Camping with our kids has always been one of my favorite ways to go on vacation, and over the years, we have done some serious compromising when it comes to our car camping meals. At home, our food is mostly whole food, often fresh from the garden, and fairly time-consuming to prepare. At camp, our kids want hot dogs on a stick, mac and cheese from a box, and gooey s’mores every single night.
We indulge in these treats occasionally, but it doesn’t take long for a crappy camp diet to put a damper on things, even for the kids. Instead, we try to create or source easy car camping recipes that are simple enough for the kids to prepare themselves (I don’t want to do ALL the cooking) and yummy enough to feel special (most of the time).
When Sourcing Ideas for Easy Camping Meals for Our Family, Here’s What We Look For:
- Meals that are nutritiously balanced
- Ingredients that are available at most supermarkets
- Recipes that use only small amounts of perishable ingredients. For the most part, we stay away from meat, dairy, and leafy greens when camping. Our exceptions are hard cheeses, yogurt, pepperoni, and other dried meats.
- Recipes that use one or two pans are easy to clean up.
Our Kitchen is Designed for Easy Car Camping Meals
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Cooking over an open fire is lots of fun, but if you’re camping long-term, it quickly becomes a hassle. We save open-fire cooking for special occasions and generally use a standard, 2-burner propane stove for most meals. Our car camping kitchen is actually a big duffle bag that holds everything we need for awesome meals on the road. We keep it packed and ready to go, so when the time comes, we just have to add food. Here’s what’s in our car camping kitchen:
- One 4-quart and one 2-quart saucepan with a lid that fits on both - Our all-time favorite set is made by MSR. It's lightweight and made for backpacking. The lid has a strainer built in for pasta, plus a removable pot grabber.
- A 12-inch fry pan with a removable handle - Honestly, I think we got ours at K-Mart, and we've had it for 10+ years. We never take it backpacking, so it's okay if it's a little heavy. I'll probably test out some higher quality fry-pans this year. Update: We got a new frying pan and we love it. It's from Primus.
- Plates and silverware for everyone in the family - For plates, we love these from MSR because they can hold soup or solids. They are super light, easy to clean and come in different colors. We don't use sporks or plastic utensils, just regular stainless steel.
- Travel mugs - We love our Contigos, which are available at many outdoor/discount stores. We have one for each member of the family in a different color. They're totally spill-proof, which means I can throw my tea in my backpack when I head out to watch the sunset after dinner. Again, these are heavy and not for backpacking.
- A small plastic cutting board and a bigger wooden cutting board for bread.
- A serrated, folding picnic knife - We LOVE this knife, which is probably our most coveted item when we're out camping or picnicking with friends. It's also our all-time favorite gift for outdoor-loving friends. We take it everywhere and use it for bread and tomatoes.
- A chef’s knife in a plastic sleeve - We steal this from our kitchen.
- A whisk, rubber spatula, wooden spoons, big serving spoons, and a bench scraper - Stolen from our kitchen, but someday I'll buy dedicated camp utensils.
- A plastic liquid and dry measuring cup
- Fuel for the stove, a lighter, and matches
- A roll of tinfoil, plastic Ziploc bags, and grocery bags for clean up
- A 12-egg plastic carton - Everyone who car camps needs this egg carton. My grandparents had one eons ago, and they're still making them today. This keeps our eggs safe and dry in the cooler, although we usually keep it in a zip-top bag, just in case.
- Our super awesome homemade spice kit.
- New this year: A dutch oven! We read an article about why a dutch oven is an integral part of a camp kitchen, and we couldn't resist. We're hoping this extra piece of gear will help us make more versatile camping meals. We've been eagerly sourcing recipes, so if you've got some, please let us know.
Now for the Super Easy Car Camping Recipes
We don’t experiment much on the road. We test car camping meals at home so we don’t encounter any surprises. When we’re camping, the food has to be good, but we also just want to fuel our bodies so we can get on with our adventures. Here are our go-to easy camping meals for our family. We use these for just about every road trip or camping adventure.
Easy Car Camping Meals: Dinners
Loaded baked potatoes - Potatoes are both easy and filling, and they taste awesome over a campfire. Make a hot fire and let it burn down to glowing coals. Wrap big, russet potatoes in foil and place them over the coals. Chop a head or two of broccoli and mix with some olive oil and salt/pepper. Wrap in foil and add to the fire. Chop some cheddar cheese into bite-sized pieces. When the potatoes are ready, cut into them on your plate and add the broccoli and cheddar. If we're using a camp stove, we make mashed potatoes and stir-fry the broccoli.
Peanut noodles - This is our go-to peanut sauce recipe for camping. I triple it for a pound of pasta and thin it out with the pasta cooking water. You can mix the whole thing in a Ziploc bag if you don’t want to wash an extra pot. Get a pot of water boiling in your 4-quart pot to cook the pasta. In your fry pan, stir-fry either broccoli or snap peas (our favorite when we can find them). When the pasta and veggies are cooked, mix everything together and serve.
Pizza quesadillas - Spread tortillas with canned tomato sauce, top with chopped cheddar cheese (keeps better than mozzarella) and chopped onions, peppers, and sliced pepperoni. Fold in half and fry in a bit of olive oil. This is our kids' favorite camping meal, by far.
Little quinoa patties - We love this recipe for quinoa patties! They do require eggs, which actually keep pretty well in our camp pantry, as long as we don’t squish them. You can make this recipe as written, but we like to make it with cheddar instead of Parmesan and some salsa for extra flavoring.
Portuguese white bean soup - We make some version of this soup fairly often. We only add the kale if we’ve been to the store that day. Otherwise, we either skip the greens, or we forage for wilds like dandelion, violet leaves, or plantain. We also skip the fennel bulb and use crushed fennel seeds from our spice kit. It’s such a versatile recipe that as long as you’ve got the beans in your camp pantry, you can add whatever else you have on hand. Also, it’s awesome with Cabot Cheddar Shake, which is another staple in our spice kit. We can get Cheddar Shake all over Vermont, but if we didn't live in Vermont, I would totally buy it on Amazon!
Panzanella - At the height of summer, nothing beats this Panzanella from Smitten Kitchen. I could eat this every day of the week in August. When we’re camping, we rarely have tomatoes or fresh basil, but when we do, we NEVER fail to make this recipe.
Easy Family Camping Meals for Breakfast
Our camping breakfasts don’t change much on the road. We have four standard meals that we love to cook, and for really hot, rainy, or busy days, we make do with PB&Js, granola bars, and fresh fruit. Here are our four basic meals that we rotate throughout the trip.
Oatmeal - Before leaving home, I mix up old-fashioned oats, dried milk powder, brown sugar, cinnamon, coconut flakes, a pinch of salt, and whatever dried fruit and nuts I have on hand. I whir it for a few seconds in a food processor so it cooks really fast when we're camping. At camp, we mix it with water in a pot, cook for a few minutes and serve. Easy-peasy.
Pancakes - We’re Vermonters, so if we have room, we always have a few jars of real maple syrup on hand. Not only do we use this in coffee and on pancakes, but we’ve also traded syrup for car repairs in a pinch. Once you’re out of the north country, the stuff is in demand! Anyway, pancakes are really versatile. I try to make a fairly nutritious mix before leaving home:
- 2 cups whole wheat flour
- 1 cup buckwheat flour,
- 1 cup almond flour
- ½ cup of dried milk powder
- 1 tablespoon baking powder
- 1 tsp. baking soda
- a pinch of salt
At camp, we add eggs if we have them (they're not necessary), a tablespoon of oil, and enough water to make a loose batter. If we're feeling adventurous, we like to create all kinds of pancake variations. We eat them fried and smothered in syrup.
Cheesy egg quesadillas - Scramble a bunch of eggs, add chopped cheese and salsa. Fry in a pan and serve on tortillas. One of the easiest and most delicious meals going. It's a great pre-hike meal because it keeps you full for a long time and it provides you with extra protein.
Yogurt and granola - We do try to stay away from dairy products while traveling, but a quart of yogurt will keep in a cooler without ice for several days as long as nobody eats from the container (then it spoils quickly). We make granola before the trip or buy it on the road.
So there you have it, our easy camping meals for the family - our standbys when we don't have time to experiment. Lunch and desserts are usually fend-for-yourself affairs, but we try to keep a well-stocked pantry (plastic storage bin) with munchy-type foods, bread, jam, and peanut butter. We shop every few days when we’re traveling and less-frequently if we’re staying put in a campground.
Want to read more about preparing car camping meals? Check out these posts: