Planning for the summer's camping trips and other outings has begun. I'm expecting to go tent-camping with our friends' families at least once or twice this summer, and the other day I called Hannah up to confirm our standard camping menu plan.
One summer the three families managed to go camping five times, and that was the summer that we streamlined the weekend camping menu to perfection (at least for our families).
Here are some things to consider when you set up a multi-family campout meal plan.
(1) Go allergen-free. If anyone in your camping party has a food allergy or intolerance, don't bring that stuff along if you can help it. It's not too bad if the allergic person is an adult or a very watchful older child, and if the allergen is confined to a single easy-to-isolate item; but in general, camp food gets strewn all over the place, and it's very hard to keep things separate. In our case, one of our adult friends has celiac sprue and must avoid wheat; so all our cooked meals and snacks are gluten-free. (We have made an exception for graham crackers for s'mores, which we think we can control pretty well.)
(2) No fruit with sticky remains. Apple cores attract bees and black flies, which are no fun. If you pack any fresh fruit, stick with things like grapes or maybe clementines, which leave inoffensive, dry little peels.
(3) Consider a cooler-free, and therefore a fresh-meat-free, trip. I know, I know, half the fun of cooking out is hot dogs roasted on a stick over the campfire, bacon in the morning, and maybe steaks or burgers. But hear me out. The cooler and ice necessary to keep all this stuff from poisoning you is HEAVY. And it's remarkably hard to practice food safety rules when there's only one food prep surface, a wood picnic table, and all your water bottles are clustered together on it. This doesn't mean you have to go meatless (although that can work really well). Shelf-stable meat products work fine: aseptically packaged, dehydrated, smoked, or canned meats do fine. Uncracked eggs are okay overnight if you're going to cook them through. Depending on how they are packaged, hard cheeses will be fine all weekend. And many fresh vegetables will get no worse than a little wilty.
(4) Don't rely on a cooking fire the first evening. You have enough to do -- fight Friday rush hour traffic, put up the tents, set boundaries for the children -- before you even get the fire started. Don't keep your kids hungry while you do all this. Pack a picnic basket. Use the cooking fire to make snacks later on.
(4 and a half). Bring charcoal. Wood is nice, but finicky. If it turns out you don't need it, just take the charcoal back home.
(5) Simplify when dividing up "what to bring." You can settle up any disparities in cost later. It's so much easier to remember "My family is in charge of breakfast" than "My family is in charge of the green peppers for Saturday morning breakfast, the canned broth for dinner, and the raisins for the trail mix."
(6) Consider cooking two meals, not three, on your full day in the woods. You're all going to be nibbling trail mix and jerky anyway. Why not just call it lunch? It'll give you more time for hiking and fishing and stuff.
(7) For multifamily trips, try "stone soup" to minimize planning. Have each family bring an assortment of odds and ends to make part of a stew -- a few vegetables, potatoes, bits of smoked or dehydrated meats, dried beans or grains, some spices or herbs, canned broth, etc. (Don't overdo it! One cup of solids per person is more than enough). Then put it together and see what you get. For three families, we always make two different pots of stew: one on the bland and simple side, and one on the spicy and interesting side. Part of the fun is deciding which ingredients go into which pot. (We have been known to throw the leftover beef jerky into the soup.) We put them into two dutch ovens right after breakfast and let them cook on the coals all day while we hike. Have some packaged bread or tortillas or chips on the side, and you've got a satisfying and very trouble-free meal.
(8) Simplify with "brunch porridge" on the morning before you leave. Mix it all up and set it to cook on the coals while you squeeze in one last morning hike, then come back and eat it up before taking down your camp. (We have been known to throw the leftover trail mix -- M&Ms and all -- into the oatmeal.) Aseptically packaged or canned milk is nice to have for this purpose, but powdered milk will do if you want to save weight.
(9) If you camp a lot with the same people, have a "standing menu." It's a plan. You can change it if you want to do something different, but you can also get going much more quickly and spontaneously if you've got a standing default plan.
Here is this summer's standing weekend non-backpacking camping menu for three families: six adults and eleven children.
Friday Dinner: Each family brings their own "brown-bag" dinner that requires no cooking.
Friday Campfire Snack: S'mores.
Saturday Breakfast: Scrambled eggs with sauteed peppers and onions, salsa, and corn tortillas.
Saturday on the Trail: Trail mix and jerky.
Saturday Dinner: Stone soup.
Saturday Campfire Snack: Popcorn.
Sunday Brunch: Oatmeal with brown sugar, cinnamon, and dried fruit, made with canned evaporated milk.
Beverages: Tang, tea, coffee, powdered hot apple cider.
Each family is responsible for bringing these things:
- Their own brown-bag dinner for Friday
- Enough eggs to feed their family for one breakfast
- 4-6 cups worth of solid ingredients for stone soup
- Cooking oil, salt, and dish soap
- Family #1 brings trail mix/trail snacks for everyone, plus herbal tea
- Family #2 brings campfire snacks for everyone, plus black tea and powdered cider
- Family #3 brings breakfast tortillas/veg and oatmeal/mix-ins, plus coffee and Tang