Fluffernutter and canned chili give way to pesto and veggies

When you remember favorite meals from your days and nights at summer camp, what comes to mind?

Peanut butter and jelly? Franks and beans? Or maybe the old standby, macaroni and cheese? Accompanied by the requisite cup of crimson bug juice and an ice pop for dessert, these culinary delights were for years the staples of summer-camp dining.

Times have changed.

At Camp Tawonga near Yosemite National Park, pasta with organically grown pesto — and falafel with homemade cucumber salad, accented with a yogurt-dill dressing — are more like it.

"Our slogan at Camp Tawonga is `Food is king,'" said Max Magen, the camp's kitchen manager for the past two years.

"We try to provide interesting, tasty food that the kids can identify so that they're comfortable eating it."

This year's new kitchen manager, Fran Kaine, said her goal is to satisfy campers by providing top-notch service and nutritious meals made from fresh ingredients.

"Camp Tawonga has always been a little more gourmet," noted Kaine, who likes to add dill and strawberries to the cream cheeses on Saturday mornings.

If your tastes still run to the traditional, then peanut butter and jelly are readily available here. Vegetarian and vegan alternatives appear at every meal, and the camp kitchen strives to accommodate campers with lactose intolerance, food allergies or other special needs.

Kaine, who once was a camper here herself, said the youngsters especially enjoy pizza night, when they can request their favorite toppings. On burrito night, which is another favorite, campers assemble their own creations.

"Children like to put their food together the way they want to put it together," she observed.

Now celebrating its 70th anniversary, Camp Tawonga spends approximately 10 percent of its annual budget on the 1,200 meals served daily throughout the summer. The kitchen is kosher-style, permitting none of the traif foods, and dairy dishes are never served at meals with meat ones. Campers prepare challah for the traditional Shabbat chicken dinner.

Not all summer-camp food is as diverse. At Camp Arazim in Oakdale, the emphasis is on nutritional value, said Arazim director Yaffa Tygiel.

"If the food is not good, it affects everything else, including the kids' energy levels," said Tygiel.

With a smaller summer community comprising about 150 campers, the Conservative camp keeps kosher and the kids get more involved with kitchen activities. Campers make their own lunch on Fridays and bake the challah for Shabbat dinners, at which chicken-noodle soup and chocolate cake are also served.

Traditional grilled-cheese sandwiches, macaroni and cheese and outdoor barbecue dinners top the list of favorite meals at Camp Arazim, said Tygiel. Salads are served with lunch and dinner, and campers also eat morning and afternoon snacks. At the camp canteen, campers can buy a variety of foods.

Fifteen-year-old Dan Kurtts, who attended Camp Arazim for eight years and plans to return as a counselor, said he has always relished camp meals.

"I recommend the garlic bread, and every Shabbat we have a chicken-and-rice pilaf that's really good," said Kurtts emphatically.

Meals are relatively simple at Camp Swig in Saratoga. Founded in 1952, the venerable camp serves approximately 1,500 kosher-style meals a day.

Kitchen manager Kenneth Lee, who is a vegetarian, said his goal is to provide kids with the energy they need to enjoy each day's activities.

"The food is the fuel behind the entire camp," said Lee, who has been with Camp Swig since 1991.

"The campers expect certain things to be on the menu," said Lee, who relies on consistency when planning meals. He knows he can't go wrong with corn dogs and pizza; trial and error determine the more innovative meals he serves.

"About three years ago, we tried eggplant parmesan and it was a disaster," he recalled. "I know I'm also wasting my time with beans and franks."

This summer, meals at Camp Swig will be enhanced by vegetarian dishes prepared by a new Israeli chef. The vegetarian option is increasingly popular among campers, especially older ones with a firm knowledge of nutrition and health, Lee said.

Each week, he meets with other staffers to discuss campers' feedback on which meals are working and which elements need to be changed.

"Everybody remembers what they ate at camp," said Lee. "We want to make it a good memory."