Festive Food Nights

By Rachel Ball

In 2007, the first year I worked at Oakridge Camp in Oklahoma for the summer, the camp operated two lines for food service. When all the campers had gone through for their meals, the food from the second line was removed, leaving the first line open for second servings, and the empty second counter was used to serve the desserts at lunch and dinner.

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At one breakfast, as I cleared the second counter and began to clean up, a small boy—one of the youngest campers— came to the counter and frowned. “Where is the zort?” he asked.

I cocked my head. “The what, buddy?”

“The zort,” he repeated. “Where is it?”

I thought for a minute. “Oh … the dessert?”

“Yes,” he said. “Where is it?”

At that point, I had to explain that even at a special place like summer camp, we limited desserts to lunch and dinner.

We’ve come a long way since 2007 in making mealtimes unique and memorable at Oakridge, but I’ll always remember that, for a child, something as simple as dessert can breed excitement. Good food leaves a strong impression on campers and counselors. Meals are a valuable time when most campers are together in one place, and there are boundless opportunities to create connections and treasured memories. At Oakridge Camp, our favorite way to take food service to the next level has been to add themes to evening meals. Although each night’s meal has a theme—for example, team spirit is a mainstay—we choose one night of each event to plan a more elaborate experience for campers. Over the years, we’ve incorporated a few practices to ensure campers love and look forward to each year’s theme nights.

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Prep For Success
First, take some preparatory steps before the cooking ever begins to lay the groundwork for a successful night:

Get hyped. Theme-meal planning starts months before campers arrive, with early announcements of theme nights. Use social media to build excitement and spread the information to parents and attendees. Many summer camp attendees love to dress up for special nights and prepare by bringing elaborate costumes. Given enough notice, campers will surprise with their ingenuity and creativity.

Dress up. Keeping the theme general and simple means that more campers will participate. In Oklahoma, Western Night consistently draws the greatest costume participation. Having a contest is another way we’ve incentivized dressing for the theme. Above all, encourage staff members to join in, be silly, and create a special night for the group. Campers love to be served food by a cowboy or a lion tamer.

Ask for help. Crafting a truly immersive meal experience takes a significant amount of time and manpower. But we’ve found that volunteers who might not be willing or able to help with day-to-day tasks like dishes or housekeeping are thrilled to help with unusual and special theme-meal elements, like making cotton candy in front of the campers for dessert or holding exotic animals to view during Carnival Night. Sometimes we have enlisted specific volunteers solely for the theme-night dates throughout the summer.

Get Creative
As the event draws closer, we focus on getting creative with meal elements.

Plan a bold menu. Summer camp food preparation can grow monotonous for cooks if the weekly menu is rarely adjusted, but this event gives cooks the chance to exercise their imagination and creativity. Carving a watermelon shark for luau night? Sure! Multicolored lemonade for team spirit night? Yes! On theme nights, we curate the menu to fit the theme—think chicken on a stick, corn dogs, and curly fries for Carnival Night; fried chicken and rolls served family-style for Western Night. When we’re not entirely sure a food product will fit our needs, we test it during training or at staff-only meals—which has become a fun experience for staff and volunteers.

Change the location. An instant way to revolutionize a facility’s meal experience for theme night is to serve the food in a different location than normal. For us, that means transporting the food from the normal dining hall over to the chapel, the main meeting building. This takes some planning and forethought, and may require the use of chafing dishes or coolers. In our experience, one huge benefit of switching up the meal location is that, in many cases, it allows extra time and privacy for decorating the area in accordance with the theme. We also intentionally use round tables with tablecloths for this meal, even though it takes up more space, to allow for more interaction and a nicer dinner-theater atmosphere.

Decorate and transform. To save time hosting the summer’s theme night for multiple events, we store all decorating supplies in labeled bins in the chapel storage areas for easy access and setup. After we’ve decorated for the event the first time, we can easily use pictures and accurate labels to reduce setup time for subsequent events. Organization also makes it much easier to direct volunteers in preparing for the night.

Impress them. Booking or planning a show-stopping activity for mealtime provides campers with a memory of a truly extraordinary night. For Carnival Night, we contract with a local business to bring an exotic animal show campers. Horseback rides on Western Night have been a big hit as well. Since these activities sometimes can’t accommodate the entire group—depending on the attendance restriction for the event—splitting the group between eating and participating in the special activity can be a good way to keep the night moving. If the meal area is smaller and more crowded than the typical dining space, this type of rotation can be especially helpful.

Entertain them. We incorporate our traditional open-mic night into the theme dinner. As campers begin transitioning to dessert, we start the first act of open mic, having auditioned and approved eight to 10 acts earlier in the week. We’ve found this to be the perfect night to invite friends and family to visit their camper if they so desire, and many choose to enjoy the atmosphere and watch their child bring down the house during open mic.

Add activities. Before the meal begins, and after open mic wraps, staff members operate several stations so campers can engage in games or eat small snacks. For Carnival Night, operating the dunk tank with counselor volunteers was hugely popular (kids gravitated toward the time slot for their counselor, of course). Face painting and a moon bounce were available. For Western Night, an arm-wrestling tournament and yard activities like cornhole and giant board games were set up in the meal space.

We’ve had a blast facilitating these wacky theme nights over the years, and look forward to providing many more memories for campers. Ultimately, that’s the goal of all the planning, all the preparation, and all the staff effort—to use the social power of food to create a memorable moment of community and awe for each camper who attends an event hosted by Oakridge Camp. With that goal in mind, we say, for one night, forget about regular camp dinner—grab some cotton candy and popcorn, and let’s have a party!

Rachel Ball is a staff member for Oakridge Christian Camp & Retreat Center in Anadarko, Okla. Reach her at Rachel@OakridgeCamp.Com.