Over the summer my wife and I and some incredibly capable 17 year olds cooked for a week long camp for 70-ish people. It was hard work, but fun. It’s also odd to be on the other side of the serving hatch, seeing as how normally I’m the one organising things or giving talks or just hanging out with the young people. It made me think a lot about how I organise catering on camps as a youth worker though, so here are some bits of advice for youth workers. I’ll do another one of these in a bit for caterers and cooks to give some balance.
Recognise it’s hard work.
One of the of the worse, simplest things that can go wrong on a camp is everyone not getting enough food. It’s fairly simple to screw up on logistics or have too meagre a budget and give everyone too little food. Nothing saps the energy of your kids like too little food. And it’ll wipe out your leaders. Too little food and they’ll have less time for the young people and everyone’ll be more prone to falling asleep, catching colds, and generally being annoyed with each other. So look after your cooks. If you look over at them going to bed at nine o’clock in the evening when you’re going to be up til one at least and you find yourself thinking of all the jobs you could give them to make them stay up as late as you… yeah, repent of that. They work hard.
Be as precise as possible as soon as possible about numbers and timetables and dietary requirements.
A vast amount of work for cooking goes in before the actual event. In fact, I think the hard work and the bit most cooks for camp struggle with is the pre-event planning. If you’ve asked someone to cook it’s presumably because they know how to cook. But they probably don’t know how to work out exactly how much food to provide and how much that food costs. There is a lot of work that goes on beforehand in calculating how much and what sort of food your campers need. They need to know what they’re cooking a long time beforehand, so that on the camp they can just worry about cooking it. They don’t have to work out how much beef is required for chili for 70, they can just walk into the fridge and get the 20 packets of lean minced beef the recipe tells them to get.
Obviously people can drop out last minute, or come last minute, but as a good measure, your cooks should know within a 10% margin of error how many people are coming on camp (so telling them you’ll have 50 and then bringing 45 is fine, telling them you’ll have 50 and then bringing 30 is not). Also, let them know the ages of the campers and leaders. A camp of 22 eleven year olds and 5 leaders is going to be a lot less food than 16 eleven year olds and 11 leaders.
Give the cooks a budget, and give them one that’s not stingy.
As your cooks are going to be planning everything in advance, they need to know exactly how much money they’re going to have in advance. As a rule of thumb, if you’re catering for teenagers £2 a meal a day is fine. Breakfasts will cost a bit less than £2 and dinners a bit more than £2 so it averages out. As numbers get bigger your costs will drop due to the economy of buying stuff in bulk. If you have access to a proper catering kitchen and if you have access to a cash and carry you can save even more money. We catered for 70 people and ended up on about £1.15 a meal, but we only managed that because we had a lot of help, a professional kitchen, and access to a cash and carry and because we slightly stupidly decided to cook pretty much every meal from scratch1. It’s always safer to budget higher, because this means it’s easier to cook from and you don’t run the risk of underfeeding the campers.
Give the cash for the food up front
£2 a meal a day for a weekend for 25 people is £300. That’s £300 that’s going to be spent within a week. You can’t expect anyone to pay out for all the food from their own money and then claim it back after the camp. If that means you give them a cheque or cash up front for the entire amount of the camp, do it. Or it may mean you put the Sainsbury’s (other supermarkets are available) order through on a work credit card. Work it out somehow though. They shouldn’t be having to go into an overdraft or savings to pay for camp.
Cover the incidentals.
Your cooks will have to pay petrol as they run to Tescos (other supermarkets are available) every other day, and they’ll have to buy cleaning products, and they’ll probably bring their own stuff from home. They also might have to do a new a food hygiene course. Cover those expenses. Or at least let the team know the expenses can be covered.
Let the cooks know exactly what they have to cook with.
As the person who booked the centre or camp site you’re the one who’s got the opportunity to find out what the kitchen is kitted out with. Does it have a professional sanitising machine? How do the ovens work? How big is the fridge? What comes with the knives. The best thing to do is to put the cooks in touch with the centre manager, but that might not be possible.
Let the cooks know exactly what the kids requirements are
As the person who got the young people booked on the camp you’re the one who’s got the opportunity to find out what their dietary requirements actually are. The question you want to find out the answer to is “what happens if your child eats this thing they shouldn’t?” At all times you need to respect whatever the parent says the child’s diet is, even if it’s stupid2, but it’s important to know if the child doesn’t like prawns, of if they’re going to seize up and stop breathing if one wanders near their food.
Think through the logistics of dinner
You know what sucks? Getting 70 kids and leaders to line up at a serving hatch and get their food one at a time. If it takes 10 seconds a child that’s ten minutes to get everyone served. Which means the first kids will have wolfed down their dinner before the last kids are served. You need to think through how you’re going to get food to the tables, and how you’re going to serve it. You need to think through how you’re going to clean up dishes and get them off the tables as well. Talk this through with the cooks. Numbers and dining hall arrangements will alter this a lot, but we found what worked was bringing large serving portions to each table and getting the leaders on the table to serve it up. We have six tables of twelve, so everything had to be served in sixth’s. This meant for some things like toad in the hole, you had to cook six big portions of toad in the hole, but that made serving simple, and meant everyone was eating at the same time.
Get help for washing up and occasional other massive jobs.
Washing up is a massive massive chore. It takes ages and kills your hands over the course of a weekend, let along a week. There’s always more of it. So assign people to help out with washing up. Maybe even give an entire leader over to washing up duty and give them some helpers every day. Even if the leaders just wash up all the cups and plates and leave the kitchen stuff to the cooks, that’s still helped a lot. See also, the occasional huge simple jobs that just need someone to do. Like peeling potatoes and carrots.
Don’t get young people involved in cooking or washing up unless you’ve really thought about it
Most young people don’t know how to wash up properly. That’s because most adults don’t either. So you’ll have to teach them or you’ll spend the hour after the washing up should have been done washing up the plates again to get them clean enough to eat off. And you can teach people, but teaching new young people every single meal time how to wash up is time and energy. It’s more hassle than it’s worth. So unless one of the outcomes of your camp can be met by your young people washing up, don’t bother. And what goes for washing up goes double for cooking. Peeling potatoes is something that is very easy once you’ve done it once a week for ten years. To someone who has never peeled a potato before it’s like a British person trying to throw an american football left-handed; on the one hand, it’s hilariously funny, on the other, they’re as liking to hit themselves as to do what they intended to do. You can totally get young people involved in cooking and it’s great, but it’s a proper activity in and of itself that needs thinking through and planning.
1 It might be worth explaining how this works. If you cook bolognese for 8 people you’re going to need half a tube of tomato puree and four-ish onions and maybe a quarter of a herb jar of thyme (and if we’re being adult about this a glass of red wine) and around 800 grams of pasta. You can’t buy half a tube of puree. That’s wasted money. You can buy a kilo of pasta and just make it all, but some might go to waste. If you’re making for 80 people then you can just buy 4 tubes of puree. or if you can access a cash and carry you can buy a tin of enough tomato puree at an even cheaper rate. And bulk buy bags of pasta (you can get very big bags of pasta at a cash and carry). And if you have a professional kitchen you can chop all the forty onions you need by peeling and top and tailing them all by hand, then throwing them in a food processor. It probably takes as long this way as properly dicing ten onions by hand. Fast and lazy. Of course, if you don’t have a professional kitchen and lots of help, then you might not have the time or energy to make bolognese from scratch, so you buy a bunch of pasta sauce jars. That’s fine, but you’ve just quadrupled the cost for that dinner.
2 And if it’s ridiculously stupid, or if it they have severe reactions to lots of common things, then talk to the parents about ways of managing it. Presumably if they have a really rare diet, the parents have got methods of dealing with this day to day. Find out what they are and work out a plan.