Tug of war competitions, ghost stories, bad-movie nights and new friendships are just some of the memories that youths will take with them from their time at camp.
Years ago, when the norm in camp dining halls was grilled cheese, tomato soup, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and celery, food probably wasn’t part of the “Remember that time at camp?” category. Now, however, dining experiences at camp might just be something that sticks with campers the most.
With numerous healthy menu options, homemade food for Shabbat, cooking classes, the burrito craze and food straight from camp gardens, Greater Washington-area Jewish camps have found new and innovative ways to provide a memorable and enjoyable food experience for campers.
Healthy, considerate menus
One thing camps need to consider before the start of summer is prospective campers who have dietary restrictions. While all the food at Capital Camps, Camps Airy & Louise and Habonim Dror Camp Moshava is certified kosher, campers may have food allergies, such as soy or gluten intolerance, or may simply be picky eaters.
All three camps make sure they provide food options for those with gluten, dairy, soy and other allergies.
“One thing that sets us apart is we operate all year long,” says Sam Roberts, director of Capital Camps. “We have full-time executive chefs who accommodate dietary restrictions.”
In the case of picky eaters, oldies but goodies, such as grilled cheese, are always an option.
“[At the start of a session] we focus on comfortable and familiar foods,” says Jen Silber, the executive director at Camp Moshava. “We want them to get settled in. Later on, we’ll try to serve different things, but we always have options that are familiar and easy, like peanut butter and jelly.”
The camps also make sure that vegetarian options are available at every meal, and sometimes vegetarian meals can be a huge hit.
“One of our most popular meals is vegetarian burritos,” Silber says. “The kids love it because they can build their own burrito. It is a vegetarian meal, but everyone enjoys it. For some kids, it’s new and not something they would necessarily eat at home.”
Healthy eating is another important part when it comes to camp dining. “We know camp food can be challenging, and we want to make sure our kids feel healthy and satisfied,” Roberts says.
Garden and kitchen creativity
A culinary phenomenon that has been on the rise, and usually ensures great tasting food, is the “farm to table” concept. All three camps have gardens where campers young and old have the opportunity to plant and harvest vegetables, and are then able to eat the “fruits of their labor,” as Roberts puts it.
Camps Airy & Louise have CulinAIRY Arts, a cooking class with cooking clinics and competitions for campers, and Camp Moshava assigns groups with different jobs, two of which include gardening and vegetable cutting.
Every summer, Silber says, a group of campers cares for an organic garden, where they weed and water plants and feed farm animals. When vegetables are ready to be picked, campers harvest and bring them to the kitchens, where they’re incorporated into meals.
One year, Moshava campers harvested kale, and they were able to taste their work in an interesting way.
“Our cooks made kale chips and the kids loved them,” Silber says. “Because they picked it, they were really excited to try it and eat it.”
Moshava has also been taking its younger campers to First Fruits Farm in Freeland, Md., where they’ve helped harvest fruits and vegetables that go to a local soup kitchen.
The dining experience
While the types of food served and how the food got on the table both show how these camps are becoming more culinarily innovative, the actual experience of sitting down and enjoying a meal with fellow campers is another camp element in itself.
“We’re deeply committed to making sure our kids enjoy their dining-room experience,” Roberts says. “We look at it from a programmatic standpoint.” Roberts says Capital Camps has musical lunches and theme-night dinners.
Over at Camps Airy & Louise, Camp Airy director Rick Frankle says singing is a huge part of the dining experience and Shabbat is as well. “We have a whole bunch of programs that take place in the dining hall on an ongoing basis,” Frankle says. “It could be something simple like a bingo breakfast. [The dining hall] is definitely the hub of the camp community.”
Sometimes, dining halls can even stir up controversy among campers. Silber says last summer Moshava did away with the salad bar and decided to serve salads family-style on each table. The reasoning, she says, was to create a more peaceful mealtime and encourage campers to eat healthier by making salads more accessible.
For campers who enjoyed the salad bar, the change didn’t sit well. After Silber explained the reason for the change, the pro-salad bar group staged a protest. Eventually, compromises were made.
Campers agreed to take turns going to the salad bar, in exchange for fulfilling a promise to eat more vegetables. “This issue became a learning opportunity for our campers — about organizing and protesting ‘unfair’ policies,” Silber says.
Who knew salad bars could become a focal point for social activism?
For more information on these camps and their programs, go to airylouise.org, capitalcamps.org and campmosh.org.
I’ve gone to Camp Moshava for three years, and all three years salad was served family style. The salad bar controversy was something that started last year among a small group of campers, and by second session it had grown to an all-out protest.