How to organize cooking at camp (or any large cooking project)

Gathered around the evening campfireDo you have a church camp, family reunion, or a wedding coming up where you’re in charge of the food?  Are you wondering how to pull it together without pulling out your hair?

Years ago I was in a similar situation.  Our church camp food had been organized for many years by four wonderful ladies who I knew were wishing for help and wanting to hand off the job.  They were so ready that when I offered to help, I ended up spearheading the whole thing.  Yikes.  I knew that I wanted to think of a way to organize it so that more people were in the kitchen, but for shorter lengths of time.  For folks to feel comfortable enough to volunteer to help, I was going to have to break down the big task into smaller ones.   After all, not too many people feel comfortable in commercial kitchens  — not even me that first year.  And even fewer have experience cooking for 50 or 60 people at a time.

~GO WITH FAMILIAR FOOD

One thing I changed very little was the menu.  Our experienced cooks had found that familiar foods like pancakes, tacos, hot dogs, and pizza went over well with the campers.  I liked that the prep of these meals would feel doable to most at-home cooks.  Familiar in this case was a good thing.

~ASK FOR LEADERS AND ASSISTANTS

I made a simple sign-up chart, and arranged a team leader for each meal from among the most experienced cooks in the church.  Then I put up my sign-up sheet at church asking for 2 or 3 more assistant cooks at each meal.  I was banking on the fact that signing up as an assistant would feel less intimidating to most folks than being the lead cook.  I specified what was going to be cooked at each meal, so that people could sign up for meals that they felt confident doing.

~LAY OUT FLOW CHARTS

Next I spent some time thinking through each meal logistically.  Working backward from the time at which I wanted to serve each meal, I figured out when things needed to go into and come out of the oven.  I estimated how long preparing each item would take before cooking. (Hint: allow 20- not 5–minutes for 2 people to crack 10 dozen eggs.)  I allowed time to make salads, cut fruit, and pour drinks.  Then  I wrote up a  flow chart for each individual meal, starting with the time that the cooks would need to come into the kitchen and working step by step through the whole  meal preparation.  These flow charts are posted prominently in the kitchen for each meal, guiding cooks through the process.

Food for a Crowd

~MAKE AN ‘EXTRAS’ SIGNUP

For the last few years, I’ve also created a sign-up sheet to do specific tasks that can be done hours or days before various meals. (Have you noticed by now that one of my main camp secrets is delegating?? 🙂  ) Some folks, like mommas of little ones, can’t commit to cook a whole meal, but they can find half an hour, maybe during a baby’s nap, to assist with a smaller project. For example, I like to cook a fair bit of the meat before camp, and freeze it until it is needed.  This makes it easier to transport, and ensures that the meat is properly cooked.  Things we usually do before camp:  brown ground beef for tacos, slow-cook pork for pulled pork sandwiches, cut cabbage for Amish coleslaw, and brown the meat for Chili for a Crowd.  Other things are best done at camp, but need to be done several hours ahead of the meal.  Examples include: jello, brownies, pizza dough, ham sauce, and cinnamon rolls.  Anything that can be done ahead of time will ease the job of the busy mealtime cooks.  I bring laminated copies of favorite recipes to camp to be used year after year.

 

~MAKE A SHOPPING LIST

This perhaps is one of the hardest tasks of the whole project.  Estimating food quantities can be very difficult. When in doubt, I tend to buy a little more, especially of affordable options.  Our camp is a 40 minute drive from the nearest grocery store, so it is inconvenient to run out for items I’ve forgotten.  Ellen’s Kitchen is a resource I found helpful in guesstimating quantities, especially at first.  Here’s another website that shares some general rules of thumb.  Here are some examples of some things that I’ve figured out over the years:

  • Scrambled eggs– figure 2 per person  (with sausage, bread and fruit to fill out the meal)
  • Ham Dinner for 100– 45 pounds spiral-cut ham is about right for a meal for 100 people (along with Scalloped Potatoes for a Crowd and a huge fruit salad consisting of 1 watermelon, 3 cantaloupe, 2 honeydew and 5 pounds of grapes.)
  • Taco Lunch for 100– 30 pounds is about right for 100 people  (along with 120 flour tortillas, 80 corn tortillas, three huge cans of refried beans, 10# grated cheese, 3# sour cream, plus salsa, lettuce and tomatoes as toppings.  And 2 watermelon as fruit.)
  • Pancake Breakfast for 100 people–  plan on needing about 225 medium sized pancakes (plus about 6 cantaloupe, 3 honeydew, 20 pounds of bacon, 3 gallons of apple juice,  2 gallons of orange juice, and a gallon of milk.

When you’re putting together your initial list, go through every single ingredient for every single meal, making sure to add together quantities of items you use at multiple meals.  Then double-check the list, making sure to add all condiments, spices, etc.  (Last year we forgot yeast, and for many long moments I was afraid our pizza would be unleavened bread.  Yikes!  Thankfully there was just a little stashed in a cupboard at the camp.)

When it comes time to shop, take along a buddy who is energetic and familiar with the menu.  Wear comfy shoes and bring water.  I expect a camp shopping trip to take a full 8 hour day one day, and usually shop for a few last things (a couple more hours of shopping) the following day.  The first time you plana big cooking project, you may feel intimidated.  But with a little practice and a lot of thought, each successive year gets easier.  These days, thanks to the many kind folks who’ve willingly volunteered in my camp kitchen since 2007, we have MANY experienced camp cooks instead of just four.  I may just be working myself out of a job!

Have you survived a big cooking project?  I’d love to hear your tips for making such an endeavor go more smoothly.  Please pin this post on Pinterest if you think it might be useful to you or a friend in the future.  I hope to add links to more of our camp’s recipes soon.

 

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{ 6 Comments }

  1. Deborah J says:

    Thanks Mary. I do camps here for Girl Guides.
    Camps for 25 are common, and up to 60 are usual.
    Occasionally though numbers rise to 120 girls which is a challenge.
    I think I have the menu and shopping down to an art….but your tips about work flow were very useful.
    It is not helpful to have me be the only person who knows the plan! Flow charts and instructions pre-prepared would be very good.
    Love the recipes too.

  2. I’ve done big dinners for 100 – 150 before. Planning and prepping early are KEY. Crockpots can be incredibly helpful for prepping soups or BBQ early in the day. Par-cooking meats like chicken quarters in the oven and letting the guys finish them off on the grill helps spread the work, gets some of the big stuff out of the kitchen, and frees me up to finish the sides. I try to do all the chopping, dicing, and slicing early in the day or even the night before. Anything that can be prepped or mixed early makes dinner service go SO much smoother!!

    • Yes, we’ve been using turkey roasters to warm things ahead too. The trick with that, however, is to turn it on at least a couple hours ahead, or microwave smaller portions to get them up to temp, and just use the roaster in the last hour to maintain the heat. (Takes a long time to HEAT large quantities, even in a turkey roaster.)

  3. My camp cooking experience is from my kids’ point of view of what they like at camp. Hands down from all of them is a salad bar filled with items to make a salad (not noodle ones or potatoe salad) with all the different ingredients to make it just the way they like and being able to have any and/or all the juice and milk they want.