To call the adults in Troop 96 carnivores is a bit of an understatement.
As in any youth-led troop, the Scouts in Troop 96 of the Northeast Illinois Council are on their own at mealtime. Scouts in each patrol plan the menu, shop for ingredients and prepare the meals.
That leaves the adults to fend for themselves. And in Troop 96, the adults eat like royalty.
The “adult patrol,” to use its unofficial name, has a proud history of preparing delicious dishes you’d think would be too difficult for campsite cooking. Pork loin that’s both stuffed and wrapped with bacon. Beef brisket cooked to perfection in a Dutch oven. Barbecue ribs that fall off the bone.
When prospective Scouts and their families come to visit Troop 96, the adults always make plenty of extras for the visitors to enjoy.
But at one of these campouts not too long ago, the adults learned that one of their guests was a vegetarian. They had non-meat options, but they were mostly plain vegetable sides.
“While it did the job, it was not too inspiring,” says Troop 96 assistant Scoutmaster John Boos. “We felt that we could have done a better job of making that person feel more welcome. After all, a Scout is friendly, kind and courteous.”
That vegetarian Scout joined the troop, and Boos was determined not to make him feel like an afterthought. The Cooking merit badge counselor also saw a teachable moment: showing Scouts that vegetarian meals can be just as tasty as their meat-based counterparts.
“Our troop started down this road to be more inviting to our vegetarian guests,” Boos says. “We learned that we could easily expand our food horizon, lower our food budget and add more variety.”
Here’s how they did it.
A recipe for success
Boos wanted to debut the new plan on a nine-day trip from the Chicago area through Wisconsin, Minnesota, South Dakota and Wyoming. The troop would camp and prepare meals each night.
Working with the Scouts, Boos aimed for one large vegetarian dinner option for each night of the trip. (Breakfast and lunch were simpler and required less prep, but these had vegetarian options, too.)
Boos decided the vegetarian meals needed to be:
- Nutritionally balanced.
- Varied. “Nine days of canned string beans would not fly. We needed to mix it up,” Boos says.
- Tasty and attractive. “The dishes had to stand up next to some elaborate meat dishes,” Boos says. “They had to look and taste good.”
- Not too complicated to prepare.
- Not based on imitation meat like meatless burgers or hot dogs. “I thought it would be a better experience for the troop to see vegetables in a way that would highlight the ingredients,” Boos says.
Next, he scoured cookbooks and online resources to find recipes that might work. These had to be scaled up (each would need to serve 10 to 12 people, or about the capacity of a standard Dutch oven) and simplified (no complex cooking operations or fancy equipment).
It turned out that cooking vegetables is, in many ways, simpler than cooking meat. While meat must be heated to a minimum temperature for food safety, veggies can be eaten raw. Cooking only changes the flavor and texture.
“One of our favorite methods was to cube the unpeeled vegetables, quick-fry them in a small amount of really hot oil, then season and combine with the rest of the ingredients,” Boos says. “This gave a good brown on the vegetable and kept some crunch and texture.”
Tastes like happy
Even the skeptics were pleased with the way the meals turned out.
“The dishes were almost always fully gone by the end of supper,” Boos says. “Some Scouts who said they would never go vegetarian were surprised that they enjoyed the meals — and that they could lower their camping menu cost by using some vegetarian options.”
But getting to that point took work. Here’s what Boos recommends to other troops wanting to add vegetarian menu options:
- Don’t overcook the vegetables. Most vegetables don’t need the high temperature or long cook time that meat needs for safety.
- Rethink the recipe search. Don’t limit yourself to vegetarian cookbooks or recipe sites. Meat recipes with lots of flavor, like tacos, Italian dishes, chili and goulash can be quickly adapted. Just substitute cubed vegetables like zucchini or sweet potatoes for the meat and add some black beans, sunflower seeds or nuts for protein.
- Expect to save some money. Boos found that vegetarian dishes were cheaper than their meat counterparts. “The cost was about half or less per person compared with meat dishes,” he says.
- Start slow. You don’t have to eliminate meat entirely. Begin by introducing some vegetarian dishes along with your meat creations. You’ll have your Scouts eating their vegetables in no time.
Does your troop have Scouts with special dietary needs? Leave a comment below to share how you’ve helped welcome these Scouts by adapting the way you prepare meals.