With summer drawing to a close, I thought I would reflect on a few of the tips, rules, and life lessons that I’ve learned while working in a summer camp kitchen. It’s been demanding, yes, but this has also been one of the most fulfilling (and fun) experiences I've ever had. Salad bar, I love you.

A portion of our beautiful salad bar. Kathryn Atkinson.   

1. The children don’t know what they want.

“No, I don’t eat dairy or gluten,” the child in front of me says. Their plate is filled with croutons and ranch. You will see this scenario repeated multiple times throughout the summer. Kids who ate meat last week suddenly do not eat any, and vice versa. Just double and triple-check allergies, smile, and go with the flow.

2. The adults don’t know what they want either, but they’re going to make it your problem (unlike the children).

Some notable quotes:

“I’m lactose intolerant...do you have any pizza with just bread and cheese?”

“Can I just have a bagel instead?” (I hear this one a lot.)

"Do you have a version of [food] that isn't fried/baked/seasoned/cooked/etc.?"

3. Hide anything you want for yourself, and hide it well.

We have two kinds of pickles: dill and bread & butter. As far as the campers know, though, we only have bread & butter. The dill pickles are reserved for kitchen staff (and those who are lucky enough to be let in on the secret.)

All of these pickles, just for us. Kathryn Atkinson.   

4. You can never have enough Goldfish.

Children go insane for Goldfish. While restocking the Goldfish tray at our salad bar, I’ve had children scoop them straight out of my hands. We go through industrial crates of the little orange fish.

5. Make the meal fun.

Break up the monotony of summer camp meals in any way you can. Balance empty baskets on kids' heads. Hold plates just out of reach. Bonus points if you pretend to hand the plate to them but move it away again. I also love telling the children who come into the kitchen that we’re completely out of food, because they believe it for a second or two — did we really eat all the food in the kitchen? You can see the gears turning in their heads as they think. Other possibilities include stacking their food completely vertically, adding smiley faces to everything, and telling everyone that it’s meatloaf for dinner, regardless of what’s actually on the menu.

Our typical menu. Kathryn Atkinson.   

6. Don't touch hot things. 

It sounds obvious. Yet there have been many times when I have gone to grab something from our hot-holder (which presumably keeps things hot) and burned myself as a result. Play stupid games, win stupid prizes. 

That being said, sometimes you have to bite the bullet and embrace the pain of grabbing a sheet tray straight from the oven. What doesn't kill you makes you stronger, right?

So pretty, and so, so warm. Kathryn Atkinson.   

7. Take what caffeine you can get. (Even if it has grounds in it.)

Nothing hits better than that first cup of coffee at breakfast...except maybe the second cup after breakfast...or the lunch cup...or the one knocked back during the dinner rush. You also will learn not to discriminate between good and bad coffee. I’ve found that anything is drinkable (burnt, cold, or full of grounds) with enough oat milk and Splenda added. After this summer, I imagine I’ll be able to enjoy straight battery acid in a mug.

8. Touching mold is inevitable. (You likely will also eat mold.)

I will never, ever forget the time when, after having eaten a few slices from the box of tomatoes I had been chopping up, I reached in for another and felt my hand go completely through a rotten tomato. Nothing compares to the feeling of expecting a firm tomato and finding a squishy blob. 

9. Remember to have fun.

If you aren't having fun, you're doing it wrong.

Our chicken salad snowman. Kathryn Atkinson.   

10. If all else fails, serve Dino Nuggets.

Need I say more?