Advice For Caterers When Organising Food On A Residential

After cooking for seventy or so people on a residential weekend this summer I wrote Advice For Youth Workers When Organising Catering On A Residential. This is the other side of that coin; advice for caterers when you’re organising food on a residential weekend for young people or kids. I’m going to assume you know how to cook in bulk, so I’m going to ignore anything like that and just deal with the things that might surprise you or you might not think to think about till your on camp.

Recognise the youth worker’s job is hard work.

Running a camp is hard. Speaking at a camp is hard. They turn up having had little sleep having been up late and then early prepping for the camp. They have to make sure all the leaders know what they’re doing and all the young people know what they’re doing and all the parents dropping and picking up kids know what they’re doing. The twelve minutes of time to themselves that they managed to get has been filled by the need to plan a new activity to replace the bonfire night-hike that’s been rained off, which is why they’re re-writing their talk on the loo. So if you look over at them at dinner time just having a sit down next to the kids having a nice chat when you’re rushing round the kitchen making sure all the food is properly cooked and edible and the dish-washer is working and you find yourself thinking of all the jobs you could give them in the kitchen so they’d work as hard as you… yeah, repent of that. They work hard.

Be ready with dinner when you say, be able to hold dinner for half an hour if you need to.

You should have a precise dinner time, and should be ready to serve up dinner however you’re going to serve it up for that precise dinner time. So if the kids are due in for dinner at 6:30, food should be ready to be on tables at 6:30. But things happen, so be ready to hold it for thirty minutes or so. A really good idea is an hour or two before hand, checking with the camp leader that everything is on time.

Have something kids can snack on.

To be honest, this is fruit and maybe toast. Most of the kids who want snacks, if you’re feeding them properly at meal-times want snacks because they’re in the habit of snacking at home constantly. They don’t need a snack, but it’s good to have something. So put a fruit bowl out and let them snack from it.

This is not the time for master-chef or world’s healthiest eaters.

As much as I’d love to roast a dozen chickens and serve them with couscous and salsa-verde if the young people would rather eat turkey twizzlers and mash, they serve them twizzlers and mash. Yes, they’re philistines, yes they should like better food, but this residential is not the place to teach them otherwise. Likewise, you might think the kids would benefit from no-fat, no-sugar, no-carbs deserts, and you’re probably right, but this residential is not the place to fix their diet. You can obviously cook them things that are healthy and tasty and they’ll eat lots of (Spaghetti Bolognese! Jacket Potatoes and Chilli! Apple Crumble (sort of!)) but don’t focus on that.

Plan super far in advance.

You have no spare time on the weekend. So have everything planned in advance, not just your menus but your expect specifics of your menus. You should know what time you turn the oven on to what temperature, exactly how many onions you need to cut up. You do all that and you can cook on auto-pilot and then have the mental energy to deal with things when they go wrong. It also means you’ll save loads of time and cash in shopping. If you don’t plan properly, expect to drive to Asda at least once a day (other supermarkets are available). Even if you plan you’ll still go most days, but if you don’t you can count on your free time being taken up by a car journey and a shopping trip.

Plan with the youth leaders how you’re going to serve up food.

I’m just going to copy and paste this from the previous article:

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.

It also takes time to serve something up. If you’ve cooked a big batch of pasta up it’ll take at least ten minutes to transfer it into serving bowls. Plan for that time.

Have a break day.

If you’re cooking every single meal from scratch you can make really cheap meals every time that taste amazing. The problem is what you save in time costs you in effort. Making a meal from scratch for a lot of people takes a lot of time. And over a week that’s going to knacker you out. So plan a meal mid-week that’s really easy and simple and doesn’t take time to make. That could be fish-fingers and oven chips and peas. Or hotdogs. It’ll cost more but it’ll give you effectively a day off and mean you can overall make cheaper meals

Know your kitchen, and find out how to use the machinery.

If you can do a pre-camp visit, do it. Talk to the people who normally run the kitchen if there are any. Planning meals when you know what equipment you can use is so much easier. Do they have a food processor? What kind of ovens do they have? Also, learn how to use the industrial stuff. You can’t just turn up and guess those industrial machines, because some of them are pretty insanely deadly. This a Bratt Pan. It’s a saucepan the size of a chest fridge. It’s very simple to use. It is realistically possible to hydraulically crush your hand into an open flame while using it. Don’t use it if you don’t know how to, but that doesn’t mean don’t use it. It means find out how they work and how to use them safely.

Know how to turn the gas off immediately.

Someone in the kitchen is a gas shut off. It’s probably a big red stop button. Find that button. If there is a fire, immediately press that button. If you cannot find that button, or any kind of gas cut-off button, go and find the centre manager and find out where it is. It’s important.

Use a temperature probe.

You should know this already, but get an instant-read thermometer (every catering kitchen I’ve been in has at least a couple of these, but bring your own just in case). Test everything you cook, especially lumps of meat like chicken or sausage to make sure it’s cooked inside. Here’s a handy list of internal temperatures that things should be at to be absolutely safe. This is very safe temperature scale. If you were cooking at home, a lot of these internal temperatures would be slightly over done. But you’re not, you’re cooking for kids so do it to temperature.

Bring Moisturiser

You know what you do lots of in a kitchen? Washing your hands. You chop some meat, you wash your hands, you dump stuff in the bin, you wash your hands, you accidentally run your hands through your hair, you wash your hands. And so on. And your hands will get dry and start to crack. So bring some really good moisturiser. That way your hands stay fresh and you don’t stop washing your hands because it’s too painful.

(Fact: I knew an ex-special forces guy who swore by hand-cream. Your get dirty hands, so you wash them to prevent giving yourself food poisoning and getting dirt in your gear. On top of all the other hard work you do, your hands get cracked. They get cracked, they get infected and you can’t work as well as you need to. So you use moisturiser.)

If you have good knives or potato peelers, bring your own.

Seriously, the amount of garbage knives and potatoes peelers I’ve found in kitchens is ridiculous. If I could somehow have kept all the rubbish knives I’ve had to deal with other the years and had taken up juggling and juggled those knives, I would have never been injured because they were that blunt. Bring your own if you have nice ones.

Provide cake and tea and coffee facilities to leaders.

If you can have a constant supply of tea and coffee making facilities, and you can make sure there are biscuits around, and if you can use the left over sugar and eggs and flour to make cakes to share, then do. They’ll thank you for it.