Have you been assigned the task to cook for Girl’s Camp, Scout Camp, Youth Conference, or another large gathering? This post will explain how to plan Girl’s Camp food and cook for a crowd; for a few…or a few hundred!
Not Our First Rodeo
When I say OUR, I want to make it clear, I never do this alone! For years, when I lived in Bountiful, I worked many times with two trusted kitchen savvy friends, Jo and Mel. We became quite a team during our years in the kitchen. I’ll talk more about working with a team in the kitchen under the HELP section. I’ve worked on committees, planned, and been the chairperson for Girl’s Camps (ward and stake), prepared food for Grant to take to Scout Camp, been the Trek cook and Youth Conference cook. We have prepared and cooked food in everything from dutch ovens to fully equipped commercial kitchens, standing griddles and even a few open fires. All of the information on this page has been gathered through trial and error.
The situations and amounts of people have varied over the years. I’ve cooked for 350 with one small kitchen in the mountains, food stored in too many coolers to remember, including an “ice house” one time, which was really just a shed with shelves for ice blocks and room for coolers. In Bountiful, I lived in the same neighborhood for nearly 20 years and worked with my friends on many of the events I named above. We have compiled notes and helped each other, even after I moved down the street to a new neighborhood. Once you get the hang of preparing food for a crowd, and get over the intimidation factor, you’ll realize you don’t have to reinvent the wheel every time, and it is a little easier every time you take on the job of cooking for the masses.
How to use this guide
I’ve posted by category for easy reference. Hopefully each of the sections will help break down the information. I’ve also included several photos which will link to the corresponding recipe. Just hover over the photo to link to the recipes. Look for *tips* throughout the post, where I’ve inserted little bits of information I’ve learned through the years. The *tips* are relevant to the section they are posted in. At the end of the post you’ll find a compiled list of general helpful bits of information, grouped by category. I’ve also included links to a sample Girl’s Camp menu, a detailed menu, including duties and a schedule for preparing and serving, and a cooking equipment list.
How to Plan Girl’s Camp Food and Cook for a Crowd in 3 Easy Steps: Budget, Help, Organize
After years of answering questions about how to best plan for food for large gatherings, I’ve broken it down into 3 steps that are essential for successful planning.
I’ll also go through a few other important bits of information, such as:
-a sample menu
-how to work with a budget
-how to work with food allergies/special dietary needs
-tips that will save you when cooking for a crowd
-the best way to set up a buffet table
-food quantities for large groups.
BUDGET (and the cost of food when planning meals)
Determining your budget and sticking to it will be one of the most important factors in successfully planning and cooking for a crowd. Usually a budget has been set, or you are asked to come up with a budget and present it for approval. I hesitate to give a “reasonable” dollar amount because food costs differ according to the area of the country or world where you live. These costs are approximate and will vary from year to year, and depending on location. For planning purposes, I’ve given a sample of how to plan a simple breakfast.
Breakfast is the least expensive meal, with lunch next, and dinner usually being the most costly meal. As a sample, let’s say we are feeding 40 people in 2018 (remember these are approximate costs). These estimates are from Costco:
-20-pack Chobani yogurt: $16.50. $33 for 40 yogurt
-Double pack of granola, about 50 servings: $12-15 or use homemade granola
-Fruit (fresh strawberries and bananas) for 40: $40. Usually plan on about 75 cents-$1 per person for fresh fruit at breakfast (strawberries, melon [not watermelon], bananas, blueberries)
-Milk–2 gallons (16 cups per gallon): $6. Serve in water jug
Grand total for a breakfast of yogurt, granola, fresh fruit, and milk: approximately $94. Divided by 40 = approximately $2.35 per person. This does not include any paper products, which I will discuss later in the post.
I’ve given this example to illustrate two things:
1. Breakfast can be very inexpensive. Remember if you are feeding girls, many don’t eat breakfast at home. They will most likely not develop a huge appetite for breakfast when they are away from home, so less is more when planning for breakfast. If the day is filled with physical activity and you want to start out with a big meal, you may also consider supplementing with a mid-morning snack and serve a light breakfast.
2. To show how I break down expenses and map out a budget. With paper costs in 2018, I estimate a simple breakfast of yogurt, fresh fruit, granola for topping, yogurt (not eaten as cereal), and milk will cost about $2.75 per person, including paper products.
Why only 2 gallons of milk? With each gallon yielding 16 cups, that’s 32 cups of milk. Experience shows not every person will drink a cup of milk. Unless it’s chocolate milk 🙂 Which brings me to a *tip* Don’t serve OJ with a yogurt, fruit and granola breakfast, or with a pancake and fruit breakfast. Too many sweet items. Stick with water or milk. Also, if you are serving a pancake breakfast, most will choose milk over O.J. Chocolate milk seems to override this rule. No matter the menu, most kids will drink chocolate milk, even when served a sweet meal!
If you are serving a cooked breakfast, plan on another $1-2 per person if you are not including breakfast meat such as bacon, ham or sausage. Meat adds a significant cost to meals. If you are on a tight budget, a better menu for the budget conscious (for hot breakfast) is pancakes and scrambled eggs, syrup, and fruit (if affordable). If you are concerned about running out of drinks, you can pre-pour into cups and allow the girls to refill. Most of the time, they won’t get up to refill drinks. One other item to consider when planning breakfast: often the girls will be pressed for time. They will sleep in until the last possible moment, and rush in and out of breakfast. So not a lot of time spent lingering and re-filling plates.
HOW TO CHOOSE HELP – One of the most important aspects of a successful experience when cooking for a large group is to have a crew of assistants who are hard working, willing to accept responsibility, easy to get along with, and who will follow instructions. It helps to have people who have cooked and know their way around a kitchen, but not completely necessary! I cannot stress enough, if you are in charge of food, you should not be the camp director, or the YW president. Your main responsibility at camp should be Food Chairperson.
HOW MUCH HELP DO WE NEED? – For each one hundred people, I suggest 2-3 adults (besides yourself) to work in the kitchen full time. This means people who are not assigned other duties such as camp director, advisors, nurse, etc. Meet with your committee early and decide how responsibilities will be divided after you get to know committee members. Ask and observe their strengths. Make sure everyone who comes to help has the ability to be on their feet for several hours a day. The most successful camps are where everyone is on the same page as far as working together, enjoying service, being willing to put in long hours, and carrying out their assigned duties. Team players are the type of women you’re looking for. A few men who are wiling to pitch in and help are always welcome in the kitchen as well!
*tip* Don’t sign women up to help in the kitchen if they are looking for a few days aways from home. This is anything but a vacation! There are only a few minutes of down time each day. Fortunately, I’ve been blessed to serve with women who are dedicated to serving like there’s no tomorrow. But I’ve heard stories otherwise! Choose your help carefully 🙂
USE THE YW LEADERS AND GIRLS – Most of the time at Girl’s Camp, the leaders of the girls and the girls themselves will be involved in the process of preparing the food. You will usually have the assistance of 4+ people in additional to your kitchen crew. Use the help you are given! Give the girls and leaders assignments. It is best to map out what help you will need with each meal before heading off to camp. Meet with the YW President and Camp director and agree on time in the kitchen, including set up, serving, and clean up. This will alleviate stress at camp. Working with the young women is an excellent opportunity to teach the girls a little about food, cooking, and the process involved in creating a meal!
The following are key points to take into consideration when planning.
GET ORGANIZED – Organize meetings with your committee as early as possible. Determine the budget and your menu as early as possible, but be willing to make changes as you may need. Don’t set anything in stone too early, and be willing to be flexible. Make sure the menu plan is feasible for your location. If you don’t have ovens available, don’t plan Baked Ziti for 300. If an outside fire pit is not available, don’t plan to eat foil dinners!
VISIT FACILITY- One of the most important tips for planning and executing a successful experience in the kitchen is to visit the kitchen IN PERSON before you get too far into the planning stages. You’ll be able to see what equipment is in the kitchen, what supplies are available, and look at the space. I suggest taking photos to place in your file and share with others who will work in the kitchen. A physical visit to the kitchen will eliminate many headaches down the road.
LIST KEEPER- I’m all about lists! Keeping a detailed list of menus, tasks, timelines for getting meals served efficiently and equipment checklists are a few of the documents I keep in a folder or binder when planning. We compiled the lists mentioned in one printable PDF, complete with space for your own notes. You can create your own specific checklists using the outlines provided below.
Printable Sample Menus, Duty List, Schedule for prep and Serving and Cooking Equipment List:
FRESH- When planning a Girl’s Camp menu, always consider a few things. First, I like to have one fresh item for each meal. This can be a salad, cut fruit, or fresh veggies with dip. I try to keep it simple and use in-season fruits and veggies to avoid high costs. Don’t try to introduce food that the majority will not be willing to try, such as fish, desserts with nuts (for allergy reasons as well), or anything too spicy. For salads, you can always place nuts or seeds on the side for sprinkling on!
ONE WOW MENU ITEM – By this I mean one really good homemade item. For example, on the Baked Ziti dinner night, we make homemade Baked Ziti (at home, before going to camp), add store bought breadsticks brushed with garlic butter, Caesar salad (chopped romaine, grated parmesan by the bag, bagged croutons, bottle dressing), veggie sticks, and dessert made by ward members. Only one of the items is homemade, but totally worth the effort, and makes the meal memorable.
*tip* Which brings me to this thought: you can buy everything from Costco. But it will taste like you bought everything from Costco. Yes, it’s easier to heat up frozen food, but food is such a rich part of your experience, why not go the extra mile and prepare something homemade that will be a part of the memory of Girl’s Camp? I promise if the food is good, the girls will remember it long after they pack up their sleeping bags! I have girls come to me, who are now married with their own families, and who remember food they ate at camp or trek or youth conference. The food was a part of their positive experience at camp, and guess what? They relate experiences to me about cooking for their own little families now, years later!
ALLERGIES/SPECIAL DIETS – I take food allergies and also vegetarian diets into account, in general. At each meal, we have a gluten free and a meatless item (which is easier than you think!) I’ll illustrate this in the Sample Menu link. For extreme diet/allergy it is best to have one person on the committee be in charge of those with food allergies and work with the nurse and parents to insure the girls with dietary needs are safe.
WEATHER – No matter the amount of planning or preparation, the weather may not cooperate with your menu! If you plan for popsicles in July, and a cold front moves in and the girls are freezing, they most likely won’t want a frozen dessert. Try to plan accordingly. If you are in the mountains, hot chocolate is almost always welcome on a cool morning. During the hot summer months, make sure to have plenty of cold water in coolers with spouts on hand. Place a couple of ice blocks in per day and check water level frequently. Watermelon is also low cost, and serves as a fresh item on hot summer days.
Random helpful Hints:
Shopping- Sort by non-perishable and perishable items. Assign one or two people to pick up perishable items on the way to camp so they don’t have to load cars and unload at home and then refrigerate. Non perishable items may be purchased ahead and stored at one home.
Delivery- Use a delivery service if possible. Most large orders from US Foods are available for delivery to many camp locations at no additional cost.
Costco- Items can be delivered for a fee. In the SLC area, the Costco on 300 West downtown is best for largest variety, and designed for catering needs. Also, opens at 7:00 am!
-Cooler Corn is the best, but one half ear is plenty per person.
-Meat: less is more. You’ll need less than you think.
-Prep as much as you can before you leave. You’ll be grateful once you get to camp, especially if your facilities are not professional grade.
-Always grill whatever buns you are using. Grilled buns always taste better.
-The rolls at Walmart are cheap, and perfect for French dips and lots of other little sandwiches.
-Bring a lot of aluminum disposable steam table pans. They are perfect for serving, can be washed out, and thrown away at the end of camp. These can now be purchased at Costco (300 West if in SLC) and Sam’s club in bulk.
-Remember, it takes way longer for items to cook in ovens when the ovens are full (when an oven is full of lasagna pans it will take an additional 30-45 minutes to cook).
-Take items such as lasagna, enchiladas, casseroles out of the fridge at least an hour before placing in oven to allow to come closer to room temp before baking.
-Sometimes it is better to pay for individual bags of chips than large bulk bags.
-Almost any cake recipe can be made in a sheet pan. Make ahead, freeze, then thaw at camp and frost to serve.
-Rice Krispies treats are always a hit and GLUTEN FREE.
-Try to think outside the Baked Potato Bar box! There are countless recipes found online and in cookbooks that will work for large gatherings.
Storage/Organization of food:
-A refrigerated truck is very helpful if a large commercial refrigerator/freezer is not available. Can be rented by the day.
-Organize food in pantry. Have two women organizing as items are delivered or unloaded; one person in charge of walk in fridge, one for pantry.
-Organize by meals instead of items. Keep all items for a particular meal in one place for easy prep.
– Use cardboard boxes for keeping things cool and hot. Take extra boxes or coolers to keep items hot or cold. Baked potatoes, for instance, will keep hot in a cardboard box–with layers of newspaper lining the potatoes–for hours.
-Have committee members freeze washed out milk cartons or 2-liter soda bottles for a couple of weeks prior to camp. Then use the frozen containers to serve as ice jugs to keep food cold in coolers. Then just toss and recycle when the ice is thawed!
-Post the menu, along with a duty chart for each meal somewhere prominent in kitchen. This eliminates the need for the committee to wonder or ask WHAT CAN I DO TO HELP?? They can look at the task list and pick an assignment.
-Assign one person to be in charge of each meal. They will give assignments and make sure the meal is prepared and ready to go in time. This helps everyone to know who is in charge of the meal and where to go with questions about the specific meal.
-Keep a list outside of the refrigerator and freezer of all items inside. Cross off as the items are used.
-Assign one person to document after each meal what amounts were used, what was popular, what was not. We record the amounts right next to the menu posted in the kitchen, and also keep a separate notebook in the kitchen for reference.
Printable lists to help you get organized:
also, printable blank sheets for you to fill in with your personalized menu and assignments:
Ideas for saving $$
-Always have the girls eat before leaving home and pack a sack lunch. Dinner can also be from home if you’re on a really tight budget. Have each person bring their own foil dinner. It can be leftovers from dinner at home; anything that can be placed in a foil square and sealed and heated up in a campfire.
-Ask someone other than the girls to help make treats for desserts, or provide ingredients to make treats. In our neighborhood, it is common to ask for donations of ingredients such as hot cocoa mix, lemonade mix, and other items that add to the cost of food for camp, but are easy for members of the congregation to pick up while they are at Costco or the grocery store. The items may be dropped at the camp director’s or food chairperson’s home a couple of days prior to camp.
-Ask the bishop and his wife to bring up dessert on the night they visit camp. This can be anything of their choice, but try to coordinate to make sure they are not duplicating something already on the menu.
-If drinks are not in the budget, ask the girls bring their own Crystal Light packets to supplement plain drinking water.
Buffet and getting people thru the line as quickly as possible:
-For every 100 people, set up 1-2 long tables for food and have the girls go down each side of the table. This will allow you to serve several hundred people in about 15 minutes total. For 300 girls, we set up 3 long tables with access to two sides on each table.
—Always set up whatever is the least expensive food item first, with the most costly item last. Rolls, salad, side dishes first, meat last. Always have someone serve the meat at the end of table to prevent waste and provide quantity control. Utensils and napkins should be at the end of the buffet table, plates at the beginning.
-A separate drink table is also highly recommended. The easiest and least expensive drink is, of course, water. A large ice block will keep water cool for several servings and at least a day if stored in the shade. Lemonade is easy to mix in large containers as well.
Supplies (see printable list below):
-Ask members of your ward/stake to look through their closets and gather odds and ends: napkins, paper plates, cups, utensils. How many times have you looked in the YW or RS closet and found a dozen or more packages of colored napkins or plates that are 3/4 used? All of these items are perfect for Girl’s Camp. Again, ask for the items to be dropped off to the food chairperson’s home, in a box left on the front porch.
-Label your items from home, and if you borrow items from the church, neighbors, or Scout trailer, make sure they are labeled. It is natural to think you won’t forget where items belong, but at the end of the week, it all becomes a blur!
-Visit the facility ahead of time to see exactly what supplies are available. Don’t assume.
Staying sane/having fun/keeping comfy
-If it’s in the budget, buy matching aprons or wear color coordinated t-shirts each day.
-Bring own chairs to set up so workers can have back rest and be able to put up feet for a few minutes between meals.
-Speaker for music
-Good chocolate and some cold Diet Cokes with fresh limes.
I’ll update this list as I remember tips. I’d love to hear about your experiences/best tips in the comments and have you share this post on Pinterest or Facebook or Instagram with anyone who might benefit from this information. Thanks so much for reading ABK, and have a great time at CAMP!