Camping is a favorite American family pastime. Every year, thousands of city dwellers escape to the wilderness armed with sleeping bags, tents and hiking boots, ready to explore the great outdoors.
While it's exciting to plan your excursion adventures, like kayaking, bird-watching and mountain biking, don't forget to pack plenty of food for your family to enjoy around the campfire!
It's essential to plan for family camping meals, so stay organized and bring along basic cooking implements so no one goes hungry. Everyone enjoys a gooey marshmallow, graham cracker and milk chocolate s'more or charred hot dog toasted over the campfire, but as you plan the menu for your next camping trip, aim to expand your horizons a little.
Here are 10 tips for family camping meals that will help make your next camping trip a culinary success.
The Importance of Planning Ahead
You may not have access to a grocery store near your campground, so plan every meal carefully before you leave. Planning ahead for mealtime doesn't just help you stay organized -- it will also encourage you to pack only the necessities.
Write detailed menus for each day of your camping trip, and include healthy and easily prepared foods for breakfast, lunch, dinner and afternoon snacks. Choose versatile foods like potatoes, beans and rice that you can cook several different ways; this will save space in your vehicle or backpack for other essential camping items. Depending on the size of your grocery list, you might want to pack a couple of emergency meals in case the cooler springs a leak during the trip, ruining steaks and poultry.
To save time preparing meals around the campfire, always make a note of foods on your grocery list that can be chopped and cooked before you leave. Prepare or dehydrate stews and soups, then freeze them and keep in the cooler for an easy, quick meal during your trip. Prepping meats in your home kitchen is significantly more sanitary than attempting to cut chicken or beef on a chopping block in the woods, and it will also save you from having to wash multiple utensils and cutting boards at camp.
Essential Cooking Gear
The type of cooking gear you bring on an outdoor getaway really depends on how you and your family prefer to camp. While it might be convenient to bring extravagant items, like a portable ice maker and a blender to mix up a batch of tasty margaritas, take our advice and leave these items at home! Keep meals simple, and pack only the necessary cookware and utensils you need to prepare the campfire meals you've planned to cook.
Look over your daily menus to build your list of essential cooking gear. Indispensible items for camping include pots and pans, a skillet, knives, a Dutch oven, flatware, paper plates, tongs and a can opener. Fireproof, nonstick cookware is also handy and will allow you to prepare meals over a fire without difficulty. If you're tempted to buy the lightweight pots and pans found in the camping section of department stores, we don't recommend it; they're often flimsy, cheap and easily damaged.
It's also important to bring along an oven mitt to keep hands safe when cooking food over the campfire. Leather and suede work gloves can serve as an oven mitt and also keep hands protected when cutting and gathering logs.
Storage Tips and Tricks
Storing food properly is perhaps the most important aspect of camping. You should pack everything securely to prevent spoilage and spillage. Of course, this starts by choosing foods that are fresh, easy to prepare and safe for your family to eat. To keep food at a cool temperature, remember that block ice lasts longer than cubed ice, and wrapped frozen meats packed tightly with other food can keep the ice chest colder for longer. Watch your cooler closely, and always replace melting ice to keep meats and other perishable foods from going bad.
Swapping heavier items for lighter ones is another great storage trick that will open up a lot of space in a cooler or food crate for other camping items. Use recyclable paper plates rather than traditional dinnerware, and drink from plastic cups instead of glasses. Do without several different bottles of ketchup, mustard and mayonnaise and opt for condiment packets. Finally, instead of packing bulky cereal, pasta and rice boxes, pour food into sealed plastic bags. Store leftover food in airtight containers, and bring plenty of aluminum foil and garbage bags for easy cooking and cleanup.
For the Fire
As we've mentioned, space will be at a premium in your family's car or in your backpack, so take only the essentials. You've probably figured out by now that you can leave the espresso maker at home, but would you be surprised if we told you not to pack firewood? Chances are you won't need it. The campsite will have plenty of wood, sticks and brush to build a warm, large fire.
If there's a Boy Scout in your family, you may feel confident that he can rub together two sticks and start a fire, but most people need a little assistance generating a flame. Don't take this as your cue to pack matches. Unless you dip them in wax before your trip, they run the risk of getting wet and becoming ruined. To save yourself the trouble of scratching off wax from every match before you can strike it along the box, consider buying an inexpensive, durable lighter instead. Of course, if you and your family enjoy cooking out on a grill at the campground, remember charcoal and lighter fluid as well.
Multipurpose Aluminum Foil
If any item on your family camping meals shopping list should be underlined and highlighted, it's the aluminum foil!
Aluminum foil is a multipurpose product that makes camping easy and stress-free. Foil can be shaped into a funnel, a drinking cup or a makeshift fry pan. Wrapping a cardboard box in foil transforms it into an outdoor oven (more on this later), and you can poke holes in a sheet of foil to serve as a strainer for meats, fruits and vegetables. Stretch a large sheet of foil near the campfire to reflect heat for warmth, or spread a sheet of foil over logs to keep them dry. Aluminum foil can also be molded to fit the inside of pots and pans to reduce cleanup time.
Need more reasons to bring along the foil? Almost any combination of meats and vegetables can be cooked inside aluminum foil. Vegetables and meats wrapped in foil packets are a fun DIY dinner activity that the whole family will enjoy. Everyone can stuff various vegetables, like potatoes, carrots or corn on the cob, and meats into foil packets and rotate them over the fire. For fuss-free campfire cooking, shape the foil into a bundle around food, and twist a corner of the bundle into a handle, which allows you to safely lift food out of the fire with ease. To prevent meat from burning, add a few cubes of ice to aluminum foil dinners for a juicy, flavorful meal.
Food to Fuel the Day Ahead
Breakfast is the most important meal of the day and should be a hearty dish served hot. Around the campfire, fry bacon, eggs and sausage in a skillet, and enjoy grapes and bananas from the cooler. Cereal, bagels and English muffins are other filling breakfast items that will stay with you and give you energy throughout the morning and early afternoon. Instead of bringing sticks of butter or margarine to camp, try squeeze bottles for easier use. On the last day of your trip, use leftover meats and vegetables to make omelets for the whole family.
For meals in the middle of the day, eat lightly to keep from feeling lethargic during activities. Pack energy-boosting snacks like nuts, dried fruit, trail mix and granola bars. Hard cheeses don't need to be refrigerated and are convenient to pack in lunches with fresh fruits and sandwiches. If you're considering different types of sandwich bread to bring on your camping trip, we recommend pita bread; it packs well and keeps its shape. Also, be mindful that bread will mold after several days, especially if condensation forms inside the bag and the weather is hot.
It's essential to pack plenty of fluids to keep your family hydrated on your camping trip. Having clean water available is also helpful when cooking meals over the campfire. Before you leave home, fill clean gallon-sized milk jugs or 2-liter soda bottles with water and freeze them. To avoid contaminating foods, use a separate cooler for drinks. This will also prevent family members from opening the food cooler too often and letting the cold air escape.
Milk, tea, coffee and juices are other popular liquids to pack for your camping trip, but drinking water is the only sure way to keep your family safely hydrated. While you want to make sure you have plenty of water available, packing oversized water jugs is probably excessive when you can connect to a campground's water supply. Of course, if you're camping far away from society and don't have the option of connecting to a water supply, you will want to pack plenty of drinking water for family members to consume during your trip.
Bring Plenty of Fruits and Vegetables
Be sure to include a wide variety of fruits and vegetables on your family camping meals grocery list. Nourishing fruits and veggies boost your energy and serve as sides and snacks for your family to eat during a camping trip. Many vegetables can be eaten raw, like celery, carrots, radishes, cucumbers and peppers, or dipped in dressing or hummus for a healthy snack. Store whole or chopped vegetables in a cooler and cook them with meats for delicious nighttime campfire meals.
Due to bruising, keeping fruits fresh can be a challenge during a camping trip. However, whole fruits like apples, pears, oranges, grapes and cherries keep well and taste great when kept at a cool temperature in the ice chest. Remember the importance of cutting up fruits and vegetables before you leave home in order to easily prepare meals at the campsite. Chop several varieties of fruit ahead of time, like melons, pineapples, peaches and strawberries, and store them on ice in sealed plastic bags inside the cooler.
Cook with Hot Rocks
Take a break from cooking on the grill or leave it at home altogether. Instead, consider building an outdoor oven using several rocks collected from your campsite. Cooking with hot rocks is an easy, convenient camping technique that works well when preparing fish, steaks and other foods you would place on a traditional grill at home.
To cook with hot rocks, start by building an outdoor oven out of a cardboard box and aluminum foil. Cover all sides of the box with foil, including the flaps on the open side that will serve as oven doors for you later. The shiny side of the aluminum foil should face up to maximize convection heating. Heat the rocks in your campfire for several minutes, then place them in the bottom of the box. Position a metal rack on top of the rocks, and place your food inside the oven, closing the flaps of the box to cook. Clamp a metal utensil or prop campfire wood on top of the flaps to keep them from opening and allowing any heat to escape. Monitor your food carefully, and cook your meal thoroughly. When everything is ready to eat, be sure to use your oven mitt and tongs to carefully remove your food from the hot door flaps of your cardboard box oven.
Dinner Around the Campfire
Dinner should be served hot, especially if you're camping during colder months. Hamburgers and hot dogs are traditional campground dinners that are easy to prepare over a fire. To make sure you cook hamburgers thoroughly, poke a hole in the middle of your hamburger about the size of your finger. As you grill, the hole will disappear, and the center and edges of the hamburger patty will be cooked evenly. Rotating hot dogs on a stick over the campfire is a simple dinner activity your kids are sure to enjoy. Go a step further and substitute bratwurst or Italian sausages for hot dogs on your next family camping trip.
Before you leave home, consider preparing simple, one-pot meals for a couple of your family dinners. After a long day of exercise and outdoor activities, you and your family will be exhausted, and the easier the meal is to prepare and cook, the better! Always remember to keep pots covered with lids when you're cooking outdoors; food will cook faster, and this will keep critters from getting into your grub!
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