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Summer camping is great for the entire family. Get out of the city and into the world of NO cell phone coverage! Sleep under the stars in the fresh air. Follow animal tracks on a hike and watch the kids make toys out of sticks and rocks. Getting out for even just a night means 3 meals’ worth of ingredients, serving ware, cooking tools, pots, and cleaning supplies. Many people can get overwhelmed right there. I’m no hard core backpacker, but years of car camping with my family have taught me a few tricks to share.
First, decide what your family MUST do and what you can compromise. Are you OK with paper and plastic ware while camping? We have our own set of serving ware for picnics and camping so we take that. But we DO seem to make more trash when we camp. We tend to use more paper towels, convenience foods and snacks that come with packaging. That’s a second point of compromise for us. For my kids, camping = boxed cereal. It’s one of the reasons they get excited about camping. Maybe you relax on food quality by indulging in S’mores. We do!
Next, ARE you going to cook and HOW are you going to cook? Will you rely on the grill or campfire at the site? Be sure to check ahead of time to see if open fires are allowed. If not, a camp stove is a great option and can be borrowed from a friend or rented from REI (where you can also rent tents and sleeping bags). We have taken a small solar cooker with us, as well. We set dinner in it and went for a hike and come back to our fully cooked meal. This won’t be allowed at all campsites, depending on the wildlife situation. You could stick with non-cook meals. We don’t cook all our meals. We usually have a picnic lunch of lunch meat, canned fish, cheese, chips and dip, nuts, etc. Middle of the day is often hot so a cool lunch works well.
Freezer meals are GREAT for camping. Pull one out frozen and put it in the cooler to help keep things cold and plan to have it the second day or later. I suggest a meal meant for a crockpot that does not include a huge hunk of meat, but something with beans, pieces of meat, spaghetti sauce, chili, etc. These are so easy to cook on a fire or camp stove.
Many people make Meals-in-a-Jar for camping. Perhaps your neighbor once gave you a soup mix, the ingredients beautifully layered in a mason jar? You can take this concept to a baggie, as well. Basically, most to all of the meals’ ingredients are in one container. Often you simply boil the ingredients together until done. I’ve done bean soups, macaroni and cheese, pasta dishes and rice casseroles. Sometimes the ingredients will include powdered milks or bullions, so you’ll need to see if the recipe is “whole” enough for you. But boiling until done is usually simple enough for any cook to manage at the campsite.
Try cooking in foil, right above your fire or on top of your grill. Kids usually have fun with this. Baked potatoes, onions, fish or even cook beans right in the can. And, of course, bbq favorites are sure to please. Hamburgers and hotdogs are easy to pack and prepare. Most important is keep it FUN and not too labor intensive. It IS vacation, after all!
If you have an RV and microwave, consider a microwave steamer. It makes meal prep and clean up easy and you can make quite a variety of meals. It’s also super light and versatile.
Other helpful tips:
Freeze some of your water or liquids (or even whole meals, as above!) to help keep your cooler items cool
Make a standard Camp Menu and bring the same ingredients and supples each time. This will streamline your packing and the mental energy required to get ready.
Bring plenty of water. More than you think you’ll need.
If you don’t have a light weight, nested cooking set for camping, try to bring as few pots as possible. One frying pan and dutch oven will usually cover it. A cast iron skillet is great, too, but very heavy.
Involve the kids as much as is safe and practical. They’ll practice important cooking skills, while having fun!
Need some more guidance in planning a camping trip or need inspiration for your camping/RV/Boating/picnic/extended stay/travel meals? Katie at Kitchen Stewardship has a great little book to help you. I bought this years ago and love it for the reasons I love all of her books: REAL food recipes, checklists and menus, lots of great hints and tips for newbies AND more experienced real food campers. Additionally, she has plenty of gluten and grain free options. She shares more than just food tips, though. She has great ideas for camping with babies and little ones and keeping the family UN-Bored!