Starting Car Camping – Part Two: The Camp Kitchen

I’ve been blogging about camping with kids on the west coast of BC (check out the archive here). Lately, I’ve been asked quite a bit about getting started and decided to write a two part series aimed at beginners. Part one, which I wrote a few weeks ago, details some of the initial gear you’ll need to invest in or borrow to have a great weekend away. Today, I’m going to take a closer look at The Camp Kitchen. I’m sharing how I plan for and buy groceries for a weekend away and what food prep I do in advance, as well as what gear you need for storing and toting the food. 

I’d love your feedback if there is other camping related topics you’d like me to share on so get in touch if there’s something you want to read about! 

My earliest memories of “camp food” revolve around a totally inefficient, giant, blazing fire with hot dogs on sticks, marshmallows on sticks, enormous steaks on ashy grates, and baked potatoes wrapped in foil nestled into embers. I remember making bannock on a stick at Girl Guide camp, and showing off my camp cooking prowess by making foil packet potatoes with onions and cheese. High falootin’.

When Ross and I hiked the West Coast Trail in 2001, we were not permitted fires at most camping sites and everything we wanted to bring had to be light and essential. Our stove was tiny and we had to carry all the fuel we needed, so we planned to eat cold and raw quite a bit, and to reheat meals made from dehydrated foods that spent the day in a Nalgene rehydrating. This was not “eating well” but I would say we did pretty good.

This little bad boy did us really well on the WCT but fails for a family.
This little bad boy did us really well on the WCT but fails for a family.


Today, as a car-camping family, we eat really well – like, as good as we do at home if not better.  While we aren’t using the tiny stove from the WCT, we aren’t relying on giant blazing fires. Our tent trailer has a large, three burner propane stove, similar to the Coleman stove I recommended in the Camp Kitchen part of my last post. While I’m still careful to pack efficiently, I also don’t have to be concerned for a difference in ounces.

Meal Planning and Prep

When preparing to camp, I actually sit and write out a meal plan for all the meals we will have while we are away, just like what I do at home. I find when you actually quantify how much food you will need for however many meals, you tend not to overpack food. The goal is NOT to have leftovers, so knowing the appetites of your family members is really critical. Generally I plan for normal sized meals, but add in additional items like fruit, granola bars, and other healthy snacks if we need to pad a meal.

I try to incorporate anything that’s already in my fridge, and we eat a number of the same meals every time we go, mostly because we all like them and they are simple. Meals such as Chick Pea and Quinoa Salad; Greek Salad; Fruit Salad; Sausages and Rice; Tomato, Onion, and Havarti Pita Pockets’ Tacos; Tortellini with Garlic Bread; and other high carb, high protein, low-spoilage ingredients all figure centrally in our meal plans.

Grilled cheese are awesome!
Grilled cheese are awesome!

Usually we plan leaving for our weekend so that we can have a lunch on the road (we almost always stop at a roadside diner or A&W – family tradition!), and most of the provincial campsites boot you out by about 10am so we almost always plan for lunch on the road on the way home. So this means for a weekend away, you need two dinners, two breakfasts, and one lunch – that’s it. Plus snacks, of course. For snacks we usually bring a selection of hand fruit (apples, oranges and bananas), some granola bars to suit everyone’s tastes, pretzels (mine and Kale’s favourite), some sort of munchie mix or chips, and a packet of beef jerky.

A typical meal plan for a weekend away would be:

  • Friday night meal (we usually go a bit big on this one – we just got here and want to celebrate!): Steak, baked potatoes  that I sometimes pre-bake so that they can be warmed in the fire or in the steamer to save time, and green salad (pre-made).
  • Saturday breakfast: mix in the bag pancakes:  a pre-mixed resealable bag full of dry ingredients, add the wet ingredients,  squish the bag up to mix, and then snip a hole in the corner to pour them on the griddle – Easy peasy! (see the gallery below!)
  • Saturday lunch: Tomato, Onion, and Havarti Pita Pockets and fruit salad
  • Saturday dinner: Chick Pea and Quinoa Salad and chicken strips
  • Sunday breakfast: bacon, eggs, hash browns, and toast

Remember you don’t need to bring a whole loaf of bread, the whole package of pitas, or a complete package of pancake mix. Bring only what you need and don’t be afraid to leave stuff at home. I also prep anything I can: pre-mix salad dressing, marinate the chicken, pre-measure the rice, pre-cut all the veggies for easy snacking. The bonus is that any containers you bring the food in can double as storage for leftovers. This is also an appropriate time to bend some rules and eat the frozen hashbrowns.

And one final point: you can make whipped cream at camp if it’s someone’s birthday. You need one of these (thrift shops always have them) and some patience and time, but there is no reason why you can’t find a way to have the comforts of home. For Kale’s birthday we couldn’t bake a cake (well, I could have but I opted not to) so instead we cut up a whole watermelon and used cookie cutters to make the pieces into star shapes, and dipped it in whipping cream.

Thanks to Martin for this picture


Transport and Storage

Our Camp Kitchen for the average weekend away is divided into three parts: the Pantry, the Dry Goods, and the Fresh Stuff. A note about longer trips: for our huge BC Circle Tour a few years ago, we planned our food four or five days at a time, and stopped in at country grocery stores along the way, essentially following this exact same plan but carrying a bit more at a time. Once you start getting past about five days, you need to start planning for smaller, lighter, faster to cook.

The Pantry

The Pantry is something that always exists in our tent trailer. If you’re in a tent, you can build a pantry for your car-camping weekends by designated a Rubbermaid tote as your pantry. At the end of each camping season, it is a good idea to clean out the pantry and cycle any ingredients you didn’t use throughout the season into your house, and then to restock and replenish at the start of your season. Ours contains good that won’t spoil, and that we generally require for every trip: cooking oil, vinegar, salt and pepper, sugar, tea, a small selection of spices we use frequently such as steak spice, garlic salt, chives, etc, and two emergency food rations: a can of chick pea and a box of macaroni and cheese. The Pantry also generally includes leftovers from the trip before of pasta and cereal.

The Dry Goods

The Dry Goods is generally brought in a larger Rubbermaid tote and contains anything that doesn’t require refrigeration but that also isn’t a part of the pantry. This includes pasta, fruits or veggies that don’t need to be cooled, cans of goods, cereal, chips, granola bars, etc. If we’re doing pancakes, it also includes the pancake mix (dry part premixed at home in a resealable bag – more on this a bit lower), the maple syrup (requires no refrigeration!), and eggs. (Note: eggs in North America are washed using a solution to remove bacteria but that also requires eggs be refrigerated. We have our own hens that we get eggs from, and while at home we store our eggs in the fridge because really there is no where else convenient to put them, when we go camping, eggs are “dry goods”.) Our tent trailer has an “ice box” that we just to store breads and chips in it but for the most part, the dry goods stay in the car and get pulled out as needed.

The Fresh Stuff

We have a giant cooler that was purchased mostly because it fits perfectly in the cargo area of our Jeep. We spent a few good bucks on this cooler, and shopped around, but we’ve been using it for a number of years and there are lots of years left on it, so it was worth it to buy a really high quality one right off the get go. We also have a smaller, wheeled cooler that we bring the adult drinks in and if we day trip from the campsite it makes a good picnic size, but we could have done just as well with a collapsible cooler bag.

My advice: buy as big as you can manage, and make sure it will fit in your trunk / hatchback because if you’re in a tent, you need to store that thing in your car due to the risk of critters getting into it. No matter how great you think your cooler closes, a people-savvy animal will have no trouble getting in there. I have about 6 ice packs – the glycol kind that thaw slower just a bag of ice – and I’m strategic how I pack it, grouping frozen items together or items that will spoil faster (sour cream) closer to the packs than an item that you just want cool (like cherries). Usually if we are having meat, I buy it, freeze it, and then put it in the cooler, in the coldest spot and pack it in as tight as possible so that it will stay frozen the longest. Try and pack your cooler in the order you will eat things (I try and go left to right) so that you spend less time having to unpack and repack everything to get at that one package of fresh goods. The more time that cooler is open, the faster the things will thaw.

Final Words

When planning, shopping, and prepping for camp food, I place an equal level of importance on three things: how easy it will be to make it, how well received (and scarfed down) it will be, and how simple it will be to bring it along. You need to consider your family’s tastes – what hot dogs on a stick are to some families are what steak on a grate are to others. Buy the right gear to haul and store it, and focus your time and energy on enjoying your weekend away.

And don’t forget the marshmallows, no matter what.

Peanut butter smores, baby.
Peanut butter smores, baby.


7 years ago