Hundreds of thousands of Americans venture into the woods or along rocky trails, marvel at alpine vistas, then return to camp to eat… hot dogs and chips. Seriously, we breathe in nature, absorb the elements, then eat convenience food? That’s just not right.
Growing up part-time in Idaho's Frank Church Wilderness, my sisters, cousins and I were tasked with picking berries for breakfast or fishing to round out dinner. In Girl Scouts, my mom taught us to bake brownies in a cardboard box. These activities helped us kids to interact with the nature, slow down, and become creative about outdoor cooking.
How can we shift our camping behaviors so the whole family is cultivating positive memories by connecting nature and food?
As long as we’re planning ahead for camping, here are some tips for creating delicious, stress-free campout meals: 1. plan to cook at least one meal per day from scratch at your campsite; 2. include high-quality protein, plenty of fresh vegetables and/or fruit; 3. write down all ingredients; 4. shop 1-2 days ahead; 5. prepare ingredients at home (chopped vegetables or minced garlic); 6. pre-measure some ingredients (milk for pancakes), and store in reusable, labeled containers; 7. add one extra, gourmet item that your family will rave about (fresh blueberries for pancakes); 8. group items by meal, putting ingredients for the first meal at the top of your cooler; also separate dry items into bags labeled by meal.
Next, review the recipes and write a list of every kitchen item you’ll need to prepare the meal outside that is not already in your camping box. Collect the items yourself. Pack these items with your recipes.
Consider the time of year and where you’re camping – there may be forest foods in season! Foraging may be limited, though it’s an awesome family outing to scout for huckleberries or morels! Pack appropriate containers, just in case.
If you’re recreating with other families, invite them to participate in a group meal. Specify ingredients for each family to prepare one gourmet component of the meal. A recent taco night at Redfish Lake with eight families served up grilled salmon, ground venison with spices, fire-glazed mushrooms and zucchini, guacamole and pico de gallo. We also had two Dutch oven chocolate cakes!
Call kids in from exploring and create a family ritual around outdoor meal prep. This is ideal quality time to hear about their woodsy adventures while cooking together. Since many ingredients are pre-measured, even small kids can pour, add and mix. Kids also love to make an outdoor meal lovely with a tablecloth, melamine plates, dinner candles, and an arrangement of forest sticks, grasses or pine needles.
Some of us may be seasoned in some of these small camping acts of yumminess. For others, it’s a big deal to shift away from packaged, preserved food and actually cook in the woods. I challenge every camper to either:
Start small – one improvement could be as simple as replacing happy hour chips and pre-packaged dip with a fresh fruit and cheese plate; or
Go big – experiment with a Dutch oven meal! Acquire a cookbook explaining how-to temperature control, and ensure that you bring all safety equipment.
The food we consume when camping should be the food that nature intended for us to eat. Bring seasonal, whole foods that are as natural as your love for being outdoors. Take the time to create new camping food traditions. Enjoy the process – and yummy meals!