It was getting to be near 7pm and we had still not had dinner yet. The fire seemed to be taking forever to start and we were going to cook foil packs on the fire, requiring said fire to have some nice glowing embers on which to rest the packs. My kids were tired from a long day of hiking and were hungry and cranky. I was also tired, cranky, and hungry and I wanted them to eat their planned dinner so I was withholding snacks. This did not turn out well for us.
I have since greatly improved my camping food game. I have field tested what works best for our family through 10+ day road trips, weekend trips, and group campouts with Red Oaks. I have learned to plan ahead, to keep it simple, and to keep it yummy. This post is in reference to car camping, as food while backpacking with kids is a whole other ball game! Here's what I've learned over some disastrous meals AND over some truly delicious and satisfying ones.
Think about what kind of camping you are doing: Are you going to be chilling at the campsite with plenty of time to wait for your meal to be ready? Cooking on the campfire with foil packs or other campfire cooking might be the way to go. Will you instead be seeing the sights, doing lots of hiking or other activities so that you need something quick and easy for when you roll back into camp, with children who are tired and hangry? If so, then see my next tip below.
Plan and make ahead: My go-to move when planning food for our camp trips is to make our food at home, store in freezer bags and then freeze flat. At the campsite, you simply need to dump into a pot and reheat. Foods that have some extra liquid in them like hearty soups or stews, or saucy meats and beans work especially well. You can then pair with shelf-stable items like noodles or rice to make it a filling meal. Below are some of our personal favorite make ahead recipes.
- Pork Ragu- pair with wide egg noodles. Bonus: Leftovers are great with eggs the next morning.
- Spicy Citrus Black Beans- we love to make burrito bowls with these with rice, tortilla chips, and other taco toppings
- Chicken Curry- I usually go the lazier route of using a simmer sauce on some chicken thighs instead of homemade. We especially like the simmer sauces from Trader Joes and the Maya Kaimal butter chicken sauce. Pair it with rice.
- Spaghetti and Meatballs- either use store bought or make your own. Them simmer them in some jarred marinara sauce (saving space in the cooler) at the site and add to noodles.
- Chicken Taco Chili or your favorite chili recipe
- Scrambled eggs- I prescramble our eggs at home (with seasonings) and pour them into a leftover plastic bottle and mark with a sharpie each days portions. At camp, simply pour to the correct line from the bottle into your pan.
What to do a about lunches and breakfasts: I like to keep our breakfasts simple. On days we we are staying in camp and can take our time we like to have scrambled eggs and bacon or breakfast sausage. On days we are packing up we like to keep it simpler still and opt for cereal (get the milk in the shelf stable boxes for one less thing in your cooler) or instant oatmeal. For lunch I opt for things that can be transferred to a pack easily should we go out for a hike during lunch. We favor things like your basic pb & j, trail mix, jerky, and dried fruit for those types of lunches. For lunches when we are near the car we like to go for a spread of cheese and crackers, salami, and deli meats. Single portion hummus and guacamole with peppers and carrots to dip are also favorites. I always have hardboiled eggs available for breakfast or lunch.
Limit what needs to go in the cooler: Try to also bring some meals that are not taking up valuable space in your cooler. We make use of many shelf stable items like soups, mac & cheese with the cheese pouch (not the kind to which you need to add milk and butter), peanut butter and honey sandwiches, nuts, jerky, vacuum sealed tuna or salmon. My kids love the Madras Lentils from Tasty Bites- you simply put the pouch in boiling water for about 5 minutes to heat through.
Cut yourself some slack: Yes, we all try to feed our families balanced meals at home. We often have salads (spinach lasts longer than the spring mix) at the start of the trip but after a few days they go bad. In fact, I have found it very challenging to keep veggies from going bad in the cooler and I am often limited in cooking only on my two burner camp stove so I try to either add them to my soups and stews I have made beforehand or I choose not to worry about it. It’s only a few days after all.
Keep a separate stash of cooking supplies: It is useful to have a separate set of any often used food item. I keep salt, pepper, ketchup and mayo packets, instant coffee, and cooking spray in my camping bin. Before I did this, I was always forgetting to bring these items.
Camping is not the time to get creative with your food (if you have picky eaters): Try to think about what your family already eats at home and how you can adapt that for an easy camp meal. If your kids won’t eat it at home, then they won’t eat it at camp. A hangry kid at camp is no fun.
A note on snacks: Bring more than you think you need and a variety. My kids love to wait to tell me after I’ve bought a Costco sized box of their favorite pretzels that they now hate those pretzels. Having variety helps (because at least you won’t be stuck eating all the Costco pretzels). In addition, having a dinner composed entirely of snacks is a valid choice.
Make your cooler last: You can extend the length of time food can stay cold and safe in your cooler by doing a few things.
- Start with your items already cold or frozen.
- Ice lasts longer when left in the bag rather than loose. I get a few of the small bags of ice to position strategically in my cooler.
- Try to limit how often you open and close the cooler. This means keeping drinks or other regularly used items in another cooler. It is also a good idea to try organize your cooler by when you will use the food item.
- Regularly replace your ice as needed.
- Invest in a decent cooler that latches shut (and make sure it is actually closed).
When in doubt, serve tacos: Tacos are one of my favorite camp meals, as every individual can customize it to their heart's content, leading to less whining. Plus, tacos are the best!
We'd love to hear your favorite camp recipes in the comments below. What has been an epic fail and what has been a brilliant success?
About the Author
Melissa Rudick is the co-founder of Red Oaks Forest School. She loves books, camping, and coffee and loves to combine all three for a trifecta of awesomeness.