forks

Whether it’s out of fear of the chaos they can cause, or the havoc that prevents kids from eating, theme meals have been slowly going the way of the dinosaurs.

But Camp Tanner in Ontario (Canada) hasn’t followed this trend. Theme meals are our bread and butter, and we rarely run a week where there isn’t more than one “normal” meal.  This tradition persists not only because we love it, but because the kids would revolt if we didn’t! They provide a great way to maintain the energy of the day in a way that is entirely unique to the camping experience. Try having a family Thanksgiving where people are forced to eat with a whisk! Summer camp allows this experience to become a reality. Hopefully, this article will provide inspiration to try a few of these meals so your campers can experience the fun that we have every year!

Low-Organization Meals: Fun Without The Fuss

Not every meal needs to be a stressor for the camp staff. On the contrary, theme meals can be a comfortable and casual way for staff members to meet campers and interact with them in a way that they may not have otherwise.

Musical Chairs: The easiest of easy meals. It’s as simple as putting a music playlist on shuffle and having one person ready to stop the music. Once the music stops, all of the staff members get up and change seats. This is loads of fun for kids without interrupting their eating.

One Utensil: Campers only get a fork or a spoon to eat their entire meal. Meanwhile, staff members are given more unique utensils found in the kitchen, such as a spatula, a whisk, a strainer ... anything is fair game! What’s more fun is that the utensils are all drawn out of a bucket, so staff members never know what they’re going to get!

Shhmeal: This meal can be a tired staff’s best friend. Based on the title, you may have correctly assumed that this meal is almost entirely silent. However, it wouldn’t be any fun if there wasn’t a twist! Campers must stay silent through the meal or face the consequences. Every time someone laughs or talks (e.g., sneezing is allowed), he or she has a utensil taken away. Once the person is out of utensils, the meal must be eaten off of the camper’s chair instead of the table. If a camper still proceeds to make noise, he or she must eat on the porch with a staff member and take over the “gophering” duties.

High-Organization Meals

Survivor: Outwit, Outplay, Outlast! Survivor Meal is run similarly to the hit TV show, starting with the division of staff into two “tribes.” From there, each group competes for immunity within the group to prevent being voted off. And warn staff members to start kissing up now because campers do the voting! The person with immunity is exempt from being removed from the competition. After enough staff members are eliminated, the groups can be combined, and elimination continues until the Lone Survivor is chosen. When there are only four competitors left, immunity is typically removed. It is fun to do the voting on a scream scale, with an energetic staff member acting as a “scream-o-meter”; other options can be explored depending on the time available.

Costume-Based Meals: At Camp Tanner, we like to combine meal themes with dress-ups as often as possible. For instance, this year we ran a Powers Meal, in which each cabin dressed as a different member of the Avengers. To match the superhero theme, each cabin was given “powers,” for example, the ability to ”hose” a staff member or receive dessert first.

Keeping It Creative: Teaching Staff To Think Outside The Box

With so many young people on staff, it can often be difficult to encourage creativity in programming. Trying new meals is a great way to show trust in staff members and allow them to show off their creativity. One of the easiest ways to change up a “meal theme routine” is to combine two existing meals into an entirely new meal! Getting tired of Musical Chairs? Why not combine it with Doodle Meal? The campers can doodle on the table with crayons and paper tablecloths at the same time the counsellors are switching seats. Another great source of meal inspiration is game shows. Many of our new meal ideas have stemmed from popular shows like The Price is Right, Don’t Forget the Lyrics, and Lip Sync Battle.

Controlling The Chaos

Running theme meals can be a hassle, but once you learn how to control them, they are worth the effort. One of the primary concerns is camper issues that arise during meal time. These may include campers being unwilling to eat or trying to steal the spotlight with “elbow punishments.” Theme meals can be distracting to some campers; however, with proper training, staff can deal with this distraction and turn it into a positive learning experience. For instance, when I was a counsellor, I used a reward system for campers who ate their vegetables. If it was One Utensil Meal for instance, I told the kids I would do something funny with my utensil if each of them ate one carrot stick. If behaviour in front of a particular staff member is becoming an issue, you need to ensure that the kids respect the authority of the entire staff. If these problems persist, consider having directors and other senior staff members at the troublesome table. This ensures that order is maintained during the meal and may provide an opportunity for a “respect talk,” if needed.

Another problem often arises with the planning of so many unique meals for each week—the food being served. Many times we’ve planned a One Utensil Meal and then realized the food being served was soup. Needless to say, campers who received forks were unable to make this work. Careful forethought is necessary, and failing that, flexibility on the part of directors to properly run and control theme meals is encouraged.

Worth The Hassle

At Tanner, we love a good theme meal and can’t imagine a week without them. The kids love finding out what exciting meals they are having each day, and this often allows them to compete in a healthy, team-building manner. Staff members take meal time as an opportunity both to entertain and to hone their leadership abilities. The younger staff members have the opportunity to speak to the entire camp, as each member must run one of the meals. Staff can develop the skills they’ll need as they work their way up the ranks. Most importantly, theme meals are fun. They’re silly and ridiculous. They remind kids that camp isn’t like any other place they’re used to. It’s a totally unique experience.

If you are looking for more theme-meal ideas or suggestions, feel free to contact me. I’m always happy to “talk camp.”

Kate “Bender” Wycherley is the Director of Camp Tanner, Inc., in Ontario, Canada. Reach her at