Camp Cooking: How to Feed the Kids with Love and Good Tents
ONE OF MY FAVOURITE BOOKS...
...about how to feed children is Ellyn Satter's "Child of Mine: Feeding with Love and Good Sense". Her approach to a healthy division of responsibility for feeding children is a classic, and guides me in more than just meal preparation. But sleeping in tents doesn't mean saying bye to good sense.
After weeks of camping with my three boys over the past two summers I've figured out a few things about what to make us for dinner and how to handle the groceries and refrigeration. How to have freedom and fun with food, while not giving up on the wholesome ingredients my kids need to feel their best. In the summer spirit, I'm taking a break from infant development and infant sleep blogs to throw a few ideas down on paper about daily life for camping families: what to feed the kids and family.
A few assumptions: I'll assume that meat is on your menu (because if it is not, you can ignore that advice).
I'll also assume you are not camping in a group and aren't combining resources (because, again, you can ignore my advice and combine kitchen tools and menus as a group).
I’m assuming, as well, that you are car camping. Overnight canoe- or hiking- trips are wonderful adventures, but I’m focusing here on families who are venturing into camping with kiddos, rather than those with a lot of experience back-country camping.
And last, I'll assume you are trying to pack minimally: pots will get reused in the same meal, tools will tend to be multi-purpose or really worth the space. There is something really liberating about only having what you need. What you don't have (or what you forget) will usually have some adequate substitute that will make you feel like a powerful pioneer woman, or like a “social connection seeker”, asking the next campsite over if they can lend you a lighter or pair of scissors.
So, here are a few basics:
Bring the right tools, but no extras. Your car will be full enough with sleeping bags and a tent and pillows. Pay attention before your trip on what tools you use for what meals and start a list: Vegetable peeler, tongs, sharp knife, can opener, flexible cutting board --there are work-arounds for all of these, but they are also quite handy items that can make your trip go more smoothly.
The exception to “bring no extras” is propane or fuel for your stove. Bring more than you need or know where you can get more. Until you get used to how much fuel you need, it may be better to have extra for next time than to run out. If you are a large group or are camping a long time, consider getting an adaptor for your stove so that you can hook it up to those large white propane canisters that you use with your backyard barbecue. Note: on windy days you will go through fuel much much faster.
Eat meat early in the trip; focus more on vegetarian meals leading up to pack-up time or grocery trip day.
Two smaller coolers (one for meat, one for veg) may be better than one large one. Also, I find a full cooler with block ice is very difficult to take in and out of the car safely: dividing your food into smaller coolers may help you when it comes time to tuck the coolers away for the night.
Put your cooler in the car. I have occasionally partially 'locked' the cooler under a picnic table bench but that was in campgrounds where there were no seasoned racoons or skunks. Or bears. Better to be safe and still get breakfast in the morning than to attract unwanted guests. This general philosophy applies as much to urban car camping as it does to isolated backcountry camping.
Check the plug on your cooler to ensure it is secure: a puddle of water in your car in the morning, or ants in the drained cooler is no fun. A trip to the home improvement store for silicone is no fun either but it will work if your plug breaks off and you need to McGyver it. (Not that this has happened to me).
Opt for block ice if you are going for more than a day or two. The ice lasts much longer.
Keep meals simple but nutritious. There's lots you and the kids may want to do while camping, and fueling your bodies well will help!
Pay attention to what your family eats as you plan your trip. You may find that some of your regular meals are easily made while camping. Others can be modified.
Don't sweat the normal routines. If bedtime snack is a major theme in your house, know that when camping the kitchen will literally be closed when you close up your car for the night. Many kids have an amazing ability to adjust to limits in choices and restrictions because the camping environment just doesn't support what can happen more easily at home. For those kiddos who have a difficult time with changes in routine, keep it simple and pay attention to the key rituals (is it the type of food they focus on, or is it something else like one on one time with you that is the clincher?).
Sautee onions, peppers on a fry pan. Add small stir-fry size chicken (or meat alternative) on pan. Remove from pan. Pan-heat soft tortilla shells (gluten free, regular...whatever fits your family's diet) with gouda (or alternative), barbecue sauce, the chicken and veg until cheese is melted. Slide off onto places, cut into triangles, and eat.
Cook your pasta of choice in large saucepan. On a separate burner (or afterwards if you don't have two burners free), saute onions, peppers in fry pan with oil. Add ground beef or alternative, stir until cooked. Strainers are nice but you can also adequately drain pasta with oven mitts and the lid on, and a slow pour down at ground level. A bit of grass is usually ok :) Empty pasta into a large bowl. Put beef mixture into now-empty saucepan and add tomato sauce. Heat. Add into drained pasta. Pasta can be cooked ahead of time if time will be tight for dinner.
Cook ground beef, chicken strips or alternative ground protein as you do for pasta. Add taco seasoning (we ditch homemade and bring the Ol' El Paso stuff for camping). Slice avocados and cherry tomatoes, cut some lettuce, and get out the shredded cheese or alternative. Bring a jar of salsa, whatever taco shells (or romaine lettuce wraps) you like to eat, and !Ahi Esta!, you've got a meal!
Either keep it simple: favourite cereal, with milk.
Medium grade: instant or quick oatmeal with nut butter, raisins and seeds.
Or heavy duty: Scrambled eggs and pre-cooked bacon. You can cook the bacon the night before or when you first get up. Chop extra peppers and onions the night before to add to the omelette, and hopefully you have extra cheese too. Bacon is messy, and I tend to avoid it when camping. I recommend buying eggs in plastic cartons or using the camp coleman-style egg containers: cardboard gets soggy in coolers.
You can also pre-mix the dry ingredients for pancakes and add eggs and liquid when you are preparing breakfast. Bring nut butter, jam, syrup, or honey. Or all four!
We approach lunch as a light, cold, picnic-y meal so that you can make it quickly, pack it in a backpack, or graze between swimming, playing frisbee, or relaxing. Of course, any dinner ideas work for lunch too if you are hanging around the campsite at lunch time.
Bring romaine, croutons, and Caesar salad dressing; use left over beef, chicken, or other protein from the night before (requires making extra or having kids that are too busy having fun to eat all their dinner --this happens a lot to us while camping). Store extra meat in sealed container in cooler.
Prepare humus, tortilla chips, guacamole, cucumber, peppers, cauliflower, baby-cut carrots, and any other vegetable that will fit in your cooler.
Have nuts, seeds, raisins, and other trail mix options for hikes, or for hungry tummies while you make lunch.
Bring cold cuts if you eat processed meat.
Have easy warm meals for cooler days: instant or quick cook oatmeal with nut butter, macaroni and cheese (even if you forget the butter and milk), hot dogs if you have a barbecue, canned soups.
SNACKS and DESSERTS:
Bake muffins and cookies ahead of time. Bring graham crackers, good chocolate, and marshmallows for S'mores. I've tried the 'prepackaged' S'mores and they were very stale. Perhaps that is not always the case, but it's not an experiment I want to run again! If you have kids that are greatly affected by sugar or who go to bed too early for a fire, consider S'mores for after breakfast: for kids, the memories will be great whether the special camping rituals are after sunset or during the day. Marshmallows can be cooked over a barbecue if there is a fire ban or if smoke allergies are an issue (Mother Earth will thank you, though I do know how lovely a crackling fire is for the camping experience).
If you like kitchen hacks while camping, consider lining a cardboard box with foil and place coals or hot bricks in the bottom to make an oven for baking.
PACKING YOUR KITCHEN KIT:
One of the pleasures of camping for me is the isolation and (even if urban camping) my expectation is to avoid stores unless absolutely necessary. As a result, I do my best not to forget anything critical. And usually I manage that!
Some things, for me, are a must. Others are an indulgence. Take what you need, create a bit of a buffer, and leave the rest at home. Usually, as long as you have the basics, you can make do missing a thing or two.
take a deep breath, and Have fun.
Camping for our family has meant an immersion in simplicity, a realization that our family priorities sometimes are at odds with our modern life, and that having nothing to do is a big blessing. There can be pressure to think that we need to plan our time. Limit your planning to getting there, and let the rest take shape. Let the experience (rained out barbecue, and leaky tent included) be an exercise in letting go, and giving nature her due: we try to control so much in our lives, that taking a deep breath and accepting what comes can be a welcome shift.
If you’d like to learn more….
Join me June 29th in St. Catharines for a presentation that is part slideshow (photos of Ontario and American Southwest camping with our kiddos), part how-to (more menu ideas, kit lists, and lessons learned), and part environmental imperative (a perspective on environmental illness, including guidance for preventing Lyme Disease).
Sign up here to be on the RSVP list for June 29th (you will also receive my weekly newsletter) or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org to RSVP.
Let’s get camping!