There are people whose idea of a gourmet outing is to climb The Nose in a day eating nothing but Butterfinger candy bars. But most campers seek something more involved. For them, whether aiming for a week in Yosemite Valley or in the Great Smoky Mountains, hiking in Zion National Park or climbing at Joshua Tree, car camping allows them to eat, sleep and live like a king or queen. With minimum weight restraints and usually no need to pack gear for long distances, car camping makes it possible to be plenty comfortable.
Being able to bring lots of gear has definite upsides. There's the matter of a soft night's sleep camping mattress sent from the heavens. Perhaps an even bigger plus is the ability to bring enough cooking gadgets to make food prep similar to that in your own kitchen. Plus, here we offer options. A kid's section? Check. A gourmet cooking section? Check. Are you a vegetarian? Check.
Car camping means you don't have to sacrifice quality or taste for convenience. You may also be surprised at how much time, equipment and money can be spent on tent-side food. See "Is Camping Food Worth It?" at the bottom of this article.
Cooking While Camping
At OutdoorGearLab we believe that cooking at your campsite can be quick, easy, painless and delicious. Spices and herbs can intensify a meal and take up little space; check out the The Ultimate Camp Kitchen for a list so you don't leave anything noteworthy behind.
Pro Tip: if you have a smartphone, use the screenshot feature so you can access your recipes without internet access.
Top 10 Breakfast Meals
Here's a mix of our Top 10 breakfast ideas, ranging from pre-made to those that require a bit more effort.
- Biscuits and Gravy. Pick up a can of pre-made biscuits from the store or make homemade biscuits before (or during) your trip — your call. Check out a recipe for Biscuits and Sausage Gravy, as well as Biscuits and Vegetarian Sausage Gravy.
- Fresh Fruit, Granola, and Milk or Yogurt. Minimal effort required. Pack a box of cereal for the little ones.
- Omelets in a Bag and Toast. Bring bread and some fresh jam for this offering. If you like to plan ahead, use a gallon-size ziplock bag and pour in two eggs or so for each person per day (adjust accordingly). Add any meats, tofu or veggies. Fire up the stove in the morning, boil a suitable size pot of water, drop in the bag and boil for 12-13 minutes. While your eggs are cooking, toast your bread and slather on any butter or jam. You can also make eggs in a paper bag. Read more here.
- Pre-made Breakfast Sandwiches. If you're psyched on saving time, make these sandwiches in your kitchen the night before you take off and stash them in your cooler. Ideas: sausage, bacon or ham alongside egg and cheese. Or for the vegetarians, veggies and cheese. If you prefer to make biscuits from scratch, make them at home, wrap them in aluminum foil and freeze until needed.
- Pancakes. An obvious breakfast choice, but also one of the most delicious. A favorite mix is Sprouted Grain by Arrowhead Mills. Add a few eggs, oil, milk, and honey and you're in for a treat. Or, pick up a package of pancake mix that only requires adding water.
- Oatmeal or Breakfast Grains. Individual packets of oatmeal are easy to bring while almonds or walnuts add punch. Fresh fruit on the side or in the bowl will raise the ante.
- Tofu or Egg Veggie Scramble. Tofu or eggs can be used in this breakfast dish that can easily be cooked over an outdoor stove. Here's a list of possible ingredients: sweet potatoes, potatoes, butternut squash, onions, spinach, red peppers, cilantro, arugula, tomatillos and tomatoes. Add in the tofu or eggs during the last 10 minutes of cook time. To save time, chop veggies at home.
- Blueberry Muffins. Read more about how to make muffins (use any flavor that you wish - boxed mix or homemade) that take less than 20 minutes to prepare.
- Breakfast Burritos. A great choice, no matter the time of day. Burritos can be pre-made at home and frozen or you can fire up the compact stove, sauté your favorite fillings, and wrap up the goodness. If you're pre-making the burritos, wrapping them in aluminum foil will allow you to drop the burrito into the camp fire for an easy heating option.
- Fireside Cinnamon Rolls. Check out the tutorial by Anne here.
- Need something even easier and quicker? Check out the Mountain House Breakfast Bucket. This bucket includes four scrambled eggs with ham, four scrambled eggs with bacon, four granola servings with milk and blueberries, and four breakfast skillets. Mountain House also guarantees freshness for 12+ years.
Top 10 Lunch Meals
- Slap together a classic peanut butter and jam sandwich. Or, use a personal favorite, coconut butter, and smear it between two pieces of bread. Plus jam, of course. Top off your sandwich with some lemonade and a bag of chips. A side of fruit or veggie sticks can also be refreshing.
- Mediterranean style. How about a tasty cucumber, tomato, feta, olive, and hummus sandwich? Throw in some chips and a bar of dark chocolate. To take it to the next level buy a can of dolmas and serve with a side of goat cheese and crackers.
- Quesadillas. This lunch is super easy to make: consider chopping the veggies at home, place in tupperware or ziplock bags, shred the cheese beforehand, and make or buy any guacamole or salsa. Step it up to gourmet status by adding sundried tomatoes, corn, roasted red peppers, and black pepper goat cheese.
- Fireside Toastie or Grilled Cheese. Use whichever veggies, meat or meat substitutes, and cheeses that sound tasty. One option is to make your typical grilled cheese over your transportable stove. The second option is to buy a loaf of french bread, and cut the bread into slices (be sure not to cut all the way through; cut to about a quarter-inch from the bottom of the loaf). Spread butter and your favorite mustard on all of the slices and then decorate according to your tastes (slip your toppings into the slots of bread). Wrap the sandwich in foil and cook in the fire or on the grill (turning frequently) for 15-20 minutes. Another excellent option is to buy a pie iron.. This gadget will allow you to make grilled cheese, tacos, waffles or paninis.
- Cold Noodle Salad. If you're spending the day around your tent or happen to be there for a quick lunch, try this one out. Cook your udon or soba noodles according to the directions on the package (toss with sesame oil after finished cooking) and whip up the dressing; use three tablespoons of tahini, one tablespoon of soy sauce, two tablespoons of rice wine vinegar, two tablespoons of fresh ginger, a tablespoon of sesame oil, and salt and pepper to taste. Throw in a quarter-cup of vegetable broth. Toss together the noodles, one diced red pepper, one cucumber, one tomato, a cup of cilantro, a quarter-cup of chives or scallions, and one tablespoon of sesame seeds. Now you have a refreshing pick-me-up during the heat of the summer.
If you want to make this recipe ahead of time, the noodles and dressing will stay fresh for 2-3 days. Add in a splash of sesame oil to keep the salad from drying out.
- Couscous with Clementines, Chickpeas, Olives, and Dates. Couscous is delicious for lunch or breakfast and you can adapt this recipe according to your tastes. A few options include sautéed butternut squash, herbed goat cheese and cranberries. Finish reading the recipe here.
- Nachos. Try this delicious lunch idea if you're short on time. A personal favorite: sautéed butternut squash or sweet potato, red pepper, tomatillos, zucchini or yellow crookneck squash, and black or pinto beans. Add on raw onions, your favorite salsa and shredded cheese, and homemade guac. Crumble up tortilla chips and snack on that.
- Hot Dogs. Fire up the grill, stove, or fire and roast up the dogs. Vegetarian? Most stores have a vegetarian hot dog version available. Add in a side of baked beans and chips and don't forget the ketchup and mustard.
- Sweet Potato and Black Bean Tacos. This recipe is easily adaptable, much like the nachos. Warm up a tortilla, slather it with refried black beans, and sauté your favorite vegetables and meat. Top with cilantro, parsley, lettuce, salsa, and goat cheese.
- Leftovers from the night before. It's easy to use leftovers from dinner the night before; plan ahead while cooking dinner as to whether or not you'd like to eat leftovers for lunch and prepare accordingly. Don't forget to bring along the reusable Snack Time Baggies.
Top 10 Dinner Meals
- Want the easiest dinnertime solution that will require the most minimal effort? Dehydrate your own meals beforehand or check out the many options available. For meat eaters you can buy the classic bucket, which includes two beef stroganoff, two chicken teriyaki, two beef stew, two lasagna with meat, two noodles and chicken, and two granola with blueberries. Vegetarian? Check out a few favorites: Pasta Primavera, Vegetarian Lasagna and a Vegetarian Soup Medley. If you're interested in backpacking food, check out the The Best Backpacking Food.
- Have you ever walked through your grocery store aisle and passed by something called Tasty Bites? If you're into Indian food, these are easy and delicious. Buy the kind you're psyched on and either pop them in a pot of boiling water or pour into a pan and warm up to your liking. A few favorites: Peas and Paneer Cheese, Channa Dal with Zucchini, and Madras Lentils. You can even buy rice. The Teriyaki Noodle Bowl is also a quick and easy meal.
- Pasta and sauce with sautéed veggies and/or meat is delicious after a long day of hiking, biking or climbing. Sprinkle on some fresh oregano, basil, or parsley and top with parmesan cheese.
- Paella. Bring the taste of Spain to your camping experience. This is a ridiculously simple recipe.
- Fire-roasted Veg or Meat. Another meal that's easy to prepare at home. Chop your veggies ahead of time; think sweet or regular potatoes, onions, peppers, cauliflower, zucchini, squash, cabbage, carrots, celery, garlic, and tofu, fish or meat. Dont forget your salt, pepper, and fresh herbs. Wrap in aluminum foil and freeze ahead of time or pop in your cooler on your way out the door. To cook, place on your grill or put in the fire, turning every so often.
- Campfire Pizza Log. If you haven't quite mastered the dutch oven, try this one. It's simple to cook (just heat it up in your fire) and you can make it at home. Use your own dough or use a store bought brand; add a half-cup of tomato sauce, eight ounces of mozzarella, and any toppings that you'd like. Roll the dough around the toppings and pinch the ends closed. Sprinkle on any fresh herbs, wrap in foil and freeze. Ready to cook it? Fire up the grill or get the fire and coals nice and hot — turn frequently for 25-30 minutes.
- Plan ahead and make a delicious chili or soup in your slow cooker. Package it in a ziplock and either freeze or pop in your cooler. Bake some cornbread either at your house or in the dutch oven. Check out a favorite cornbread recipe here.
- Foil-Wrapped Pasta with Goat Cheese and Tomatoes. This delicious dish can be made according to the recipe or you can do without the foil and make in your skillet. Boil the pasta and while your pasta is boiling, sauté olive oil, onion, garlic, and tomatoes and season with salt and pepper. Add the pasta to the skillet, and top with fresh basil.
- Polenta Rounds with Caramelized Onions and Goat Cheese You can buy a log of polenta from most grocery stores, as well as Whole Foods and Trader Joe's; one log will feed about two people. Slice the log into thin rounds and cook on medium heat with either olive or coconut oil. Once the side begins to slightly harden, flip it and repeat. While the polenta is cooking, start to caramelize your onions. Add in a few tablespoons of oil, three tablespoons of sugar, and two onions. Cook on high low heat, stirring frequently until the onions have hardened (about 12-15 minutes). Bring your favorite goat cheese; once the rounds and onions have finished cooking, assemble: polenta round on the bottom, followed by caramelized onions, and topped with goat cheese.
- Foil-Baked Lemon-Garlic Fish, with Asparagus and Couscous. Check out the recipe here. Instead of preheating the oven, start a fire and toss it in, turning every few minutes until cooked to your liking. Make a side of couscous and voila, gourmet food in the outdoors.
Top 10 Fun Outdoor Meals for Kids
- Walking Tacos. Who doesn't want to eat dinner out of a chip bag? Pre-chop veggies at home and bring everything that your child would want on a taco. For the health conscious, buy a healthier brand of chips. Check out the recipe here.
- Fireside Mac and Cheese. Roast over the open fire. Or, go gourmet and check out the dutch oven version below.
- Hot Dogs. Roast these dogs over an open fire, complete with a stick picked out by your child (tip: save the stick for marshmallow roasting later).
- Basic Burritos. Open a can of refried black beans (or substitute for your favorite kind of beans). Using a butter knife, slather the beans on the tortilla, then add cheese and any other toppings that your child eats. Heat the burrito in foil over the fire (or on the grate) for about 10 minutes, turning frequently to prevent burning.
- Grilled Cheese. Butter two slices of bread and add your favorite cheese. Wrap in foil and turn frequently in the fire, on the grill or in in the skillet (minus the foil for the grill or skillet versions). Remember the pie iron mentioned above? Assemble your grilled cheese inside and cook over the fire.
- Cream Cheese and Veggie Sandwich. This is for the picky eaters out there. Slather cream cheese on two slices of bread and add cucumber, tomato and any veggies or meats that your kids like. Check out a few ideas here.
- Tortellini and Pasta Sauce. Buy a package of tortellini or ravioli, boil according to the directions on the package, toss with pasta sauce and top with parmesan cheese.
- Potato Boats. You can make it sans meat and add a side of fruit and veggies. Check out here.
- Pie Iron Pizza. Remember the pie iron? Trypie iron pizzas.
- Fireside BBQ Chicken and Potatoes. Good for the entire family. Cook diced chicken and potatoes in a pan and then douse in BBQ sauce. Pop it in your cooler the day you leave. Wrap it in foil and reheat on the grill or in the fire. Serve with a side of baked beans or corn on the cob cooked in the fire (leave the husks on and roast for 20-25 minutes, turning occasionally).
Top 9 Meals for the Gourmet Chef
Most of the recipes will need a backcountry stove at the very least, with most needing a Dutch Oven. We recommend the Lodge Dutch Oven - 8 quart, which is a good size for group cooking. Lodge also makes 5 qt and 10 qt versions. A pair of Dutch Oven Tongs and a Coal Starter, as well as a Deluxe Lid Lifter are useful accessories. You can find out more about dutch oven cooking in 101 Things to Do with a Dutch Oven.
- Pizza at your campsite. Dutch Oven Pizza.
- Another favorite. Check out the recipe for Black Bean and Butternut Squash Enchiladas here. Instead of preheating your oven, assemble the enchiladas in your dutch oven and cook for an hour, checking every 30 minutes.
- This delicious Mac and Cheese will have you wanting more. For vegans, check out the vegan version, complete with caramelized onions.
- For a fresh pot of chili check out the recipe here or consider buying a Wonderbag, a cool slow cooker that requires absolutely electricity. Simply boil everything that would go into your soup or chili on your stove for 5-10 minutes and seal in the Wonderbag. You xB come back from hiking or climbing 4-12 hours later and your meal will still be warm.
- It's hard to go wrong with Dutch Oven Lasagna. Pour some pasta sauce in the bottom of the dutch oven, then layer with your favorite favorite vegetables, meat, or veggie "meat" crumble, add ricotta, mozzarella and noodles, and keep on layering. For those with dairy issues, forego the ricotta and mozzarella and add goat cheese throughout. Sprinkle oregano and basil on top.
- For authentic Indian food here is a recipe for Chana Masala.
- For comfort food check out the Chicken Pot Pie - use this recipe, but cook in the dutch oven for about an hour or until the crust has browned. Or, the Sage Tofu Pot Pie.
- This Polenta Bake is a new addition. Sweet potatoes, zucchini, crookneck squash, onions, corn and red peppers are a delicious combination. Instead of preheating your oven, heat your coals and layer the polenta on the bottom of your dutch oven, then top with veggies. Cover with marinara and top with cheese. Cook for about an hour, checking every 30 minutes.
- BBQ Pulled Pork? Make this in your dutch oven and serve with a side of corn on the cob and coleslaw.
Top 10 Snacks
Prepare snacks at home before you leave to simplify things.
- Homemade Granola Bars are easy to make at home. Pack in reusable Snack Time Baggies or ziplock bags. You can add in chocolate, carob chips, pistachios, almonds, walnuts, pumpkin seeds, coconut butter, cashews, dried fruit, or anything to your liking.
- You can't go wrong with fresh fruit. Stock up on apples, bananas, grapes, pears and oranges at the grocery store beforehand.
- Fig bars are tasty and cheap. Try ClifBar Original or ProBar Meal. Consider buying a dehydrator to make your own jerky, fruit rolls, or dried fruits and veggies. Dried fruits (Trader Joe's has an amazing selection), salami and cheese, fruit leather. Make sure to have a good mix between sweet and salty.
- This recipe for Raspberry Fig Fruit Leather is easy to make at home and the results are delicious. A perfect snack while on the trail or hanging out at your site.
- These Popcorn Satchels are a hit with the kids and adults.
- Classic S'mores. Try the Ginger Lemon Smores.
- Caramel Apple Dip. here. Pair with apples, pears, and cheddar cheese.
- The Butternut Squash Tahini Spread is easy to make before you leave the house and stores well in the cooler. Pair with your favorite pita bread or crackers.
- These Tempeh Hot Wings are a great mid-day snack.
Top 10 Desserts
- You can cook this Blueberry Cobbler on the grill or in your dutch oven.
- BBQ Apple Crisp. If you're staying close by a store, get some ice cream and store it in your cooler full of ice for 1-2 hours.
- These Apricot Coconut Crumb Bars can be made beforehand.
- On the Go Strawberry Cheesecakes are super easy to make while camping.
- Mountain Berry Bread (or banana bread) can be made in your oven at home or in your dutch oven at your site. This recipe. Don't forget the butter.
- Cupcakes in a jar. here.
- Back to the pie iron. Use it to make Strawberry and Nutella Dessert Pies.
- Grilled Brownie Smores. here. Use your dutch oven or cast iron skillet.
Backpackers looking for meal ideas should check out The Best Backpacking Food.
Get out there and cook
Armed with this new information, we hope you've been inspired to cook something delicious: something fast and easy, tasty and gourmet, and/or something to satisfy your kids. Car camping offers you the rewards of star-gazing, spending time in nature with awesome people, and visiting incredible places — plus memorable meals. You can go way past peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for every meal. We recommend bringing any cooking tools (read the Ultimate Camp Kitchen to be sure you don't leave anything behind.
Is Preparing Camping Food Worth It?
If you are spending nights in the outdoors for many weeks, it's likely cost-effective and more fun to assemble a full camp kitchen as we've outlined above. However, if you are going for only a night or two or just value your time highly, you may want to eat out or bring pre-made food and just-add-water food. Below we explore why.There are are a few big potential downsides to camp cooking
- You need to assemble a lot of gear, which takes time and space in your car.
- Forgetting a fuel canister, hose or other key component ends your cooking experience.
- Cleaning dishes at a campground can both be difficult and time consuming.
- If you are buying camp kitchen equipment just for a few trips, camping food cooking is probably not cost effective.
- If you are not adept at camp cooking, results of your food will vary.
Alternatives to Preparing Camping Food
- Just eat out every meal.
- Bring just-add-water items for breakfast like coffee, tea and oatmeal along with bagels and cream cheese. For lunch, bring pre-made sandwiches. For dinner, bring pre-made meals that you can reheat. For example, if you pre-cook chicken or steak, you can then easily make burritos by just reheating everything.
We generally avoid bringing a full camp kitchen for one or two-night camping trips. It's just too much time, money and effort. Better to spend the limited amount of time on a weekend trip actually hanging out and exploring with friends and family.