I should really have my wife writing this post. Much of what goes into this article comes directly from her thoughtful meal planning of our outings. Your camp menu will change depending on the type of camping you're doing. When you're in an RV or "car camping" in a tent, you can pretty much eat much like you would at home but you need a little more planning. After all, you can't usually just run to the store if you're out of something once you get to camp. RV cooking facilities are a scaled down version of your home range and oven, so you may need to adjust portions and allow extra time for preparing multiple courses. The big Thanksgiving turkey you roast at home probably won't fit it in your RV oven so you might have to cut it in half or cook two smaller birds. Microwaves in big RVs are often full size and even the smaller ones are good for whipping up instant oatmeal or hot cocoa in the mornings.
Camp menu basics. Camp menus should be a useful tool, not a rigid rule. Some people like things to be spontaneous, but you still need to plan ahead enough to make sure you have enough ingredients to cover all the meals. Use the KISS priciple: Keep It Simple Stupid. Unless you REALLY have a need or desire for a particularly fancy meal, stick to simple foods that are fun, easy to prepare and easy to clean up after. Plan meals that use standard, simple ingredients to avoid having to bring along too much stuff. tandard, simple ingredients can be combined to make a variety of meals, keeping your camp menu interesting, easy, and healthy.
Menu planning. In order to prepare for our desert dirt-bike trips, I set up a spreadsheet for planning the menu. I set it up day by day and meal by meal. I estimate the quantity of each item or ingredient per person and use a multiplier for the number of people on the trip to generate a shopping list via the spreadsheet. That makes it effective for different trips with different numbers of people . Even without the generated shopping list, setting up a daily meal planner makes it easier to figure out what to eat and what provisions you'll need. Menu planning doesn't mean you are OCD and using a spreadsheet is not over kill -- it is simply a useful and flexible tool that makes planning and shopping easier. We try to avoid duplication so meals don't get boring, but, on longer trips, repeating the same meals can conserve resources and preparation time. Having the menu prepared in advance eliminates the "what do I fix for this meal" quandry and avoids unnecessary delays. But having a pre-set menu doesn't have to be restrictive. Use it as a guideline. You can always swap meals around as circumstances change. A sudden storm might dictate swapping the planned burgers or steak dinner prepared on the outdoor grill or campfire for hot chili from the microwave planned for another night.
Breakfast is said to be the most important meal of the day. When camping, it is often all too easy to skip or skimp because we like to sleep in and we're anxious to get to our planned activities. We usually compromised nutrition the first morning of a dirt bike outing in favor of convenience and fun, bringing donuts and either milk or orange juice for a quick start. Try to plan on "real" breakfasts for other days. Bacon and eggs is a pretty easy meal to fix and provides the protein you need for participating in activities that may be more strenuous than your daily grind. The fragrance of bacon sizzling on a campfire is a good way to wake up and start the day. Cold cereal is quick and easy. Instant oatmeal is nice on cooler mornings, even if you have to boil water over a campfire. The microwave in your RV really makes it "instant", with each serving ready in about 1 minute. Oatmeal especially hits the spot on cold or stormy days and it seems to "stick to your ribs" and satisfy your hunger and nutritional needs for several hours. For camping I especially like the single serving envelopes which provide convenience and variety and don't spill. They're a little more expensive than bulk packages but are a nice format for camping. I've even found boxes of 3 packets at Dollar Tree so they don't have to be expensive -- 33 cents a serving is pretty darn cheap! Pancakes are another camp favorite but they take a little more preparation and cleanup time. You can cook them on your RV or camp stove or on a griddle on your BBQ or camp fire. Waffles are a bit more of a challenge but are certainly doable. If you have 120-volt power available, you can use an electric waffle baker like you do at home. Or you might look for an old fashioned cast iron waffle maker you can use in the campfire or on your stove. We've had success with both options. You'd better really like waffles, because the electric waffle maker takes up a lot of room and that cast iron waffle baker is going to be heavy! Cornmeal mush is an interesting alternative to ordinary breakfast cereals and lends a pioneer kind of ambiance. Nothing special here. Just cook ordinary cornmeal like you would oatmeal and serve it with plenty of butter and honey. If you're backpacking, you'll be more limited in your choices and will probably lean toward dehydrated meals to minimize weight. Sometimes you might be able to supplement your packaged meals with fresh caught fish. Powdered eggs and powdered milk have come a long way since the tasteless versions made infamous in World War II movies. You don't have to have electricity to enjoy toast at breakfast. There are simple and inexpensive campfire/camp stove toasters. They usually consist of a metal frame that holds the bread. For campfire use you should set them up on a cast iron grill or skillet. You might get away with using them directly over the burners on a camp stove, but to avoid adding the taste of burning gas to your toast, it is better to use a pan there too. In any case, putting them in some kind of pan helps to avoid having your toast burst into flames if you aren't keeping a constant eye on them. For a more rustic approach, put your bread on a stick and toast it over the campfire like you would hotdogs or marshmallows.
Lunch in camp should be fast, easy, and fairly light. You don't want to tank up on a lot of heavy food before embarking on your afternoon adventure. For summer, focus on cool lunches. Cold cuts and other deli type sandwiches are quick and easy. For cooler outings you might want some hot lunch. Hot dogs are quick and easy. Hot dogs are best when roasted over the campfire but can be done on your BBQ, fried up on your camp or RV stove, microwaved, or boiled. I prefer mine roasted so I usually only use boiling when I have to feed a large group because I can get a lot of dogs ready all at one time. Add some chips, some canned beans, and some potato or macaroni salad, and you've got a pretty complete meal in minutes. Green salads are a light and nutritious meal but often require a lot of extra provisions and/or preparation time. To jump start the process, buy pre-packaged salad greens at the grocery store. Then all you have to do is dump some in a bowl and add dressing. I recall the punch line of an old TV commercial for salad dressing: "Without Wishbone, a salad is just a bowl of wet vegetables", but I've found salads without dressing are pretty sweet tasting as well as healthier. If you're planning salads, bring along a variety of dressings (if you have room) to satisfy the tastes all your eaters. Lunches in camp lend themselves well to paper plates and buffet-style serving, further minimizing setup and cleanup time. It is a good time to relax in your favorite camp chair under your awning and rest up for the afternoon's activities. The less time you spend preparing and cleaning up, the more time you have to relax or enjoy your scheduled activities. Small, plastic containers are the most convenient for camping. For long-term savings, buy larger sizes you can store at home and refill your smaller plastic containers for each trip.
Dinner is usually the heaviest and most formal meal of the day. We like a good hot meal at the end of the day, even in summer time. But it doesn't have to be fancy. Hamburgers are one of the staples of our desert outings. For colder evenings, my wife makes a wonderfully sweet chili we call "Marilyn's Marvelous Mojave Mild Chili". We often make it with ground turkey instead of ground beef for a lighter and maybe healthier version. Top it with shredded cheese and serve it with "Scoops" corn chips or French bread. Our preferred beverage with chili is milk. A nice feature of home made chili is you can season it to your particular taste. We like ours with a healthy dose of brown sugar in it! Canned chili is convenient, but I find it often has a bit of a metallic taste I don't particularly care for. Beef stew is another good choice for cooler nights. It is easy to prepare and tastes great after a day of vigorous activity. I usually cheat and use canned stew, but home-made stew simmered over the campfire is an especially delicious treat -- if you have time to put it together. A Dutch oven is also a good way to simmer stew or chili or prepare other main courses and even deserts. I like to think of the Dutch oven as the pioneer version of a crock pot. Sometimes we like to splurge and have steak and baked potatoes. Such a meal makes you feel like royalty. Both the steaks and the potatoes can be cooked using your camp or RV stove, BBQ, or campfire. While broiling steaks on the campfire can be fun and provide a rewarding challenge, I like to use a portable propane powered BBQ, just because it is easy and usually faster and I have more control. The potatoes can be done in foil in the campfire or on the BBQ or in your RV or camp stove oven or microwave (without the foil!). Coleman makes an oven that fits on their camp stoves that works pretty well for most baking tasks. It folds flat for storage and transport so it takes up little space and is a good option when car camping. Hobo stew is another perennial favorite. Wrap your favorite meat and vegetables in foil, season to taste, and cook them in the campfire or on the BBQ. When RV camping we like to pre-cook the meat and potatoes in the microwave to speed up the process. For tent outings we often pre-cook the meat and potatoes at home before preparing the foil packets to take along. Pre-cooking the other veggies usually makes them mushy so, unless you LIKE mushy vegetables, just let them cook in the campfire.
Grilled veggies are not common fare the U.S., but it is an easy and healthy way to fix them. Go easy on the oil and don't over cook them. Unless there is some reason you need or like them mushy, they should remain crisp. Sometimes this is a fun way to get kids to eat their vegetables when they turn up their noses at traditional canned or frozen versions. I have never like canned peas very well.
Snacks are perhaps more important than you realize. Most of us extend ourselves a bit more than usual when we're camping and that requires more calories and you'll probably get the munchies long before dinner. So snacks are more than just a luxury or indulgence. Appropriate snacks will stave off hunger and help prevent you from over-eating at mealtime while providing timely energy for your activities. They should be a part of your planned nutrition for outdoor activities. In warm weather or for any kind of strenuous activities you'll need extra fluids and electrolytes so include plenty of sports drinks. It is best to get your calories at regular intervals rather than wait several hours between meals. As long as you don't pig out, you can probably enjoy just about any favorite snack without too much impact on your waistline. After all, you're probably burning more calories than usual. Of course to maintain a healthier approach, have some fresh fruit, but a few cookies and a glass of milk or a favorite candy bar or granola bar can fill that empty spot without completely ruining your diet. On hot summer days you may want to go for Popsicles or snow cones. Not a lot of nutrition there, but they're cool and refreshing and have plenty of sugar for quick energy. They will also provide some fluid too, but you'll still need to supplement it with sport drinks and plenty of water. Ice cream treats are nice on warm days -- if you have a working freezer in you RV fridge or a really good ice chest. On cooler afternoons a cup of hot cocoa or other hot beverage might be more appealing, but remember caffeine accelerates dehydration which can still be a problem in cool or cold weather. We also enjoy a warm dip made from chili and cream cheese and served with Scoops or tortilla chips around the campfire on cool evenings. Individually packaged pies and snack cakes are a convenient and tasty treat. Keep an eye out for special sales at your local grocery store or stock up when McDonalds has pies 2 for $1.00. You might freeze them to keep them fresh and then either microwave them or set them out in the sun to warm them up when you get to camp. You might even heat them over the campfire. We also like to make fresh pies using campfire pie cookers. All you need is some bread and pie filling (and the pie cookers!). Everyone can have their individual pies with their favorite filling and cooked just the way they like them. These warm, home made treats are especially welcome when its cold outside.
Basic provisions. In addition to specific ingredients for planned meals, it is good to have some basic provisions in your RV or camp kit. Ours includes flour, sugar, salt, pepper, cinnamon, season salt, pancake mix, syrup, cooking oil, honey, and a variety of favorite spices. Add whatever other spices your use regularly. Having basic provisions on hand allows you to add variety to your planned menu and could provide extra meals if your stay gets extended or you have unexpected guests. I keep a variety of canned goods on board for emergencies -- soups, stew, chili, and tuna, but be careful that you don't end up carrying around a whole lot of extra weight you don't need and never use.
MREs and dehydrated food. Military Meals Read To Eat (MREs) and dehydrated foods are often marketed for camping. Dehydrated foods are a pretty good option for back packing where you want to minimize the amount of weight you are carrying and where you expect to have plenty of water along the way to reconstitute the meals. MREs are just plain pricey, but they're convenient and have a long shelf life. I don't think you'll save much weight carrying dehydrated foods in your RV. You'll have to bring along enough water to prepare them. Dehydrated foods are kind of expensive and, for most people, not all that appetizing. They taste pretty darn good after a day's hiking, but in your RV or even when car camping, you'll probably enjoy canned or frozen foods more.
Sample Camp Menu. Here is a sample menu typical of our 3-day dirt biking trips to the Mojave Desert.
Day 1 Breakfast Donuts, milk Lunch Hot Dogs, chips, soda Dinner Beef Stew
Day 2 Breakfast Cold ceeral, milk, orange juice
Lunch Cold cut sandwiches, chips, soda
Day 3 Breakfast Pankcakes, eggs orange juice
Lunch Tuna sandwiches, chips, soda
Dinner Hamburgers,chips, soda
This gives us some options yet is built around a minimum of supplies and ingredients.
In summary, plan your menu ahead of time and keep it simple. Focus on meals and snacks appropriate to the season and the activity.