We camp in a travel trailer that has a gas stove, refrigerator and freezer, oven (which I don’t use), microwave, and we have various grills. This article can pertain to tent camping too, it would just be modified for a propane camp stove, a charcoal grill, and if you have electricity in your site, small appliances.
1. Plan Ahead!
This isn’t really a hack, but yet it needs to be said. The more you plan in advance, the more you will enjoy that camping trip. Think about it. On Thanksgiving morning, would you wake up, make your menu, and then go to the grocery stores that are open, come home, and cook dinner? Heck no, you planned that out and shopped the week before so your turkey can defrost (not all of us can afford that fresh, never frozen, grass fed, free range bird). You probably also planned so that you could enjoy your family without being in the kitchen every second. FYI, see the picture below to see how we celebrated Thanksgiving IN the trailer one year.
One year we did Thanksgiving in the trailer, just the three of us (it was 30 degrees and we ran out of propane and the park lost power, but that’s another post). I made twice baked potatoes a head of time, and just warmed them and melted the cheese in the oven. I cooked a whole chicken on the Weber charcoal grill (I also do a turkey on there, but it didn’t make sense for the three of us). And I rounded the meal out with brown and serve rolls, salad (I pre-chopped everything at home and assembled right before dinner), and a store bought pie.
You definitely want to grocery shop in advance and try to think of all the little things you might need. If you are going camping where there are no grocery stores, you don’t want to be stuck, and if there are stores, they are likely to cost a lot more than your normal shopping budget. The campground stores are usually pretty expensive and don’t have much more than ingredients for s’mores, and cans of chili or Chef Boyardee. For myself, because I cannot have gluten, this is an extra chore (camp stores generally don’t care about food intolerances or allergies). Try camping in an area without a major grocery store and getting stuck or planning everything for the family and forgetting any gluten free snacks for yourself, it has happened, and tears flowed, talk about hangry.
The more you have a meal plan, the more you will enjoy yourself. Cooking while camping is fun! It’s even more fun when you know exactly what you are doing. It’s necessary in a small space or outdoor kitchen.
2. Prep Ahead!
This hack goes with #1. Even though cooking outdoors or in an RV is an adventure, it can be uncomfortable. Not having counter space, or having to chop vegetables at a table while sitting can be annoying. Since you already have your meal plan ready (#1!), why not pre-chop those veggies, marinate that meat, and maybe even pre-cook some of that food.
I often precut fruits and veggies for snacking and sometimes pre-bake some goodies to bring along, which I think makes it extra special.
Sometimes, if I know we are going to get into a campsite late at night, I will precook some ground beef with taco seasoning and put it in a Ziploc in the fridge, and then ice chest. That way when we get set up, all I have to do is microwave the taco meat, pull out my pre-shredded cheese and lettuce (that I prepped ahead!), and warm up the taco shells and voila dinner is ready. If you don’t have access to a microwave, it is still super quick to warm up the pre-seasoned ground beef over a gas camp stove.
3. Do What Works!
While camping itself is adventurous, it’s not really the best time to be adventurous when cooking. Camping plus a whole family with food poisoning and sketchy bathrooms is not a good combo and will make for a miserable outing. That being said, thinking outside the box is ok, but don’t test the limits of your own skills and don’t try crazy ingredients for the first time.
If you are well versed at foil packets or cooking in coals then by all means do what you know. I don’t know how to do that, but I can whip up a mean stir fry on a Coleman stove older than I am.
I like to keep up my regular at-home meal plan when we are camping. The only difference is that the oven in our trailer is awful, so I stick to the stove top or small appliances for cooking, and I usually go with a heavier grilling rotation. I don’t want to reinvent the wheel while I am on vacation, I just want to make sure everyone is fed. And just to be clear, if you are camping with electricity, you can take that Instant Pot, toaster, or coffee maker with you. No need to rough it if you don’t have to.
Corned beef hash and poached eggs is something I would make at home with minimal effort that could easily be replicated while camping. All it takes is leftover corned beef and leftover boiled potatoes (preferably cooked together of course!) diced up and heated in a frying pan and topped with some poached eggs. I have seen some chefs pre-cook their poached eggs and warm them up right before serving, but that might be a little too planned ahead.
We keep a small, four quart slow cooker in the trailer, which I like to use if we are going to be gone from the campsite all day, or if it’s a cold or wet day. I like to brown some ground beef or turkey ahead of time, and in the morning dump the cold cooked turkey or beef in the slow cooker with a few cans of beans, some diced tomatoes and some taco seasoning. Obviously, this can be customized to your tastes or your family recipe. I turn it on low for 6 to 8 hours and whenever we get back from our adventures, we have a hot pot of chili. I usually alternate chili with our version of 7 (or 9) can taco soup. Serve it up with some sour cream, cheese, tortilla chips, and salsa, and it’s a home cooked meal with little effort.
4. Keep it Simple!
The one thing different that I do when we are camping is to simplify our food. If I am grilling a tri-tip or some chicken, I usually pair that with a salad, or steam in the microwave veggies, or even grill some veggies. If I am making tacos, I just make some extra tacos, I don’t cook up beans or rice like I would do at home. I find that we don’t need all the extra food, and it works out well because there is less cooking, less dishes, and less need for space in the fridge or ice chest. I also don’t like to jump from outside to inside and back in the trailer trying to juggle too much.
Breakfast is usually cereal, oatmeal, or toast. Very rarely do we do a full camp breakfast of bacon, eggs, and toast. It’s just simpler since everyone gets up at different times and gets hungry at different times.
I usually buy cold cuts, bread and cheese for lunches, and even have some cans of soup on hand. Lunch is normally up to everyone on their own, but sometimes I will cook. Particularly if we had tri tip the night before, or the chili above, then I’ll get a little crazy and make some nachos or a nacho bar and we will watch a movie (a.k.a. everyone will nap except for me).
5. Don’t Forget Treats!
I know none of you would forget to pack graham crackers, marshmallows and chocolate. This tip is to jazz the camping up a bit. Even though I suggest making meals that are similar to ones you make on a regular basis, either at home or camping, I think it’s important to have some special goodies. I prefer to bake some cookies (or buy them, HELLO $5 Fridays at Safeway and the huge container of Ghirardelli chocolate chip cookies) or muffins.
I don’t plan ahead for a lot of treats (gasp! I failed at my own tip). I usually plan one or two, but then know that my husband will inevitably need to go to the camp store, or town, and will bring back a treat or two. Sometimes we get a little crazy and get pints of ice cream once the freezer comes to temperature. I also buy special drinks for everyone, usually their favorite flavor of Arizona teas in a can. Camping for me equals lots of coffee, so sometimes I like to shake it up and try new flavors of coffee creamers (I’ve currently got my eye on the new Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup flavor). Sometimes it’s candy and sometimes it’s wine or beer, whatever your preference might be.
I honestly think that is my favorite part about camping, either by tent or in the trailer, it’s waking up early and just sitting quietly with my coffee, soaking it all in.
I have been cooking while camping for over twenty years and I would love to know what you do for meals when camping and what your set up consists of, whether it be tent camping or RV camping. Let me know in the comments!!