In this article, Hike it Baby Branch Ambassador and photographer, Melissa, shares her tips and recipes for easy camping meals for kids. I don’t like to cook. Let me clarify: I don’t like to cook when I have tiny people pulling on my legs, climbing on chairs next to hot stoves or generally being on top of me in some way or form while I'm trying to provide for our survival. So this year and possibly for the next 20, I don’t like to cook. I’ve heard stories of families where one spouse cooks inside the home and one spouse cooks outside the home, perhaps proudly calling themselves the grill-master. Well, that’s not my house. Somehow, even when we are camping, I’m still the one behind the stove or grilling over the fire. Sure, said spouse will light the fire, play with the fire, catch things on fire, but not cook on the fire. While my family throws rocks in the creek, swings in the hammock or generally has a great time, I always seem to be the one with a spatula in my hand. It doesn't seem fair. I have to be honest: our first few camping trips were full of hot dogs and boxed rice mixes. “Easy food” that was supposed to be fast and … delicious? Even though I dislike cooking, I do try to eat healthy; but the rule for camping can quickly become "anything goes."
Last summer as I was preparing for yet another camping trip and planning out our meals of mac and cheese and hot dogs, I opened my freezer to take stock of our inventory when I suddenly had an epiphany that would change the way we eat while camping forever. Sitting in my freezer, ready and waiting to go, were stuffed sweet potatoes wrapped in foil, frozen breakfast burritos packed full of protein and baggies full of pre-diced meat and vegetables just waiting for a skillet. Since the love/hate relationship toward my kitchen had developed in my childbearing season of life, I had adopted a method of cooking known as “Freezer Cooking” in order to keep my sanity during the 5 O’clock hour. It meant healthy meals that our family loved without spending an hour each day at the stovetop. What hadn’t occurred to me until this point was how adaptable and perfect this method of cooking could be for camping. If you're looking for a way to spend more time camping and less time cooking while avoiding the inevitable hot dog dinner, here are some strategies for a simple camping meal plan that’s delicious and healthy (or not, if that’s your jam). And most of all: they're fast and EASY.
Some people are gourmet chefs wherever they go, but whether or not you know how to julienne a potato shouldn’t decide how much time you get to spend in your hammock. Bottom line? The more you can prep at home, the more time you have to play (or rest) when you camp. This includes chopping as much as you can at home. Let me say that again: Chop as much as you can at home. Ever wonder how the guys on those cooking channels make it look so easy to whip up a quick dinner and yet you followed the same recipe and it takes you an hour to do it? The secret lies in the little bowls full of finely diced vegetables and perfect cubes of pre-sliced meat. It’s the slicing and dicing that takes the most time when preparing a meal, and thankfully almost all of that can be done at home. It means less dishes too!
Think through the meals you plan on making and figure out how much of the prep-time can be done before your trip. It’s probably a lot more than you realize, but you can have family-favorite recipes that are easy to adapt to camp meals.
Tin foil is a camping family’s best friend. Do you know how many foods can be made in tin foil? A lot. Basically, think of any combination of meat, vegetables and starches and it can be made in a foil packet. The best thing: these can all be prepared at home before the trip and thrown in the cooler. A quick search on the internet for “foil-wrapped camping meals” should provide an abundance of options for delicious and simple recipes. Desserts can also be made this way too. It’s important to note that sometimes these meals can take a little longer to cook properly, depending on your ingredients. But once they're on the coals, there's little left you need to do until it’s time to eat. Just be sure they get on the fire early enough to be ready in time for rumbling tummies.
Pancakes are the worst when camping. You think they'll be easy because you “just add water,” but the batter makes a mess and cooking one pancake at a time on a small skillet is not the most efficient way to feed a ravenous family. Solution? Cook them at home before you leave! All it takes is a few seconds in the frying pan to warm them up and everyone is instantly fed and happy. Apply this approach to as much food as possible when camping. Need some protein with your breakfast? You can pre-cook the bacon too! The best part? You won’t smell like bacon as you hike through bear territory. If your foil packets are taking too long to cook over the fire, you can pre-cook them at home too. This is especially helpful for the potato family, which is notorious for being ready only after the kids have been put to bed and the adult beverages have run out.
If you're planning a trip that will last more than a few days, freezing the meals for later in the week can be a great way to keep food fresh and save on how many times you run to the store for more ice. This opens up a world of possibilities regarding the kind of food you can take with you while camping. Grandma’s favorite casserole with 20 ingredients? No problem. Cook it beforehand, portion it out in squares, wrap in foil and freeze. Almost anything you can reheat in the microwave can be reheated in a frying pan or over the fire. The options are now limitless in terms of what you can bring camping. Reheating works best after the food has defrosted fully, making it perfect for meals later in the week.
Even with all the fresh foods you pack, it doesn't hurt to throw a few oatmeal packets into the mix as well. I don’t know if it’s the secret prepper inside me, but I always like to have extra food that won’t go bad if I forget to refill the ice or drain the water from the bottom of the cooler. You don’t have to go crazy, but it’s nice to have a day’s worth of non-perishable food for each person, so you don’t feel like you have to high-tail it out of the mountains to the nearest fast-food chain when dinner goes south for whatever reason.
It goes without saying that you should eat your fresh food first, the pre-cooked food second and the frozen food last, saving the non-perishables for emergencies or the ride home. Just a little time spent thinking this through at home will take away a lot of the stress of planning your family's meals while camping.
I’ll leave you with this last little secret that will ultimately make you queen or king of the camp kitchen. When you’ve promised your children S'mores around the campfire and they fall asleep before it happens only to wake up in tears and agony at the thought of waiting one more whole day before they can relish in the goodness that is gooey marshmallow and chocolate on top of graham cracker, I give you S'mores Cakes. Pancake, chocolate and marshmallow ... done. You will be a hero forever.
Below are food ideas that prep and freeze well to start you on your fine, but easy, dining experience when you go camping.
Summer sausage, cheese and crackers
Chicken, onion and bell pepper packets
Sausage, sweet potato and apple packets
Stuffed sweet potatoes (or baked potatoes)
Perfect Pre-Made Foods:
Pancakes Bacon Frozen Breakfast Quiche (use favorite recipe) Frozen Breakfast Burritos (use favorite recipe) Quesadillas (can freeze or eat immediately, great for hiking) Muffins
Oatmeal Packets Summer Sausage Trail Mix Fruit Leather/Dried Fruit Protein Bars (Homemade or Packaged) Photos by Melissa Hollingsworth.
What are some of your family's favorite camping meals? Share in the comments below.
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