The thought of cooking a fulfilling meal in the outdoors without the comfort of your home kitchen may feel a bit intimidating, but with a bit of preparation, the right equipment and a little bit of innovation, it’s simple to create appetizing meals to enjoy while camping. 

Michael van Vliet and Megan Duffie, the Bend, Oregon-based couple behind the popular camp cooking blog Fresh off the Grid, offer some tips to make your next camp meal fun, efficient and, most important, delicious.

Keep it simple!

Duffie encourages novices not to feel intimidated by all the fancy camp recipes seen in food publications or on Pinterest.

“I think that camp cooking can be a lot easier than how people hype it up in their heads,” said Duffie. “Just think about it like you’re cooking in your kitchen at home with a couple considerations.”

The couple recommends starting with recipes and a cooking style that you already know and are familiar with making at home. Many meals are easily transferable to the outdoors, while some might require a few adaptations.

Testing out a meal at home also ensures that you know how to make it and, more importantly, that you like how it tastes. 

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Their main rule of thumb is to keep it simple.

“Remember that you can’t just order pizza or run to the cupboard for a missing ingredient when the meal doesn’t turn out as expected,” said van Vliet.

Prep and plan

Preparing food ahead of time is a great time and space saver. Chop vegetables in advance and mix marinades and dressings at home and store them in Mason jars. You can also purchase or make your own spice blends to reduce the number of containers you need to bring. 

Meal planning also helps save time and reduces the number of ingredients and dishes required for meals. Duffie and van Vliet are big fans of one-pot meals, like soups and pastas.

Duffie said a one-pot pasta can be as simple as “getting a jar of your favorite pasta sauce, sauteing some garlic, onion, red pepper and sausage, if you want, then throwing in the pasta sauce, the pasta and extra water to cover the pasta, and simmering until the pasta is done.” 

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Cooking over a camp stove can take longer than it might at home, especially at altitude. Err on the side of eating a little earlier than you might prefer in order to avoid eating dinner at 8:30 p.m. when you’re well past the hangry stage.

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For those starting out, Duffie and van Vliet suggest going to Goodwill to stock up on camp cookware and utensils. While you certainly can bring what you use at home, there’s a higher chance it might get scratched outdoors, especially if you have nice nonstick cookware.

The couple use a cast iron skillet for the majority of their meals and recommend purchasing an inexpensive one from Lodge. 

If you’ve purchased a new camp stove, you’ll want to test it out at home before using it for the first time at camp. Pay attention to how much simmer control the stove allows and how the wind affects the flame. 

Duffie and van Vliet also rely heavily on checklists and keeping camping gear organized in storage bins to easily grab and go, as well as eliminate the angst of wondering what you forgot the entire way to the campsite.

For the more advanced: homemade backpacking meals

Consider making your own dehydrated meals if you plan to backpack often. They’re cheaper and you can adjust the taste to your liking.  (Courtesy of Fresh off the Grid)

Once you’ve got a few car camping meals under your belt, you might want to consider venturing farther into the wilderness on a backpacking trip, which requires lightweight easy-to-prepare meals. 

Backpacking food can be as simple as buying premade dehydrated meals from an outdoor store. However, store-bought meals are expensive and taste testing them before you head into the backcountry can add up. You can make your own backpacking meals at home; all you need is a dehydrator.

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Van Vliet admitted that he and Duffie felt intimidated by dehydrating at first, but once they got into it, they found they preferred it to purchasing packaged meals.

Dehydrated food can last for a year or more, provided it is stored properly in a container with a gasket or is vacuum sealed. Using the offseason to prepare meals can save time and money. A dehydration cycle takes upward of 12 hours, so it’s not something to start the day before leaving on a trip. Fresh off the Grid features several dehydrated recipes on the site.

Dialing it up a notch

If you want to expand your outdoor chef skills, consider preparing a meal in a Dutch oven over a campfire provided there are no fire bans. Only stoves with an on/off switch are permitted during fire season.

“Cooking over a campfire has a lot more variables to it versus cooking on a camp stove,” said van Vliet. “It takes longer because you first have to build up a fire, then get it down to the embers before you can cook over it.”

Duffie and van Vliet prefer to use charcoal for campfire cooking compared to wood because it doesn’t smoke or spark and wood embers are short-lived. They use wood only to get the fire started and then add the charcoal. 

The most popular recipe on Fresh off the Grid is the Easiest Campfire Nachos (recipe below), which takes just minutes, and, if you add plenty of veggies and a protein, can absolutely pass as a meal.

“Cooking at a campsite is part of the fun outdoor experience of camping,” said van Vliet. “Embrace the little things that don’t go perfectly right because everything tastes better when you’re eating outdoors with friends and family.”

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The Easiest Campfire Nachos

The most popular recipe on the blog, these Dutch oven nachos are ready in just 10 minutes and can pass as a meal or as an appetizer.  (Courtesy of Fresh off the Grid)

Source: Fresh off the Grid

Prep time: 5 minutes

Cook time: 10 minutes

Total time: 15 minutes

Makes: 2 servings for dinner, or 4 servings as an appetizer

INGREDIENTS:

  • 1 tablespoon neutral flavored oil
  • ½ pound tortilla chips
  • 1 (7.75 ounce) can El Pato hot tomato sauce, or equivalent
  • 1 (14.5 ounce) can black beans, drained
  • 1 cup shredded Mexican cheese blend
  • 1 large avocado, cubed
  • 4-5 green onions, sliced
  • Handful of fresh cilantro, chopped
  • 1 small lime, cut into wedges

STEPS:

  1. Lightly oil the bottom of a large Dutch oven, to prevent the nachos from sticking.
  2. For the first layer, evenly spread ⅓ portion of the chips into the Dutch oven, topped with ¼ can El Pato, ¼ can black beans, ¼ cup cheese and a handful of avocado, green onions, and cilantro. Repeat for the second layer.
  3. For the third and final layer, use the remaining ⅓ portion of chips, ½ can El Pato, ½ can black beans, ½ cup cheese and the remaining avocado, onion and cilantro.
  4. Cover the Dutch oven and place on a metal grill over your campfire for about 10 minutes, until the cheese has melted. Serve with the lime wedges.