Cooking and eating outdoors is always part of the camping experience (at least for us!) If you're planning to stay busy with activities like boating, fishing, hiking, or climbing, you might want to go with the easiest and least fussy meal options, of course... but sometimes it's fun to see just want you can pull off without all the conveniences of our modern kitchens, and really, there isn't much that can beat pulling a skillet breakfast out of your morning campfire to start your day!
Foil packet dinners and s'mores are fine (and fun!) but there's lots more to explore! The cast iron cauldron pictured above produced one of the most awesome turkeys I've ever made... and it was cooked 100% onsite.
... see!? And it was so much fun... and easy, including the clean-up, because I thought to use one of these roasting bags, which you can order online or even find at the grocery store.
The point is, of course, that unless you're content to subsist on MRE's or PBJ's for the duration of your trip, a little planning, preparation, and prudent packing are in order... so without further ado, here's my list of Top Ten Planning Tips for Camp Cooking!
1. Sketch out your trip schedule.
You may not be able (or want!) to account for every hour of your time away, but a baseline idea of what you'll get up to will help you figure out how many meals you'll need in total and how complicated each of those meals should be (or not be!) I wouldn't suggest attempting the above-mentioned turkey roast on an evening after you spent the day jet-skiing, for instance. And you'll want to choose portable lunches instead of relying on a campfire or stove if your days will be spent mostly on the hiking trails.
I like to do this first step as far in advance as I can possibly manage it, usually as soon as we've booked our campsite or cabin. Right now, we're getting ready for our first Spring trip of the year in a couple of weeks, so here's a look at my process. (If you like my planning worksheets, you can download blank copies to use for your own trips in our Free-for-All Shop!)
For this short weekend trip, we will need a total of seven meals (not counting Friday's lunch, which we'll pick up on our way to the campground):
- Friday night supper. We usually plan one "special" meal, and this will probably be it.
- Saturday night supper. This is when we usually do the big dinner spread, but we have plans to go stargazing with an astronomy club at 8, so I'll plan an easier supper for around 6.
- 2 Breakfasts. We have a routine for breakfasts on 2-night camping trips; a classic "bacon & eggs" type breakfast on Saturday, then yogurt & fruit parfaits + leftovers on Sunday.
- 2 Lunches. I tend to dial it in when it comes to weekend camp lunches. Often there are leftovers, and we always pack plenty of sandwich ingredients, hot dogs, and an embarassing amount of junk food to choose from. Oh, and fruit. Definitely fruit. To, you know, counteract all the junk food... :)
I can also see by looking at our itinerary that we need snacks for our hike on Saturday and that we'll definitely want midnight goodies, after stargazing.
2. Plan your meals completely, even if you are pretty sure you're going to go off script at some point.
I don't think I can remember a trip where we followed my carefully crafted menu plan to a T... and that's just fine with me! We aren't trying to be controlled by a schedule for meals (or activities, either).
But dropping a meal, deciding to change up when we have what, or even swapping one menu out altogether if we, say, come across a cool mom & pop diner nearby -- those things don't cause any stress. Find yourself short a whole meal's worth of supplies, on the other hand, and now you have to either scrounge in your stash, find a grocery store, or hit a fast food joint just to get everyone fed.
Don't forget to add in your plans for snacks, campfire treats like s'mores, side dishes or salads to accompany your main meals, and beverages.
Here's my final basic menu for our upcoming trip:
3. Camping food idea lists seem to be all the same, so learn to tweak your own favorites so they're camp-friendly.
4. Compile and review your chosen recipes, making a complete list of ingredients as well as a list of all equipment that you'll need.
Of course you don't need a "recipe" for scrambled eggs, but taking the time to jot down the basics for all the dishes you'll make will ensure you don't find yourself trying to make them without any oil for your skillet... or the skillet itself! I have been stunned at the things I have managed to forget when I skip this step. I also use this opportunity to note any items that I may just buy (as opposed to make myself) and when I'm done, I have a checklist to go through when making my final shopping list.
I will note here that this first draft almost never makes it to camping day without significant revisions... but having it made as far in advance as possible gives me time to make any necessary tweaks or changes without feeling rushed.
***** Make camp diary.
5. About two weeks or so before your trip, check all your kitchen equipment and supplies.
Include things like your camp stove, charcoal, camp lighters, firestarters, fuel canisters, camp kitchen/shelter, etc... though it's a good idea to do this for everything you'll need, honestly, from tents to tarps to bug repellant. We keep our camping gear in a storage unit, so we pull it all out ahead of time and make sure everything is clean, in good working order, and ready to be packed. But the only thing we check more carefully than our food prep stuff is the air mattress!
We have two dedicated plastic storage bins that we keep stocked with camp-specific things (silverware, cutting mats, mixing bowls, can opener, etc.) I bring these into the kitchen and start filling one with items from my list, checking them off as I go. I fill the waterproof salt & pepper shakers, add utensils, spices, non-perishable condiments, towels, cleaning supplies, and the like. I then begin to pack things into the second kitchen box such as pots & pans, foil, ziploc bags, and any non-perishable food items I already have on hand (peanut butter, canned goods, hot chocolate mix, etc.)
Be sure to keep your list at hand while you're doing all this, so you can make any notes as you go. Not only will this help you stay organized and make things go more smoothly, but you will streamline your shopping trip, saving you time and even money... since it's easy to overspend without a plan!
6. The weekend before your trip, make yourself a prep list, finalize your shopping list, and draw up a timeline for everything left to do before your departure date.
I make the prep list first, since that helps me tweak the shopping list and get the quantities right. Also, since I often go to the store on two separate occasions, one for things I can get ready early, then another for the last minute things like perishables and ice, this prep list makes sure I don't leave something out (or buy something too early!)
Now, of course you don't strictly *have* to prep foods ahead of time, but depending on what types of meals you're planning and how much time you want to spend on them while you're onsite, you might really want to consider it.
Here's the prep list for our upcoming trip:
7. Consider packing two separate coolers, one to hold food for meals and the other to hold ice for beverages.
Space is always a consideration, but we've found that allocating a bit of extra real estate for a second ice chest is really convenient, especially if you like to have sanitary ice on hand, as well as cold drinks and snacks if you like.
As long as you sanitize the containers, go ahead and toss in some soda cans, bags or containers of fruit or veggies, string cheese, etc., too. Since I always bring milk, for drinking and for putting in coffee, that goes in ours, as does the chocolate for s'mores and anything else we don't want to dig through the big cooler to find.Bonus Tip: To prep your clean cooler
- Add two gallons of water and 4 tbsp. bleach to the cooler, then use a clean cloth or paper towel to wash the walls, edges, and lid with the solution.
- Drain the cooler (use the drain valve, if it has one, so that gets cleaned as well) and let it air dry before adding clean ice.
- To sanitize the containers you'll be adding to your "safe" ice, mix 2 tbsp. regular bleach (like Clorox liquid) in a gallon of water, submerge the containers in the solution, then rinse briefly and place in your cooler.
- Make sure your hands are clean before you handle the disinfected items!
8. Set yourself up to run a food-safe camp kitchen.
A clean cooler is a great place to start, and there are a few more simple things you can do to improve the safety of your camp kitchen that will help prevent you and your loved ones from getting sick
9. Always pack at least one "zero effort" emergency meal in case you wind up too tired to cook (or it gets too windy, or you forgot something crucial, or whatever).
10. Finally, just take a breath and relax.
It's not going to be the end of the world if you forget the ketchup, or you wind up having to eat cold sandwiches all weekend because you ran out of propane and it storms too much to keep a fire going. In fact, some of these "mishaps" have become awesome memories of how much fun we have together.
But if you take the time to plan and prep, your chances of avoiding those outcomes are significantly reduced so you can focus on enjoying the adventure!