Family-friendly, healthy eating while camping
Here are my favourite ways to eat healthy while car camping with kids.
Below are the challenges and strategies, my shopping/packing list, and the recipes!
Feeding your Family in the Great Outdoors
My family will be road tripping and tent camping this summer. I’m excited to sleep by rivers in the woods, on grasslands near desert canyons, and in the rugged Rocky Mountains. We cannot predict if there will be wildfires, floods, or clear sunny weather, but as a planner by nature I will prepare for everything I can, including our camp meals.
As a parent, I love the laid-back feeling when we eat outside. But as a nutritionist, I know that the food served at camp is rarely the best. If you are not careful, at the end of the day you may realize that no one has eaten anything green! This list of recipes should offer a variety of flavours while offsetting the camping food challenges listed below.
Please note: ‘Car camping’ food is different from food for backpack or portage camping! Camping from a car, camper van, or RV, we are less concerned with having instant, lightweight, calorie-dense food than if we were hiking all day with the food on our backs. (Tired of backpacking with instant noodles or mashed potatoes with jerky? For a plethora of dehydrated meal ideas, including vegan meals, try the website Fresh off the Grid).
Camping Food Challenges and Ways to Eat Healthy
- Minimal cooking gear, pots, pans, and wash up facilities. Consider how you will make the best use of your cooking and washing set up. Bring a few multipurpose items. Be creative and use your ingenuity.
- Life is less predictable when you are in the woods. Will there be a ban on open flame or days of rain? RV generators have been known to stop working. Let’s be prepared, Scouts! Bring some food that can be eaten uncooked or cooked. If you run out of fuel, cannot get a fire going or face a sudden flame ban, having the option of enjoying food at a range of ambient temperatures is very handy.
- The elements. Fire and ice do not sustain consistent or exact temperature during hot days and cold nights. In addition to using ice, keep your cooler cold by filling it with frozen consumables. Bags of frozen vegetables, bottles of healthy oil, even pre-cooked rice can be frozen. Use lock-top glass containers or water-tight silicone food pouches so that food stays safe when the cooler fills with melted water.
When cooking over fire, understand that it is hotter than any stove. The darker, warmer-toned flames are less hot than lighter coloured, cool-toned fire. So, red coals are the coolest parts of the fire; commonly under 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit (537 degrees Celsius). That’s already as hot as a commercial pizza oven, but orange or yellow fire plumes can be double that - up to 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit or 1,093 Celsius. White flames close to the wood are hotter still, and the spots that appear blue inside may reach temperatures up to 3,000 degrees (1650 Celsius)!
- Bear safety. Bear awareness means food must be stored well to avoid attracting bears. Anything at all aromatic, even dish soap, must be stored in sealed containers, elevated, or locked away in a bear box in the shade when not in use.
- Junk food and trash overload. Vacation + nostalgia = a desire for fun food. But, if you love the great outdoors, sustainability is non-negotiable. Trash is trashy. We want maximum fun and convenience with minimum garbage for our bodies and the environment. Engage your kids with the work around the camp and food prep to help them experience a sense of reward for meeting the challenges of the day. Instead of creating excitement with packaged junk food, see the challenge of the restrictions you face as part of the fun!
- Space is at a premium. Select items packaged in conveniently compact ways. Overly bulky or fragile foods just will not cut it. And, if you didn’t bring it, or you run out, you’re out of luck; navigating potholes to the store for two hours isn’t on the menu. Bring tough, compact, transportable items that won’t crush or wilt.
- Include fresh produce. Change can be hard. Kids’ routines and adults’ digestive tracts need continuity! If you and your kids normally eat lots of fruits and veggies, your mood and your digestion may feel badly if you change your diet dramatically. Sticking to whole foods, if that is what you usually eat, will ensure everyone feels their best. I have included a lot of plant-based carbohydrate foods in my plan because that supports the appetites created by swimming, hiking, rock climbing and the general activity of camping.
- Food must keep until you eat it. Most foods with fiber, good fats and phytonutrients spoil quickly. If they don’t, they often have a lot of salt, sugar or other preservatives. I prioritize choices that include fiber, good fats and phytonutrients and that maintain freshness while limiting salt and additives. This includes high-fiber foods like sweet potatoes and canned beans to provide phytonutrients and potassium to balance our sodium intake. Naturally preserved probiotic foods, like lacto-fermented vegetables, pickles, and sauerkraut can work well too. I also use Flora’s Beyond Greens for convenience and either Omega Sport+ or Sacha Inchi oil, omega sources that don’t need to always be refrigerated.
What to Buy and Pack
This shopping and packing list will enable you to make all the food from this article. In some cases, you can choose between two listed options, such as dry pasta or frozen tortellini, depending on how you want to prepare the recipe, so decide what you prefer, and how much you need, and shop accordingly.
I have provided some rough recipes and links, but if you search for recipes for each of my suggestions, you will find the version you like best. The plan provides food for five days, but simple food like boiled eggs, sandwiches, loaded baked potatoes, and things like that could easily stretch it to a week.
Stacked baskets, crates or ventilated containers kept in a cool shady place
- A small amount of soft-sided fruit (must be eaten first), tomatoes, avocado, a Scotch bonnet pepper, small zucchini, firm fleshed or mini cucumbers, hardy bunches of collards and/or kale, scallions/green onion, lemons
- Firm fruit like apples, and fruit such as oranges, pomegranates and bananas that don’t require refrigeration, onions, garlic, carrots, potatoes in a brown paper bag (potatoes left in the light can turn green and make you sick!), corn on the cob in their husks, a small knob of ginger
- Larger, hard or heavier items like sweet potatoes, whole melons, butternut squash
A dry goods container with an air-tight seal: Tea, coffee, cocoa powder, old fashioned oats, a jar of trail mix (nuts, seeds, small pieces of dried fruit), Spanish rice, lentils or barley, dry pre-mixed breakfast (toasted buckwheat, cracked barley, rolled oats, flax seed), jar of pre-mixed dry buckwheat batter, jar of pre-mixed cornbread batter, small containers of spices (like salt, pepper, cinnamon, cumin, red pepper flakes, chili powder, paprika, oregano, saffron threads, allspice berries), optional jar of Red Beet Crystals CA/US, jar of honey or brown sugar, dry pigeon peas, packets of nut butter, a sufficient quantity of medium or large sprouted or whole grain soft tortillas, or alternative wraps, rice wraps or nori sheets, tortilla chips, optional dry bean-based or other high-protein, high fibre pasta, small baggie of popcorn kernels, optional dry milk or coconut milk powder. If you have individual condiment or seasoning packets around, bring them.
A box of canned and jarred goods: Various types of beans (kidney, black beans, pinto beans), a couple cans of fire roasted tomatoes, perhaps one with green chilis, coconut milk, organic medium salsa and organic mild fruit salsa, pitted olives, bottles of vinegar (rice, balsamic, apple cider - depending on what you’re making). Optional marinated artichokes, small can pureed pumpkin, Tetrapak nut milks.
A cooler with fresh ice: Bags of frozen lemon-juice cubes with chopped mint, bag of frozen pre-cooked short grain rice, Flora Olive Oil (Flora bottles can go in the freezer). Chorizo-style sausage, sealed package vegan crumbles, bag of shredded cheese or vegan cheese, prepared hummus and avocado spread in a water-tight container, large bag of frozen peas, frozen shelled edamame, vacuum-packed thinly sliced smoked salmon, dill-favoured fermented cashew dip or soft cheese, optional frozen tortellini, optional sealed container of chicken in jerk marinade - place deep in the ice. Grass-fed butter, or your favourite alternative in a water-tight container. Bring a way to reseal bags once open, such as clips, zipper bags, or elastic bands.
In a cooler bag or in a dry layer on top of the cooler, not in the ice: Eggs or vegan eggs, a container of feta cheese or bocconcini balls, container with a mix of diced onion, tomato, garlic, and bell pepper, bottle of white wine, maple syrup, any open milk, marinated mushrooms and tofu strips, fresh thyme and basil, chilled drinks, either Omega Sport+ or Sacha Inchi oil, optional spinach leaves, optional jars of berries.
I always fully boil the potable pump water at camp to make tea, coffee, and cocoa. And this plan does include a bottle of chilled white wine. But staying hydrated means ensuring you have plenty of water. Since water is the most important beverage, I bring my own filtered water to drink cold. If you have Green Blend/Beyond Greens or Red Beet Crystals, they are both tasty ways to instantly power up your water.
Water with mint and lemon cubes
You can easily elevate water with mint and lemon cubes, making it instantly more refreshing and tastier. To try that, wash and chop up mint leaves at home, and freeze them with lemon juice in an ice cube tray. Bags of these lemon-mint cubes will help keep the cooler cold but do use them up before they melt! Make extra to use in the pea salad.
Trail Mix. Having a tasty variety of your favourite seeds, nuts, dried fruit and such, pre-mixed and stored in a dark glass jar is handy for snacks and especially great for adding to oatmeal, muesli and salads to make them more tasty, filling and nutritious. Raw unsalted seeds should be used if you want to let your kids offer them to local birds or chipmunks or if you think they may spill.
Fruit. Don’t be afraid to bring a whole crate of fruit with you! It can be enough for a light breakfast, especially on a hot day. Kids can easily help themselves to hand fruit like apples and oranges if the fresh air gives them an appetite between meals, and sturdy fruit with firm rinds, like watermelon, seem made for camping. Cushion the more fragile fruit such as plums, apricots or bananas (I use tea towels) and make sure they are not crushed by heavier fruit. If you want to bring berries, use a glass jar, and do not prewash them, to ensure they will last longer. Before cutting melon, try cooling it off with a dunk in the lake (don’t lose it!) or in a bucket of freshly pumped well water, before giving the rind a wash and serving the slices in the shade for maximum refreshment.
Wraps. You can always pack granola bars, but wraps are a camp classic that are nearly as fast and cut down on packaging. If someone is hungry and you don’t want to fire up the stove, roll up whatever leftovers are on hand (such as the sweet potato and kale hash, Jamaican rice and peas, or the chili) to make a satisfying, picnic-portable option in a flash.
Hot cereal. Combine organic grains and dried fruit for a nutritious hot breakfast that will shake off the morning chill and sustain you all the way to the summit of the day. First, add toasted buckwheat or cracked barley to your organic rolled oats for a higher fiber alternative to instant oats. I am inspired by the Patagonia Provisions recipes to add organic flax seed, dried blueberry, strawberry, apple or banana pieces, dry milk or coconut milk, and a pinch of cinnamon and salt. At camp, stir this dry mix into boiling water, cook one minute, then to save fuel, let it sit, covered, for 8-10 minutes before serving. Customize to your family’s tastes with a drizzle of nut butter or honey. A few spoonfuls of Red Beet Crystals is another great topping that not only add a delicious sweet and salty flavour and big pop of colour, but also a nitric oxide energy boost to help the little ones (and parents!) get through a challenging hike.
Muesli. Oats, nuts, seeds, plant milk. Customizable and no cooking required, this cold breakfast is a good choice when the days are extremely hot, or you want to save fuel. Soak overnight for an overnight oats style breakfast option that is easier to digest. For extra energy and omegas, use Flora Omega Sport+, or Green Blend/Beyond Greens for extra greens. You can mix in fresh chopped fruit like apricots or apple, or try adding canned pumpkin, maple syrup and pumpkin spice mix for a sweet alternative.
Breakfast burritos. Bring some soft tortillas, and then add in your favourite fillings. Popular items include leftover rice and beans, eggs or vegan alternative, fresh or cooked bell peppers or tomatoes. A mild fruit salsa such as pineapple or mango is often appreciated by kids. If you stopped at the local farmer’s market, be sure to include some of the artisan vegan cheese or the nice sausage from that local farm’s ethically raised, grass-fed animals (just be sure to cook it first!). You can wrap these up in foil to heat them up over the coals. If you have given up on foil packet meals out of concern of eating out of aluminum foil, there is always an option of double wrapping items, once in a layer of parchment paper, and then aluminum foil on the outside.
Sweet potato and kale hash. Hash is a flavourful, filling recipe that is customizable and very forgiving. Use whatever veggies you have on hand and your favourite cooked beans for a vegan hash. Add eggs for a vegetarian breakfast hash! Start aromatics like onion and garlic in the skillet cut large enough not to burn. If you need to prevent sticking, use some oil. Then add small cubes of sweet potatoes or butternut squash. Spread them out as much as possible so that they lay on the bottom of the skillet in a single layer.
Cook until most of the potato sides are lightly browned. A stove takes 8 minutes, over fire, about 5 minutes. Move or toss them frequently. Add strips of a hardy green such as kale, and if you want, veggies in a variety of colours and flavours such as yellow bell pepper and striped zucchini. If you wish, add canned or fresh tomatoes, or whole grape tomatoes. Then add whatever spices you like. My hash tends to end up Southwestern style with black beans, paprika, cumin, coriander, and a bit of chili, but it can also taste great with cinnamon, turmeric, fresh herbs like rosemary, and other combinations.
Simply cube everything, making sure the densest items like the sweet potatoes are cut small. Once the sweet potatoes are cooked through, you can make wells in the pan and crack eggs in if you want. Most skillets will fit 4 eggs easily. At home they take 4 minutes but at camp 2 is often enough for the white to set and the yolk to remain soft. This is delicious straight out of the skillet, but you can also roll it up and make it a burrito that can be packed for lunch.
Rice wraps, collard or sushi-style wraps. Spread rice on a sheet of nori, a collard leaf or a softened rice wrapper or kale leaf. Then, lay down strips of anything from cucumber to carrot to red pepper, and add fresh basil or mint leaves if you have any before rolling it up and chowing down. Cooked rice can be packed from home, but some, like Basmati, just don’t work for this, so choose a short-grained variety that’s not too dry. You can moisten it with some diluted rice vinegar to make it stickier. It is great to add strips of marinated shiitake mushrooms or tofu, and they can be brought in their marinade, ready to go.
Vegetable and grain soup. Lentil vegetable or vegetable barley soup are both satisfying and fast. Barley provides a satisfying chewy texture, whereas red lentils are gluten free and great if you’re saving fuel as they are extremely fast cooking. Green lentils and potatoes take 15 minutes over a hot fire. Red lentils take half that and barley can be double. Start the longest cooking items first and add the others as you go. Onions and potatoes are great to bring for soup as they keep well at room temp when stored out of the direct sun. Even carrots or celery, which may become a bit rubbery or lose their texture, are fine once made into soup. Add your preferred seasonings and simmer until everything is chewy-tender.
Avocado hummus taquitos. Pre-make a mixture of hummus and avocado. At camp, spread it inside a tortilla or any other wrap, roll it up and repeat. If you want, include some nutritional yeast. One you’ve filled a pan, heat the whole thing up (you can top with cheese) or serve cold.
Pea and edamame salad. This salad mixes green peas and shelled edamame with olive oil, lemon & mint (I use a shortcut with the cubes, above), minced chili and salt. It is full of plant protein and fiber and has served me well on camping trips. There are many versions online: check out Jamie Oliver’s simple “peas, beans, chili and mint salad” recipe. (Bean, you ask? Yes, despite the lyrics to the song Edamame by BBNO$, edamame are soy beans, and not in fact, peas). Jamie cooks the recipe, and you may prefer the taste of edamame that’s been cooked in hot water for 3-5 minutes, I know I do. However, you can safely serve the whole dish raw, if you like, and on a very hot day serving your minty pea and edamame salad still slightly frozen is extremely refreshing. If you will be passing a farm stand with bushels of pea pods, you may wish to forgo the frozen type and spend some time shelling and enjoying fresh ones. When camping I use red pepper flakes instead of a fresh red chili.
Smoked salmon buckwheat blinis. For this you want to prep all your dry ingredients, using a recipe such as this one. At camp, activate your yeast two hours prior to lunch. Then at mealtime, mix everything together, and drop dollops of batter onto the surface of a pan on the heat. Cook about 30 seconds on each side, flip and then stack on a plate or a rack. Top with a dollop of whatever you have - crème fraiche is traditional, and cream cheese can work, but I thought this was the perfect way to use a new vegan, dill-favoured, fermented cashew dip that I brought, and I highly recommend it! Top with some smoked salmon and eat as many as you need to feel full. Smoked salmon is sold in vacuum-sealed packs, but once you open one of those, use it up, because I am sure the smell would attract a bear!
Paella. My Spanish-Portuguese roots lead me to suggest a paella, a very adaptable one-pan dish. Traditionally cooked over a brush fire, it needs only 20 minutes over a low temperature (red) fire in a wide skillet. The base of medium-grain Spanish rice is seasoned and cooked in flavourful liquid with vegetables and other ingredients. Regional varieties include everything from snails to rabbit. Many include seafood or chicken, but here is a very camp-safe option: sauté chorizo or a chorizo-style meatless sausage in a good glug of olive oil and then add a mix of diced onion, tomato, garlic, and bell pepper, prepped at home. Add rice, saffron and paprika and some combination of broth, fire-roasted tomatoes in juice, and/or white wine. Let it cook uncovered. (Do not stir, or you may make the rice mushy. Plus, the layer of crusty, caramelized, flavourful rice that forms at the bottom of the pan is a key component of authentic paella, called the socarrat.) After 15 minutes, test the rice for doneness, adding liquid if needed. If you are adding seafood, pieces of fresh-caught fish or even snails, do so after you have let the rice cook for 15 minutes. Other good additions could include jarred artichoke hearts or olives, parsley, or frozen peas, which only need to warm through. Serve, and divide the remaining white wine amongst the adults.
One Pot Chili and Cornbread. Grab a wide and deep pot with a solid bottom and a good lid, such as a Dutch oven. Before you leave home, get together, measure and mix the dry ingredients for your favourite cornbread, usually cornmeal, flour, baking soda and salt. Pack eggs and honey. The dry and wet ingredients will get mixed up in a bowl at camp. Water works great but I like to mix mine with buttermilk, which I create at camp with a non-dairy (I choose a shelf stable Tetrapak so I have more room in my cooler), and the juice from half a lemon. (The other half gets squeezed into whatever I am drinking. Pretty much everything is better with a squeeze of lemon!). Bring a big onion, some garlic and a couple kinds of beans and some fire-roasted, diced tomatoes. You’ll want either green chilis or whatever your family likes for heat. You could add a can of corn or scrape some kernels off the cob too. Be sure to bring spices like chili powder, oregano, cumin or whatever you prefer. At camp, chop and then sauté the onion in the pot, and then add the garlic and soon after, everything else for the chili. Get it on the heat to cook and when it is looking thick, move it to an area with indirect heat where it will not bubble but where there is still a lot of warmth. Spread the cornbread batter on top. Put the lid on securely, and then cover with hot embers. Continue to replace cooled embers with hot ones several times until the bread cooks through – 20-30 minutes depending on the average heat of your fire.
Vegetarian Campfire Nachos. This is an extremely forgiving and safe recipe to have the kids help with, or even put together completely on their own. It involves using the can opener, practicing safe use of knives, plus layering ingredients evenly in the pan, but nothing will be dangerous if it isn’t cooked through. Tortilla chips now come in all kinds of healthy organic, stone-ground, ancient grain, non-GMO varieties. Even several no-grain options exist. Combine them in a fire-safe pan with pre-shredded milk based or vegan cheese, a can of drained black beans, a jar of organic salsa, creating layers as you go. Top with a lid or aluminum foil, whatever you have with you, so that it heats through and the cheese melts. Add whatever else your family loves and you have a very fun and forgiving meal. I love slicing fresh avocado, tomato, and green onion and adding a small can of sliced black olives. All these ingredients are fine stored in warm temperatures without ice. However, you can also easily add meatless (soy-based) crumbles if you want more protein. These usually come pre-seasoned in frozen bags and are convenient, safer and more eco-friendly than ground beef. If making nachos, remove frozen crumbles from cooler, layer them into the pan with the other ingredients, and they should heat through in under 5 minutes.
Single-bowl Mediterranean pasta salads. Simple, hearty salads are great for family camping. They will keep everyone full for longer if you use a high-protein pasta made with lentils, black beans, chickpeas or quinoa, or hearty and filling tortellini. Simply cook the pasta and then cool by rinsing it in clean cold water. Most people tend to make a Greek-style pasta salad, and you can certainly not go wrong that way. Cherry tomatoes and red onions don’t need refrigeration, and Persian cucumbers are hardy, so it makes a lot of sense to serve them tossed with your pasta and a simple garnish of fresh lemon, olive oil, and oregano. However, if you are looking for something different, try a Caprese salad. This is another fabulous option that is slightly less expected. For this variation, you would use halved cherry tomatoes, add a chiffonade of fresh basil leaves and a handful of mini bocconcini mozzarella balls. You can stir in fresh spinach leaves and use a balsamic vinaigrette made with olive oil, half as much red wine vinegar or balsamic vinegar, salt, pepper and, depending on the acidity and smoothness of your vinegar, perhaps a touch of honey.
Jamaican rice and peas. If you will be spending a lot of time around the fire, try tending this dish. It can be a flavourful and budget-friendly vegan meal for 3 or 4 people, but it also feeds double that number as a side for jerk-style grilled chicken. (Marinating is important if you plan to grill any meat as it protects from the damaging effects of grilling.) Pick over, rinse and soak 1 cup of pigeon peas or kidney beans overnight. I use pigeon peas as kidney beans can be dangerous if not thoroughly cooked. In the morning, drain the beans or peas and place in a large pot with secure lid. Add 3 cups fresh water and bring to a boil. Stir in 1 chopped small onion, some chopped scallions, a few cloves of chopped garlic, 5 allspice berries, 5 thyme sprigs, a whole Scotch bonnet pepper, ½ a teaspoon or fresh ginger, 2 teaspoons salt and 1/2 teaspoon pepper. Stir in a 13.5 ounce can of full fat coconut milk and bring to a simmer. Cover and aim to maintain a gentle simmer until beans are tender, about 1 hour over orange flames or coals. Stir in 2 cups long-grain white rice, cover and simmer over low flame or red coals until the rice is tender and the liquid is absorbed, about 30 minutes. Remove from the heat and let steam with the lid on for 10 minutes, then pick out the thyme stems, allspice berries and Scotch bonnet. Some people serve this fluffed with a fork, others eat it a bit gooey, and both are tasty.
Popcorn. You can heat popcorn kernels, which are always non-GMO, in a large campfire safe pot with a lid or in a heavy-bottomed skillet with a makeshift foil bonnet. As the heat builds, use a fireproof glove to shake the pan. This ensures that the un-popped kernels fall to the bottom and have a chance to pop. After 5 minutes or so the pot will be quiet. Remove from the heat and carefully remove the foil (look out for steam or late poppers!). Drizzle with oil or melted butter. You could use salt, but popcorn is especially good with Red Beet Crystals. If you have them, toss with Red Beet Crystals for a sweet and salty treat. Do make sure everyone washes their hands before and after digging in!
Fire-Roasted Butternut Squash. If you’ll be sitting around a campfire for some time, enjoying conversation and the act of keeping your fire going, you have an opportunity to make yourself a tasty dessert off to the side in the coals. While there is enough light to see, get out a skewer, a pan, some butter and sweetening like brown sugar or honey and set aside. Looking at a fire, you can usually determine how hot that part of the fire is by the colour as mentioned earlier in this article. Put one or a couple of whole squash down in the cool embers to the side of a medium-hot fire, which should be red or orange. The skin will be charred all over when they are ready, which could take an hour, but like toasting a marshmallow, you’ll want to rotate many times. This is where a well insulated BBQ glove would come in handy. Using a stick to try to turn your squash will only damage it. Make sure if you use tongs that they are cushioned with silicone pads at the ends, or you will gash or peel off the outer layer of the squash accidentally. Keep adding red embers around it to make sure it is evenly cooked. The skewer is so that you can check for doneness. If you think the squash is ready, poke the dense area at the neck to check. If a knife or skewer goes right through, you can slice it in half as it is likely done. Do not poke the wider part, as it is hollow so it may seem done when it is not. Melt the butter and sweetener in the pan and pour over your sliced squash and serve.
Enjoy the trip
There you have my plan and recipes. Of course, it is fun to leave some things to chance, and what you find on your travels. Eat and shop with indigenous or local operators and experience the local food culture. If you will be eating out at all, supporting locally grown food instead of chains is a way to positively impact the communities you travel through.
One of my favourite ways to make sure that we eat well on the road is to stop by farm stands en route, where I always see beautiful produce. Take advantage and incorporate these seasonal items, enjoy a fresh salad, and have your kids see where food comes from. Getting into the fields is even better! Your family can have fun picking whatever produce is in season. This is a great way to see how food grows and enjoy the freshest possible berries or whatnot.
How ever you explore the outdoors, enjoy your time in nature under the starry skies.