Some of you probably love cooking while camping. I mean, this is Vermont, right? I can imagine some of the Vermont diehard campers coming up with meal plans featuring the best of the best. We live in a camping mecca and the Vermont food scene is pretty incredible.
As a chef, I love nothing more than a good cooking challenge. Cooking while camping is the ultimate challenge. No electricity, minimal refrigeration, only a few tools… it’s almost like a Food Network competition.
But, I’m quickly reminded that I’m a mom first these days, then a chef. And cooking while camping has to produce something my family will eat with relatively little prep and cooking time.
The reality of family camping is that instead of coming up with locally-sourced camping menus, I’m wondering if we need to bring the stroller, how many diapers we need to bring, what we’ll do if it rains, and if we have enough batteries, etc. The list goes on and on.
Of course, I still put a fair amount of planning into our meals. It’s a necessary task. Cooking while camping can still be fun, easy, and delicious without the pressure of crafting the perfect campfire meal.
Here are some of my best tips for cooking while camping.
Pre-cook the proteins
Unless you plan on keeping raw meat separate from the rest of your food, it’s best to pre-cook the proteins. Skip the burgers and steaks. They are messy and you risk having meat juice dripping into the rest of your cooler and that’s just really gross (and not safe).
Two of my favorite pre-cooked camping meals are grilled chicken and pulled pork (or chicken).
To make the grilled chicken ahead of time, I like to use the Instant Pot because it keeps the chicken moist. You can use your favorite recipe. It doesn’t need to be anything fancy. I prefer to keep it simple and season the chicken with salt and pepper to please the kids. Cook until the chicken is done, about 165 degrees.
Store the cooked chicken in a sealable bag. Once you’re ready to cook at your campsite, you can add barbeque sauce if you’d like, or any other sauce, or just a squeeze of lemon, or nothing at all. Just put the chicken on the grill or the fire and it will reheat in a matter of minutes.
You can serve it with grilled vegetables or a salad.
Pulled pork prep is going to be very similar. I love making pulled pork in the Instant Pot because you get to keep all the juices. I season my pulled pork with brown sugar, chili powder, salt, and pepper. A 2-3 pound pork shoulder will take about 60 minutes in the Instant Pot. Once it’s cooked, I shred it and store it in a sealable bag for the camping trip.
I heat the pulled pork up in an aluminum pan while camping because you can toss it after and not worry about cleaning it up. I try to minimize waste while camping, for many reasons, but sometimes aluminum foil and pans are necessary to keep things easy.
I like to serve my pulled pork with coleslaw and baked potatoes. My kids like piling it on top of tortilla chips.
The best camping salad
My kids love macaroni salad and it’s a simple lunch or side dish to have while you’re camping. This is my kids’ favorite recipe, but you can use this method with any mayonnaise-based pasta salad.
2 cups cooked macaroni
½ cup chopped celery
1 cup frozen peas
1 cup mayonnaise
1 teaspoon celery salt
¼ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon black pepper
- Use a quart mason jar or deli container. (I love keeping the plastic deli cups from the supermarket for this reason.)
- Mix the mayonnaise and seasonings in a separate bowl. Scoop the “dressing” into the container.
- Then put the cooked macaroni in. Add the celery and frozen peas. (The peas don’t need to be frozen, but my thought is that the colder the ingredients, the better, for longevity in the cooler.)
- Put the lid on and store in your cooler for the trip. When you’re ready to serve, simply mix everything together.
I layer the ingredients instead of mixing because it creates a fresher salad with crunchier fresh veggies in the end. If the dressing is added too early, the pasta salad is going to dry out anyway and you’ll be adding way more mayonnaise than you need.
There are a lot of ways that you can make this salad. Some optional add-ins include canned tuna, diced cucumbers, sliced olives, and fresh herbs. I would not recommend using tomatoes when making this salad ahead of time. They release a lot of extra water and will get soggy.
Make breakfast sandwiches ahead of time
A friend of mine started doing this when we went camping and it’s a hack I’ll use forever. Make your breakfast sandwiches (or wraps) at home and then wrap them in aluminum foil. Sandwiches made with English muffins will even fit right back into the plastic sleeve the muffins came in from the store. This is a great way to store the sandwiches for camping (and have extra bags for diapers, trash, etc.).
You can even make these sandwiches a few days ahead of time and store them in the freezer. By the time you’re ready to eat them, they will have thawed out and stayed nice and cool (and safe) in the cooler.
This makes cooking breakfast while camping a breeze. You can easily heat them up on the fire or grill.
Don’t buy mini bottles of condiments
Grocery stores love to lure you in with overpriced mini bottles of ketchup, mustard, mayonnaise, and other condiments you need when you’re cooking while camping. Don’t buy them!
You can repurpose small mason jars, deli containers (8-ounce containers work best), or even baby food jars. We’re Vermonters. We’re resourceful. I know you can find something in your house to hold a few ounces of your favorite condiments. This is cheaper and better for the environment.
Freeze your drinks
Freezing the liquids that are going into your coolers will help decrease the amount of ice you’re going to need to keep your food cold and safe, and will also keep your drinks cool longer. I freeze water bottles and juice boxes ahead of time. I also freeze gallon water jugs, which will often stay frozen for the entire camping trip.
Of course, don’t freeze glass or cans or they will explode.
Some other basic cooking tips
- Bread is impossible to take camping. It always gets squished or wet. Instead, if you’re going to make sandwiches, bring tortillas and make wraps instead.
- Refrigerated croissant dough is perfect for making hot dogs over a fire. Simply roll it around the hot dog and put it on a skewer and it will bake up really nicely while being held over an open flame.
- Dairy items are not your friend while camping. But, if your kids are like mine, they love cheese and require it daily as an easy on-the-go snack. Cheese sticks are also something you can freeze ahead of time.
- Fresh fruits and vegetables are delicious, but they risk getting bruised and going bad in your cooler. Instead, bring canned or jarred produce. Some of my favorite veggies to snack on are marinated artichokes and dilly beans.
- If you want to pack some fresh fruits, apples and mangos are two fruits that won’t get bruised as easily. Some vegetable options include carrots and celery. Some fruits and veggies are good grilled too, in the case they do get bruised. These include pineapple, sweet peppers, corn, peaches, and zucchini.
Don’t stress about cooking while camping
Camping should be fun and stressing over food shouldn’t be on your list of things to do. Find all the shortcuts so that you can enjoy this time with your family. Honestly, one of the best hacks that we have done while camping is ordering out. It’s still camping if you’re enjoying a pizza under the stars or a gas-station grinder. Cleaning up is a cinch when you order out too.
My family loves using Hipcamp to find unique camping spots. We try to find locations that are close to some of our favorite towns around Vermont (and favorite restaurants and bakeries we wouldn’t normally go to). We usually have the car, so running out in the morning for fresh baked goods and coffee is a special treat on the last day.
Though unconventional, we also have ordered takeout dinners before arriving at our campsites and brought the food back to the campsite. Please don’t feel guilty about ordering out. I am a chef, and takeout makes camping with my family more enjoyable for all of us. Ordering takeout is also a great way to support the local community that you’re camping in.
Truly, there are no set rules to what you need to eat while camping. Have fun, eat well, and always pick up your trash.
However, I believe it’s a crime to forget the goods to make s’mores while you’re camping. Please make sure you remember those!