If you’re new to camping, or even to just cooking outdoors there are a lot of options for making delicious food. When my family and I go camping, cooking and eating are normally highlights of the trip. For this article, I am not going to get into backpack meals. Meals on the go for someone who wants to travel as light as possible is another entire article. For now, we are talking about options for preparing meals at a campground, or in your own backyard.
Grilling on the Fire Ring
Most campsites have a fire ring and a picnic table as basic furnishings when you arrive. Whether it’s at a state park or an RV resort, you will likely have similar accommodations. Many of the fire rings have a cooking grate in various stages of cleanliness. Sometimes I will use the cooking grate already there, but I will normally put aluminum foil over it, poking holes in it to allow grease to drain. Most of the time, though, I bring my own grate that I can put over the fire. There are numerous inexpensive and portable cooking grates that you can buy if you are doing this on a regular basis. I like ones that let me adjust the cooking height. One of the ones I use most frequently has been reviewed here.
Grilling on the fire ring is probably the most similar to outdoor cooking you have already done on your backyard bbq grill. Hamburgers, hotdogs, chicken, and steaks are all common options. The main difference is that you may end up cooking over a wood fire for the first time when you use this method. Charcoal is an option, but many times a wood fire is already going, and there is just something special about food prepared this way. If you’ve never used a wood fire before, make sure to let the fire burn down to coals before cooking.
Try one of our latest grilling recipes, cheesy stuffed buffalo chicken breast.
Camp stoves come in two main varieties. Liquid fuel or propane. It’s just my opinion, but I would rather deal with propane canisters for around the campground. They are a little bulky but the store easily enough. I have a JetBoil camp stove, which is a very nice stove, but a little on the pricey side. I got a good deal on it as a scratch and dent at the factory outlet store. The main thing I like about it is that it packs up into a small easy to transport container. But truthfully, I don’t think I would have bought one if I had to pay the full retail price. The other common alternative is the venerable Coleman stove. I also have one of these, and it has a lot of miles on it! I usually set up a camp stove on one end of the picnic table on our campsite. You can make pretty much anything on one of these that you would make at home. It’s just a little small and cramped compared to your kitchen cooktop. Normally you can find some nice cook sets that stack to store, or just pick up some small pots and pans at a second hand shop to keep in your camp kitchen set. You can even use a small toaster over one of the burners!
If you have never camped with the Boy Scouts and made a hobo foil dinner, you are missing out. You can wrap just about any combination of food in foil, and set it near the coals of the fire, but the main foil dinner consists of slices of potato, ground beef, and whatever other veggies you have laying around. Seasonings of your choice, and maybe some cheese will make good toppers. Put some cooking spray or oil on the aluminum foil, spread a layer of potato slices, carrots, onions, or whatever else you have around on the foil, and top with the ground beef. Throw some more potatoes on the top. You will want to completely wrap your dinner so you can turn it over a couple times while cooking. Set the meals around the edges of your campfire and keep turning them so they cook evenly. Cooking time will depend on how hot your fire is. You can also use charcoal and lay the foil dinners on the coals to cook.
This is a great way to get kids involved with the cooking process. Have ingredients out and let them build their own meal to cook. Pro-tip, have oven mitts or welding gloves handy to turn the foil meals and pick them out of the fire. Don’t let young kids do this.
Another variation of this dinner that I have done is a chicken parmesan. Start with chicken breast or tenderloins, and top with marinara sauce and cheese. When you wrap this, you will want to “tent” the top, keeping space between the top of the food and the foil. You will not want to turn this meal upside down when cooking.
Here is a video that does a great job of showing you how to make “hobo pockets.”
Cooking in a Dutch Oven is a huge topic, and I have other articles dedicated to Dutch Oven care and recipes here, so for now I’ll just tell you why you should try it. You can do anything from baking a dessert, to making your favorite slow cooker recipe in a Dutch Oven. Boil things or make sauces by heating from the bottom. Heat from the bottom and top, and you can bake.
I will warn you now, there are whole groups on Facebook dedicated to cooking with cast iron. I started with a Dutch Oven, and then got more. It spread to cast iron skillets in my kitchen. I now have a whole collection of cast iron cookware. Some cooks even say that cast iron is an essential part of a recipe.
A Dutch Oven is heavy. And it takes up room when you pack for your campout. You don’t take it with you “just in case” you might want to use it. You either use the heck out of it, or it should stay home. But if you want to try something new, I strongly suggest giving it a try.
Taking proper care of cast iron cookware is important, but once you get used to it, not very difficult. If you have any doubts, google Dutch Oven Recipes. I have a number of recipes here on Must Go Camping. One of my favorites is Dutch Oven Lasagna! For additional information, see our Dutch Oven Temperature Reference.
Food Preparation and Storage
Storage of food for camping requires some planning. Remember that ice melts in a cooler, so the packaging of food items will not hold up. I strongly suggest keeping meats and items that must be cooked in a separate cooler from other items like eggs, orange juice containers, or cans of soda and beer. Freeze bottles of water (after taking a little water out of them to allow for expansion), and use them to keep your food cold. Then you can drink them when they melt. And pack your coolers as full as you can. Lots of empty space and air speeds up the melting of ice.
Don’t feel like you always have to bring everything with you that you will need for the whole trip. This is an extreme example, but when camping for a week with a Boy Scout Troop in 100 degree heat, we needed to feed about 15 people every day. Bringing the whole menu with us for the whole week, and keeping it cold the whole time would have been extremely difficult. Each day after the daily activities, someone would make a grocery run and get the food for that night’s dinner, breakfast the next morning, and packable lunches. Of course some things you could stock up on, but the meats and things that needed to stay cold were bought fresh every one to two days. You won’t always be camping with 15 people for a week. But that doesn’t mean you can’t run to the store and get fresh steaks one night instead of bringing them with you.
You can also pre-prep some of your food. If a recipe calls for browned hamburger, brown it up ahead of time, put it in a ziplock food bag, and freeze it. Anything you can pre-cut, pre-measure, or pre-cook saves you time for other things on you getaway. And it also saves you from having to do some of your food prep on the picnic table around the campground. Look at your recipes carefully, and see what you can consolidate. If a dessert requires sugar, and some other seasonings, measure them all out and combine them in a ziplock. Then just dump it in when it’s time to cook.
I try to add recipes on this web site regularly, so check back from time to time. If there’s something you want to see feel free to ask in the comment section, or send me a note on the contact form. Even check out our Facebook page. I hope you have a great camping trip, and eat well!!