Camping and Cooking with Kids
There’s something special about eating a meal al fresco. The fresh outdoor air and scent of pine seem to add a flavor that you can’t find in the spice aisle at the grocery store. Simply put, food just tastes better outdoors. Snuggled around a campfire deep in the woods with your kids, sharing plates of pasta that have simmered over a camp stove, is an experience that can’t be had at home. And lest we forget, there is always the s’more: the quintessential camping dessert that simply must be enjoyed alongside the crackle and snap of the campfire.
When cooking at your campsite, consider employing the kids to help get dinner on the picnic table. There’s something about manning the stove that gives kids ownership over a meal. Here’s the funny thing: Kids are less likely to pronounce a meal “yucky” if they had a hand in making it. My kids once made a cake without a recipe. They insisted on winging it, tossing in random amounts of flour and salt. The result was an abomination from the hell fires of the oven. They insisted it tasted really good.
Imagine if your kids were to actually follow a recipe for camp grub. A meal that will please even picky palates is near guaranteed.
It’s important to plan a camp menu well in advance of a trip, and parents would be wise to bring the kids in on this stage of the planning. Try to put coq a vin and liver pate on the menu, and you’re doomed. Kids need to buy into your camp dinner, because if they refuse to eat it at the campsite, there’s no scrounging around in the fridge for an alternative.
Prepping at home makes preparing food in the woods much, much easier. Have your pint-size sous chefs help you in the kitchen by cutting up vegetables for veggi packs, measuring out the dry ingredients for from-scratch pancakes, washing the fresh basil. We like to make our own Gorp (ensuring there’s no high-fructose corn syrup). At home, kids can measure out the nuts; fruit; and chocolate chips, mini marshmallows, or M&Ms into a big bowl then dole it out into portions in individual plastic bags. One caveat here: If you don’t keep an eagle eye on them, your little darlings will eat half the candy.
I always annotate my camp menus with what I’ll need to accompany each meal. If you’re doing burgers and dogs, you’ll need ketchup and mustard; for pancakes, you don’t want to forget to pack syrup. There’s so much to remember and at most campgrounds it’s not that easy to run to the corner store. You need to be organized! Print out your menu and let the kids check items off the list. That’ll help engage them in the process.
One of my favorite kitchen jobs for the kids is to crack eggs into a wide-mouthed Nalgene bottle for scrambled eggs (or for the pancakes). It’s a great way to store eggs in a cooler at camp so that you don’t end up with a soggy carton of broken eggs. And kids love to crack eggs.
Of all the jobs in the kitchen, baking is one of my kids’ favorites. For homemade granola bars, have the kids don a chef’s hat and apron and mix up the dry and wet ingredients. When they see what goes into the homemade treats, they’ll have a greater appreciation for the snack than they would for something that came out of a wrapper that came out of a box that came from a grocery store shelf. It gives kids more of a connection to their food.
Whether you are car camping or backpacking, it’s advisable to portion out food and condiments into smaller packages. Look at recipes before you go to see exactly what you need for each dish. For Apple Pie S’mores, you can have kids measure out the cinnamon sugar and put it into a little plastic bag and label it. In fact, label everything! A friend of mine tells the camp story of how she and her siblings were rebelling against pasta made in camp. They did, indeed, call it yucky. Her parents just thought the kids were being difficult. Turns out, her mom hadn’t labeled the olive oil or the dishwashing soap and she mixed up the two.
Lastly, when you’re in camp, include kids in the meal prep — from smashing avocados for guacamole to wrapping up sliced Granny Smith apples in foil to bake over the campfire coals.
And get this, camp is one of the best times to employ kids on cleanup duty. My kids love washing dishes in our portable camp sink. There’s a novelty in sudsing up to the sound of crickets chirping.
Even though my friend’s olive oil and dish soap fiasco caused a ruined meal, the story has become a piece of her family lore. That’s what camping does: lasting memories are created and families connected. And, so often, food is an integral part of that. I’m a firm believer that camping with kids is one of the best ways to get your kids unplugged and connected to nature when their generation is getting bombarded by digital devices. Consider getting kids in the kitchen as a tool in the tool box for cutting down on screen time. Just tell them to put down the iPad and pick up a spatula.
First published December 2015