There’s probably not one person alive who hasn’t been camping. Sleeping under the trees, cooking over a fire, enjoying the fresh air of the great outdoors – what’s not to love? Camping is a great family and budget friendly activity; it’s an inexpensive way to spend quality time together. Pack up the car, grab your sleeping bag and you are on your way. But what will you eat? If you are out for more than a few hours, you’ll soon discover that being outdoors works up a tremendous appetite. Many of the traditional camping foods are not so healthy, especially perennial favorites like grilled hot dogs, canned meat spreads and gooey s’mores. Is there a way to enjoy the benefits of the great outdoors without resorting to those admittedly easy to pack but maybe not so good for your diet foods?
Just as in your daily life, one of the main secrets to planning healthy camping meals is the need to take the time to plan and prepare your meals. It’s much easier to grab a pack of hot dogs and some buns and leave town, but a little bit of advance planning will help you avoid resorting to bags of chips and cold fried chicken.
Brandi Koskie, Managing Editor here at Diets in Review, is an avid camper. She shares one of her secrets to healthy camp cooking – a Dutch oven. “With a Dutch oven or a grill cover for the fire, you can cook just about anything. We’ve done herb/citrus stuffed cornish game hens with roasted veggies. Grilled lemon rosemary chicken with salads and baked potatoes. Seared pork loin with baked apples. Sunday mornings we always have scrambled eggs, fruit salad (made w/ honey, not cool whip), and blueberry pancakes.”
One traditional camping favorite is the foil dinner. This main dish wonder can be as healthy as you want. At its most basic, a foil or packet dinner is just meat and vegetable wrapped up in foil and cooked on the campfire. Put veggies, potatoes, meat, olive oil, garlic and any other spices you might enjoy in an aluminum foil packet and cook it on the fire or a grill. Several meals worth can be prepared at once, and even individual meal packets can be tailored to different family members’ tastes.
Tanya Zuckerbrot, R.D. shares that fresh produce is the key that she uses to unlock a love of healthy eating while camping. “Summer picnics occur at the height of the fresh produce season. The more colorful produce you add to your menu, the healthier the meal. Get your picnics off to a ‘fruitful’ start by packing your cooler with a wide variety of colorful fruits. If they are in season, there is nothing quite like a juicy watermelon to finish the meal. Sliced apples, berries, and dried fruit like raisins, and dried apricots are perfect travel snacks without the mess of fruits you have to peel like oranges, kiwi and grapefruit.”
“Pack a nutritional punch by filling your cooler with colorful vegetables, thereby providing your family picnic with antioxidants and vital vitamins and minerals,” continues Zuckerbrot. “Try baby carrots, slices of celery, cucumbers and peppers, cherry tomatoes, broccoli and carrots- all perfect for dipping. Pack low- fat or fat- free dressings for a fun and nutritious snack. Be sure to keep uncooked meats and fresh produce separate in your coolers to avoid potential foodborne illness.”
Why not explore the area that you visit and locate a farmers market? This also makes packing easier, as you can buy many of your foods upon arrival.
Prepared salad in a bag can stay fresh for a week, provided that it is chilled appropriately. Top with hard boiled eggs, grated cheese and fresh veggies instead of salad dressing that will be difficult to keep cold.
J.J. Kunkle, a camping enthusiast and A.C.E. Certified Personal Trainer, shares that one of her favorite easy and healthy camping meals is veggie burritos – she prepares the stuffing (black beans, tomatoes, peppers, onions, maybe some salsa) at home, storing it in a container. Upon arrival at the campsite, heat the filling and the tortillas. You can add a little shredded cheese, avocado and salsa – and don’t forget a lime to squeeze on top!
Don’t forget to keep hydration front and center. When you are outdoors hiking or exploring the area, it can be very easy to forget to drink enough, and children are especially prone to quick dehydration – after all, they don’t consider it fun to stop playing to get a drink. Bring plenty of clean water, fruit juice and juicy fresh fruit to help quench the thirst.
Pack your fresh produce in a cooler separate from your meats, in order to avoid cross contamination and the possibility of food borne illnesses. Keep it cool with plenty of ice and multiple cool packs. One other trick familiar to many campers is to freeze water bottles the night before and using them as cold packs to keep food and drinks in your cooler nice and cold.
For dessert, nothing beats fresh fruit, but sometimes a girl just needs some chocolate. S’Mores – the gold standard of camping dessert comprised of a toasted marshmallow topped with a chocolate square and sandwiched between two graham crackers – are not forbidden, but most of us find it difficult to stop at just one. My own mother was a fan of the “banana boat.” Lay a banana on foil and pull back the top of the peel. Run a knife down the center of the banana and fill the crevice with a few chocolate chips. Close the peel back over, wrap in foil, and bury the banana in the coals. Ten minutes later, you have a delicious gooey treat that tastes as if it’s much more of a forbidden treat than it actually is.
Many people travel with paper products, but you can create quite a load of trash, and campsites often charge for garbage disposal. I learned in Girl Scouts to make a three part sink – one bucket for washing (use an environmentally friendly detergent), one with very hot water for rinse (heat the water over the campfire while you are eating dinner) and one with hot water and a few drops of bleach to sterilize. Wash, rinse, sterilize and let the dishes air dry. It won’t take more than a few minutes and it’s a great way to minimize your impact on the environment.
Setting up your camp, hiking, exploring and playing outdoors – all work up a hearty appetite. This summer, don’t let your diet keep you from having fun with your family. Getting back to nature reminds us to eat like generations past- fresh, seasonal and healthy.