Words Jim Meyers, photos by Jim Meyers and Ty Brookhart
If you’re a parent seeking easy camping meals, you’re likely reading this with equal parts suspicion and hope because, as we all know, kids are weird animals. There are few, if any universal paths to feeding kids reliably on the road, in the backcountry or even at home.
Of course, finding things your kids like is only half the battle away from home. There are some other key criteria to be considered on an adventure, like how much water the meal takes, how much fuel it consumes, how big of a hassle dishes are afterward, and how well the ingredients keep and carry in your cooler or backpack.
With all of that in mind, here are a few meal ideas that my family has enjoyed, along with a couple from other parents for some valuable perspective. These all get high marks with the kids, and with most of the other criteria above. I’ve listed them from easiest and most backpack-friendly, to full-on road trip decadence.
The “Ramen Bomb”
I realize this is not exactly a revelation, but most of us have done some hard mental work to forget about these little bags of calories and sodium since we consumed them like oxygen in our early 20s. In fact, on a recent backpack to the Wind River Range, we were racking our brains for one more meal, and only remembered ramen after hours of thinking.
Fortunately, there have been some real upgrades in quality and variety for this old backpacking standard. My personal favorite are the Thai Kitchen Rice Noodles, which get the high marks in all of the above criteria, and are a huge hit with our kids. They’re also gluten-free and many are vegan. Adults will want 2-3 packs to make a meal, while kids can get away with one or two. Carnivores can add a little jerky toward the end of the boil for some added heft.
Wild Mushroom and Herb Couscous with Chicken
Couscous is another long-standing favorite of backpackers that also happens to be a hit with our kids. Near East does the vast majority of the work for you by offering a number of flavored varieties right off the shelf, available at most major grocery chains in the U.S. You’ll need to have a bit of olive oil or butter on hand for the best results, but they are otherwise a dream on water and fuel consumption for backcountry trips.
Simply boil water, toss in the couscous and seasoning, then let it sit, off the stove, for about five minutes. Our favorite is the Wild Mushroom and Herb flavor. On a backpack, we’ll typically add some foil-packed chicken or, for the frontcountry, some pre-cooked chicken from home. Either way, the added protein bumps it to a real-meal status.
I also like adding the sweetness of some dried currants to bring the saltiness down a notch.
Gnocchi with Indian Pouch Meals
I reached out to another friend Ty (@tybrookhart) who is not only dad to Wilder, one of the cutest little backpackers around, but also an amazing potter (@dividestudio). Wilder is obviously a big fan of the Ramen Bomb (see above image) but using gnocchi as a base for any number pouch meals is a close second. “I love this one because it’s really tasty, backpack-friendly, and clean-up is almost non-existent,” says Ty.
I love the idea of Gnocchi, instead of the typical rice. It cooks far faster, adds more bulk and flavor and, on a road trip, can be used with just about any sauce to make a quick, easy meal. This one can also be done on a single burner powerhouse, like the Reactor stove.
- 1 Bag Quick-Boil Gnocchi
- 1 Tasty Bite© of your choice
Simply boil the gnocchi in the pot. To warm the pouch, drain some water into a bowl with your pouch for about five minutes, or put the pouch directly to the gnocchi pot. Add gnocchi to the pouch and save a dish.
Spanish Rice and Beans
I really like this versatile one from a friend of mine, who’s traveled the world with her family (and has a great blog about it). It can be eaten right away, stored in the cooler for a quick meal, or dehydrated for a backpack. It’s a little fuel-intensive so best prepped in advance, but I love how it works for anything you might have planned. Be cooler-savvy and freeze it before you leave to help keep your cooler cold.
- 2 Tbsp Olive oil
- 1 cup Red Bell Pepper, chopped
- 1 cup Green bell pepper
- 1.5 cups White rice
- 1 tsp. Chili Powder
- 1 tsp Cumin
- 1/2 tsp onion powder
- 1/2 tsp garlic powder
- 1/2 tsp oregano
- Salt and pepper to taste
- 3 cups water
- ½ cup crushed tomatoes
- 1 12 oz can black beans (drained)
Heat olive oil and sauté peppers and onions. Add white rice and sauté for 2 min. Add all remaining seasonings and mix well. Then add water, crushed tomatoes, black beans and bring to boil. Cover and reduce heat to low. Simmer until rice is tender and excess liquid absorbed.
For backcountry travel:
Dehydrate in a dehydrator or on a cookie sheet in the oven on a low temp (200 or less). Takes about 8 hours.
To rehydrate, cover with boiling water and let soak for about 15 minutes, just like you would a freeze-dried meal.
I wouldn’t brag about these to your local sushi chef, but this is a surprisingly filling, healthy, tasty and easy dinner that can be vegan or anything else you like. I don’t recommend doing these with anything but real sushi rice (anything else will not roll and just be a sad mess) so they are slightly fuel intensive. Because of that and the fresh ingredients, these are best for car-based adventures. The following is a good base of ingredients, but you can obviously add whatever you like to make them your own. These are so good in fact, you’ll be eating these at home, too.
- 1 pack Nori (about nine sheets)
- Sushi mat (optional, but it easily makes the best rolls)
- 1 cup sushi rice
- 1 Carrot*
- 1 Cucumber*
- 1 Avocado*
- Sesame Seeds
- 1 Can of tuna (optional)
- Soy sauce and wasabi for dipping, of course.
(*slice all veggies long and skinny for easy rolling)
Simply place a sheet of Nori on your sushi mat and spread cooked rice over it, leaving about an inch bare at the top of the nori. Lay in your veggies, etc. across the edge closest to you. Roll the nori, gently pressing with the mat as you go to get a good, solid roll. Then simply cut into pieces and you’ll have a sushi meal for about 1/50th the cost of your favorite sushi bar, with a far better view.
Lightspeed Fajita Bowls
These Fajitas are a family favorite and, with a bag of pre-cooked chicken from home in the cooler, a snap to make. We almost always make too much filling, so err on the lean side unless you have a way to deal with leftovers. The best thing about this recipe is that there are precious few ingredients and you can’t really go wrong with the quantities. If you pre-chop all the veggies, you’ll be eating in under 20 minutes.
- ~1.5lb poached chicken, pre-cooked and sliced (about one breast per 2 people)
- 2 tbsp olive oil
- 1 Green bell pepper
- 1 Red bell pepper
- 1 Onion
- 3-ish Cloves of garlic
- 1-2 tbsp. Cumin (to taste)
- As much Chili Powder as your kids will allow
- Salt, to-taste.
- 1 cup cheddar Cheese
- 1 Jalapeño, chopped (for the grown-ups)
- Cilantro, avocado, salsa, sour cream, etc. to your liking.
Sauté the onion over medium heat until translucent. Add garlic for about 30 seconds, then add all seasonings. When veggies are almost soft, add in chicken to rewarm it. If you’re fancy and have another camp stove or burner handy, warm your tortillas, lay them in a bowl and spoon the filling over them. Perfection.
Honey-Dijon-Soy Marinated Pork Tenderloin with Green Beans
Crazy, right? But for the carnivores out there, this one is hard to beat on a car-based adventure. What better way to prep an amazing dinner than to marinate your favorite meat all day in the cooler while you play? I pre-cut the tenderloin into medallions and bag it before I go and put the marinade in a jar. Both go in the cooler. After breakfast, on the day of your best camp dinner ever, just add the marinade to the bag and return to the cooler for 6-8 hours. The high marks for low water and fuel consumption, almost zero prep, fork-tender meat and happy kids will make up for the greasy skillet.
For the best results cooking the meat, you’ll need a decent skillet, so a two-burner camp stove is ideal. However, I also like a pair of WindPro II™ stoves, that are stable with a solid skillet and allow you to cook the meat and beans simultaneously.
- 1/4 cup soy sauce
- 3 Tablespoons honey
- 3 Tablespoons olive oil
- 2 Tablespoons orange juice
- 2 Tablespoons Dijon mustard
- 3-4 garlic cloves, minced
- 1 sprig freshly chopped Rosemary
- Ground pepper, to taste
1-2 Pork Tenderloins (about .5 lb per person)
Place green beans in a shallow pot of water. Cover and begin steaming.
In the skillet, add some oil and/or butter on high heat. Sear the medallions on each side to desired doneness. (You’ll want a “soft” rebound when you press on the meat, not a solid feel). Both beans and meat should be done in just 10 minutes or so. Enjoy!
Jim Meyers survives between road trips by pushing all the buttons at Vertizon Photography and is a recovering copywriter, turned freelance writer. He’s climbed, skied, backpacked, cycled and fly fished extensively throughout North America and is selfishly raising two budding adventurers with his wife and Type-2 fun soulmate in Seattle, WA.