Cooking Ideas That Sizzle

By Matthew Pines

When deciding to add programming at Maine Teen Camp in the fall of 2008, my wife and I came up with several options. The obvious choice, however, was cooking. We wanted something that would be marketable--that is, it would be a bit different (realizing only later that many camps were adding cooking around that time), it was intriguing to our population, it could teach usable skills, and it could keep campers coming back for more. We also wanted something that was intentional in its goals—teaching real-world skills that are a basis for confidence-building, that rewards sustained effort, and that could be easily interwoven with existing programming.

Unlike as with many camp programs, we knew that cooking needed a new space versus a repurposed space. We made an investment in a new studio, with room for a class size of six to eight campers, loads of counter space, a gas range and hood with Ansul system, and lots of windows for light and ventilation. We did not spend much money on gadgets and gizmos, understanding that the foundational skills can be taught with cutting boards, knives, mixing bowls, and some good pots and pans.

We made a conscious choice to not call our program culinary arts, as is popular. To us, culinary arts implies a career focus and a much more rigorous course load than is appropriate or available in summer camp. Cooking, however, is a basic life skill that should be accessible and fun—something that everyone can enjoy doing on a daily basis. We recognized that cooking can be a daunting task to people with no experience, so just getting them into a kitchen and learning the basics provide for a great foundation for life when it comes to the food they eat and hopefully cook themselves.

Developing A Program
Once we had a space and a name, we needed to develop programming. We knew from the outset that we did not want just the baking of cookies and brownies, five classes per day. But we’ve learned from our campers that there will always be a demand for a baking class. Of course, they love learning how to bake delicious cookies from scratch—almost as much as they love sharing the end product with their cabinmates. It has been clear that flexibility based on camper interest is required. We’ve learned to be open to instructor specialties, but not to get too heavily invested in something that is either unproven with the campers or so specialized that if that particular staff does not return, the specialty equipment will be left to gather dust. Most valuably, we have learned to ask international staff (and sometimes older campers) if they can cook their cultural cuisine well. Learning the regional variations in Italian cuisine from an Italian staff member, or getting a lesson in making crepes from a French staff member is just plain cool.

So what has worked over the last several summers? Maine Teen Camp is exclusively for teenagers, so what works for our population may not appeal to younger campers. That being said, we have found our best class themes have been those that appeal to how teenagers see themselves, and how they want to see themselves.

Vegetarian Cooking
In line with this idea, one of the classes we always offer is vegetarian cooking. Many teens are either keeping a vegetarian diet, or would like to, but haven’t developed a wide range of meal options. Especially in cases where they may be the only vegetarian in their family, the classes at camp can be particularly valuable in introducing them to some new techniques and ingredients. This is appealing to parents also, who may not be totally enthusiastic with their teenager’s diet choices if it means cooking a separate dish. It’s obviously much easier when the vegetarian in the house cooks for himself or herself!

Cooking For College
We’ve also had success with classes like “Cooking for College.” This class focuses on simple, economical, healthy meals that require a minimum of fancy ingredients or equipment. Campers learn how to cook simple and quick pasta and noodle dishes, easy curries, and basic Tex-Mex dishes. The goal is to push campers towards becoming confident and curious home cooks before they leave their parents’ well-stocked kitchen. They will be armed with a knowledge of flavors and techniques that translates easily to the more basic kitchen they will have access to as college students living out of dorms, or as freshly minted graduates. Ramen is a great example of a simple noodle dish that is made more nutritious by adding eggs, cabbage, carrots, bok choy, celery, or anything else that works, and it can all be done on a single hot plate. In terms of the cooking program, keeping the emphasis on dishes that rely on pantry staples and healthy, cheap ingredients not only prepares the campers to be thinking about how they can create simple and tasty meals, but it serves to also keep the program budget within reason.

Easy Breakfast Cooking
A final example of one of our favorite cooking offerings is Easy Breakfast Cooking. Note that this class can be scheduled at any point during the day and will definitely be popular, and why not? French toast, pancakes, frittatas, and hash browns taste great whenever they are prepared. This class is also popular because breakfast is often seen as the lowest “pressure” meal, and may be the one most likely for parents to hand over to campers at home on the weekends.

Cross Programming
One of the favorite aspects of the cooking program is the range of possibilities for crossover into other areas of camp. Our English as a Second Language classes can have international campers translate recipes from their native language (French, Spanish, or Japanese) into English, then be cooked and shared. Our Community Service Program has utilized the cooking program in a variety of ways—from bringing back harvested produce from an organic farm campers have visited, to cooking dog treats to take to the local animal shelter. Of course, anything grown in the camp’s organic vegetable garden or herb garden is up for grabs, too. To further enhance the cooking studio itself, we have planted a host of edible plants and berry-producing bushes. We like the idea of using what we produce and harvest in our cooking program. Larger quantities of garden vegetables are given to the main kitchen for all of camp to enjoy at meal times.

Tips For Success
Of course, the most important feature of a good cooking program is the staffing. We’ve found the best model is to have a head of program with food-service experience, who teaches the bulk of the classes, but who is open to having other staff co-teach or lead specialty classes. We’re fortunate to have a strong returning staff member who is a school chef during the year.

Cooking takes a large initial investment to create or renovate a space and to equip it well. Ongoing costs are reasonable, but require good oversight to ensure food budgets do not balloon—offering a Cooking with Kobe Beef class is not cost-effective! Adhering to American Camp Association standards, state regulations for food service, and safe food-handler standards ensures campers don’t make themselves sick eating their own food. Make sure your insurance company is OK with the space you have created, and as with any higher-risk activity area, be sure to secure the space when not in use.

Bon Appetit.

Matthew Pines is the Director of Maine Teen Camp. He is an educator with a master’s degree in education. He and his wife, Monique, work year-round building the camp into the best summer option for teens. Reach him at

A Couple Of Our Favorite Recipes

MTC’s Best Guacamole
3 - 4 ripe avocados
¼ cup finely chopped cilantro
1 lime
1 tbsp hot sauce or to taste (Cholula or Tabasco preferred)
½ cup sour cream (optional)
¼ tsp garlic powder
¼ tsp salt

Mash ripe avocados with a fork until largest lumps have been broken down. 

Add cilantro, garlic powder, salt, and sour cream, if using (sour cream not needed, but adds a creaminess and stretches the recipe further). Mix well.

Add lime juice ½ lime at a time. Taste after first half and decide if second half is needed.

Add hot sauce to taste. 
Chill in fridge for 1 hour. Enjoy, with friends. Not too many friends, or you’ll run out quickly.

Fool-Proof Pizza D’oh!
1½ cups warm water
½ tbsp active dry yeast
3 cups flour (all purpose, or half all purpose, half whole wheat)
2 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
½ tsp salt

Mix 1 cup water and yeast, and let sit for 5 minutes.

Combine flour, salt, olive oil.  Add 1 cup of yeast water, plus most of remaining 2 cups warm water.  Reserve ½ cup of water. Mix continuously until smooth dough ball forms. If it’s too shaggy, add more water. If it’s too sticky, add more flour. 
Knead dough ball for approx. 5 minutes, until smooth and elastic. Put dough ball in lightly oiled bowl, cover with plastic wrap and allow to rise for approx. 1 hour until roughly doubled in size.
Turn out risen dough onto lightly floured surface, and roll out. Allow rolled base to rest for a few minutes before baking in 425-degree F oven for 5 to 8 minutes. ---------------------------------------

Camp Basics:
Student to Instructor Ratio: 2.5:1
Location: Porter, Maine (approx. 40 miles west of Portland)
Cost to Attend: 4 Weeks $5,800, 2 Weeks $3,500, 7 Weeks $8,200
Ages: 13 (or entering 8th grade) to 17

For more than 30 years, Maine Teen Camp has been providing a summer-camp experience for teenagers looking for the benefits of the sleepaway camp experience, but have aged out of their old camp/started too late for a more traditional-aged camp. We love this age group, and have designed programming to be age-appropriate. If you have former campers or teens looking for a new camp experience, send them to to learn more!