Why is it that food always tastes better when you’re camping? Is it the fresh air? Is it eating around a campfire? It is the company you’re with?
Maybe it’s all of the above. Or maybe there’s just some special magic that happens when you’re enjoying food in the great outdoors. Whatever it is, mealtime with my family and friends is one of my favorite things about overlanding.
And, whether you’re an aspiring Gordon Ramsay or you follow the KISS (keep it simple silly) method of cooking, the key to stress-free, good-eating on the trail is planning.
Before you head to the grocery store and pack up your rig, you’ll want to ask yourself a few questions, take inventory, and make a few preparations to ensure you have the right amount of food, all the ingredients and supplies you need, and that your menus will make everyone happy—including you!
How Many Mouths Are You Feeding?
The answer to this question will help determine how many servings you’re going to need for each meal you’ll be preparing. There’s a big difference between bringing enough food for just you and your significant other or for a group of 10.
When Brad and I camp with a group everyone often takes turns with dinner, breakfast, or both. This means there will be at least one night or morning that I’m cooking for everyone, so I make sure to factor that in when I'm calculating how much food I'll need.
Taking turns with meals is a great way to divvy up cooking duties with the added bonus being that there will be at least one meal when you don’t have to do anything except sit back, relax, and enjoy the food.
If you’re hitting the trail with friends or family, just make sure to coordinate this in advance and don’t forget to ask about food allergies—anaphylactic shock on the trail might make for an adventure, just not a great one.
How Many Meals Are You Cooking?
There are several factors you’ll need to take into account when determining how many meals you’ll need during an overlanding excursion:
- How many days is your adventure?
- Will you be stopping at any restaurants during your trip?
- When will you be leaving and returning home? (If you aren’t hitting the trail until Friday after work, you won’t need breakfast or lunch that first day.)
Now, here's where that math you learned in elementary school is going to come in handy. Just add up the number of days for your trip, multiple it by three (meals per day), and subtract any meals you won't be preparing. For bonus points, you can include extras like snacks or desserts as variables in your calculations.
Once you know how many meals you need to prepare, you’ll just need to make sure you have enough servings for the number of people you’ll be feeding at each meal. Easy, right?
What’s in Your Camp Kitchen?
Now that you know how much to cook, and before you can decide what to cook, it’s important to know how you can cook. Making sure your camp kitchen has everything you need to prepare and cook food at camp is an important part of meal planning, so here are a few things to think about:
- What’s your heat source? Will you be cooking with a propane stove, over a campfire, or both?
- If you’re planning on cooking over a campfire, don’t forget to check and make sure that fires are actually allowed where you’ll be.
- If cooking with propane, do you have a one- or two-burner stove, a Skottle, a grill? Essentially, how much food can you cook at once? And, how much propane are you going to need for the number of days you'll be on the trail and the number of meals you'll be cooking?
- What camp cookware do you have? In other words, how many and what size pots and pans do you have?
- What kitchen gear, tools, and utensils do you have? Do you have knives, a can opener, and other basic kitchen equipment?
Taking stock of the gear and equipment you have in your camp kitchen will help you figure out what your current cooking capabilities are. Based on how many people you’ll be serving, how many meals you’ll be making, and what you’ll be cooking, your inventory can help you decide whether you need to add items to your current set-up or if you can leave a few things behind to make room for other essentials.
I love figuring out which recipes I’ll be making at camp. The meals I plan can be as easy or as challenging as I want them to be, and I can tailor them to fit our activities, my cooking ambitions, and even the weather. Here are the questions I keep in mind when deciding what’s on the menu:
Do I want to stick with tried and true recipes or try something new?
Usually, I only experiment with new camp recipes when it’s just my family. They’re my best test subjects because I know they’ll be honest (really, really honest!). And, because I really do love my family, I also make sure I have a quick and easy backup plan, like good ol’ peanut butter and jelly, in the event of failure.
How much time will I have for cooking?
The answer depends on whether we’ll be on the go all day or moving at a leisurely pace. If time-distance is going to be tight, lunches will likely be sandwiches on the go. And, if I know we won’t be getting into camp until late in the day or we’ll be making an early start, I plan accordingly with fast and simple meals. I'll often make berry muffins or banana bread at home so we have them on hand for a quick breakfast. And there's nothing wrong with grilled cheese and tomato soup for dinner. But, if I know there will be days when we're going to get to camp early, I may decided to put in some extra effort and make something fabulous!
How much time do I want to spend cooking?
This might be the most important question when it comes to meal planning. Is my goal to relax and enjoy the destination? Or do I want to spend time and energy whipping up a culinary masterpiece? Sometimes, I enjoy the challenge of preparing fancy camp meals. And sometimes, I just want to get ‘er done so that I can unwind and enjoy the campfire while gazing at the stars.
What’s the forecast?
If the weather is going to be hot, I like to plan meals that are light and refreshing (some nice chicken Caesar salad wraps made with pre-cooked chicken requires no cooking and can be ready in minutes with minimal effort). If we’re headed for colder temperatures, meals that are hot and hearty will be on the menu.
Am I going to want snacks? (Silly question because...yes!)
And let's not forget about snacks and beverages. These can be as simple or as fancy as you’d like. A bag of chips can keep you going between meals just as well as freshly made bruschetta on toasted baguette slices. If you plan on enjoying a steaming mug of hot chocolate with miniature marshmallows while sitting around the campfire on a chilly night or you’d like to sip a cold glass of chardonnay on a hot desert night, make sure to plan and pack accordingly.
The beauty of camp cooking is that it can be whatever you want it to be. If you want to get fancy and prepare a five-course meal complete with desert, I'm pretty certain your traveling companions won't complain. And if you want to keep things simple, that works too—good food doesn’t have to be complicated.
Making Your List and Checking It Twice
Now that you know how much food you’ll need, what you’re going to cook, and how you’re going to cook it, you need to plan your shopping and make sure everything gets packed. Here are few things to consider:
- How much cold and dry food storage do you have?
- Do you need to bring all your ingredients at the outset or will there be grocery stores along the way?
- What fresh ingredients or produce will you need for your first few meals?
- What perishables can you buy later?
- Do you need to add any cookware or kitchen equipment to your current camp kitchen for the meals you have planned? (Forgetting a can opener when canned goods are on the menu is no fun. Trust me, I speak from experience.)
- What spices, seasonings, and condiments do you need? Are they already part of your camp cooking pantry? If not, can you borrow them from your home pantry or do you need to add them to your grocery list?
Once you have your answers to all the questions above, you’re ready to make your lists. I used the plural because I recommend having one list for food and another list for supplies and equipment.
For the supplies and equipment list, you should include everything you will need to have in your rig when you hit the trail. Even if it’s already in your rig, add it to your list. If it’s something you need to buy, add it to your list. If it’s something you have in your home kitchen or another vehicle and you just need to move it the rig you’re taking on your upcoming trip, add it to the list.
The goal is to have a comprehensive check list of every single thing you will need to prepare and cook your meals. Then, as you’re packing, check things off the list only after you’ve:
- Verified the item is, in fact, already in your rig, OR
- You’ve bought the item AND placed it in your rig, OR
- You’ve taken the item from your kitchen or elsewhere AND placed it in your rig
The same goes for food. Create a comprehensive grocery list of every single ingredient and how much of it you will need for each and every recipe. Whether you are buying it at the start of your trip or you plan on grabbing it during a resupply trip, add it to your list. And don’t forget to include snacks and beverages on your list.
To keep myself organized, I put a check mark by items I've packed into our rig and a star by the items I will buy later. If you’re going to pull items from your home pantry and refrigerator, add them to your list and mark with a star until you actually put it in your rig, then check it off.
Just for emphasis...only check off the items that are packed and ready to go (not that I'm speaking from experience or anything). This will help ensure you won't forget anything.
Tips & Tricks
Here are few extra tips and tricks that I've learned along the way, all of which have made camp life so much easier.
1. Find a great recipe app.
This is especially helpful when whipping up a new recipe so you don't forget any steps. It's also super handy when you're scaling a recipe up or down so that you don’t have to recalculate teaspoons and tablespoons in your head. I've been using an app called Paprika for years and love that I have a version on my phone and my tablet. It has a meal planning feature as well as a grocery list, and it works flawlessly whether you're online or off.
2. Prep food in advance.
If there’s any way to prep your ingredients in advance, that’s the way to go. I like to pre-slice veggies, parboil potatoes, chop and marinate meats, and even pre-mix dry ingredients for things like pancakes, cobbler, or dumplings. I just put everything in baggies and label them.
3. Don’t forget clean-up supplies.
I always have disinfectant wipes, paper towels, and a garbage bag nearby to keep my food prep area clean and tidy.
4. Bring extra plastic baggies.
I’ve found that baggies are a great, space-saving way to store leftovers. I always keep extra quart- and gallon-sized baggies in my camp kitchen.
5. Keep spices and cooking basics in your rig.
We use soft boxes in our rig to safely and securely store our seasonings, spices, and other non-perishable foods. They're basically my pantry-on-the-go. My spice box is always ready with things like garlic salt, pepper, garlic powder, thyme, oregano, paprika, cayenne, cinnamon, olive oil, balsamic vinegar, and more.
I also keep small amounts of flour, sugar (brown and refined), baking soda, and baking powder in my box, which I store in plastic, screw-top containers to prevent messy surprises when we get to camp. And before each trip, I give my “portable pantry” a once-over, just to make sure everything is still good to go.
Sharing is Caring
I don’t have a monopoly on great ideas to make meal planning foolproof, and I'm always up for learning something new, so if anyone else has some great tips and tricks that have saved you time, effort, and heartache, while helping you create some delicious dishes on the trail, please share them in the comments below.