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These easy camping foods can be made ahead of time so you can enjoy effortless gourmet meals even in the woods. That’s right—packing up and heading for the wilderness doesn’t have to mean eating jerky and trail mix for every meal. With a little planning, you can bring the makings for truly gourmet dishes with you wherever you go, and make it easy to cook them once you’re there.
Caveat: I’m talking about car camping here, not hardcore backpacking, and hoping (but not assuming) you’ll have access to a grill or at least a fire pit. Incidentally, many of these dishes will also work well as things to bring to barbecues and most are great for picnics too.
When camping in particular, if you’re able to bring a couple coolers (one for drinks, of course) and have space for some extra containers and a pot or pan, you’ll have lots of options that make dinner in your home-away-from-home both easy and enticing. You don’t even need a Dutch oven, but if you have room for one, it is fun to bring along for cooking—or even just reheating—in camp.
Related Reading: The Best Gear for Gourmet Camp Cooking
While you can do all your prep work at a picnic table provided you bring along your cutting board and knives (just see our guide to camp cooking for pointers), isn’t it nicer to do most of the mise en place ahead of time, so once you get to where you’re going you can relax and enjoy it? (Which is also the theory behind choosing slightly less involved recipes, or at least ones that require less of you once you’re set up at your campsite; more ambitious gourmands can make pizza from scratch beside their tents, but personally, I’m not usually up for that. Maybe bringing a ball of store-bought dough and making a meal out of that; scroll down to see how.)
Breakfast, Lunch & Dinner
Breakfast and lunch can be more basic—if you’d rather not make bacon and coffee in camp, just bring some muffins, granola, or a batch of breakfast cookies, then break out simple sandwich stuff at midday. But in the evening, you’ll want something more substantial—yet you’re also ready to relax by the fire (and maybe by the lake, or the ocean, or under the trees). I’ve got you covered with these perfectly portable meals you can bring along with you. You’ll feel like you’re glamping, even if you don’t have pillow-top mattresses and portable air conditioners.
From hearty make-ahead salads that are good eaten chilled or at room temperature, to pre-assembled skewers you just have to throw on the flames, all of these meals are totally do-able outdoors or in.
Just be sure, when bringing these in a cooler, you wrap them really well—like twice over in foil and then individually sealed in zip-top bags just in case—because if your melted ice water seeps in it’ll ruin all your plans, and your appetite! Here’s how to pack a cooler for a short trip:
Related Reading on CNET: The Best Coolers for 2020
Easy Camping Recipes
Pressed Picnic Sandwiches (like Muffalettas)
Yes, I did say sandwiches were for lunch, but certain specimens are hefty and impressive enough for dinner (see our pressed picnic sandwiches guide for more). A New Orleans favorite, muffalettas are stacked with meat and cheese and olive salad, and taste best after sitting for at least a full day. But take these out of the cooler a little while before you want to eat so they’re not too chilled; the flavors and textures will be better for it. And if you want the cheese a little melty and the bread a little crunchy, wrap the sandwiches in foil and toss them on the grill for a few minutes. Get the Muffaletta recipe.
Leveling up, a shooter’s sandwich (so called because they were originally packed in saddlebags to serve as lunch during English hunts) is a full meal encased in bread, and traditionally made with steak and mushrooms, though you can alter the filling to suit your tastes. Like a muffaletta, it’s pressed down with weights overnight so everything stays in place and all the juices soak into the bread—so make sure your bread is sturdy enough not to get soggy and fall apart. You can find vegetarian versions too (for instance, this delightfully named Gardener’s Sandwich), but this one doesn’t skimp on the steak, and adds lots of blue cheese for creamy tang. Get the Shooter’s Sandwich recipe.
Salads can be great camp food—and full meals in and of themselves. You just pack the multiple components separately (lettuce, herbs, and raw vegetables* in one Ziploc bag, protein in another, and dressing in its own small tightly-sealed container), then combine them when it’s dinner time. *If your veggies exude liquid when cut, like cucumbers, wait to slice them until you get there.
If you prefer to cook your protein on-site, like this chicken boldly flavored with paprika, cumin, cinnamon, pepper, and garlic, you can still pack it in its marinade or rub so there’s no additional wait time later. Or pre-cook at home and simply warm it up when you’re ready, or even eat at room (or forest) temp.
The parsley-packed grains in this Chicken Shawarma Tabbouleh Salad recipe might start to get a little soggy after sitting, but you can just drain off the excess liquid and it’ll be fine. (Of course, you could also try some of these pre-salting steps to cut down on the moisture content to begin with. And you might choose to add the tomatoes at the last minute; just bring a paring knife and you can cut them in half right over the bowl.) Bring some hummus and pita to go alongside and you’ll have a feast.
Related Reading: This Easy Flatbread Recipe Goes with Everything
As above, so it goes with this Thai Steak Salad recipe—the protein is just as good cold as freshly cooked, so you can enjoy this even if you don’t have a way to reheat it. The salad itself is fresh and healthy, packed with lettuce, Thai basil, mint, and bean sprouts; you might want to wait to chop the English cucumber on-site, or if you’re not bringing a knife, pack it separately so it doesn’t make everything else slimy. Nuoc cham serves as a pungent, sprightly dressing, but use these principles to build your own salad combos too. (You can definitely do meatless salads as well, like this vegan and gluten-free grilled portobello salad; if you feel it needs a bit more substance, add some rice, quinoa, or couscous, pre-cooked or made on the spot.)
This Antipasto Pasta Salad recipe is bursting with flavor, and with enough mix-ins to fill anyone up—artichoke hearts, olives, peppers, greens, meat, cheese. You won’t need anything else to satisfy you, but you might like stirring in some torn fresh basil and summer-sweet cherry tomatoes at camp for an extra pop of freshness.
Another cold pasta salad that easily makes a meal, this Asian Noodle Salad recipe coats the noods in a peanut sauce with Sriracha, honey, ginger, and rice vinegar. It takes almost no time to throw together beforehand either, but you could add some shredded chicken or baked tofu to bulk it up a bit. More veggies never hurt, either. (If you don’t do nuts, here’s a version with a soy sauce based dressing.)
If you’ll have access to a fire, kebabs are a no-brainer. They’re infinitely adaptable—from French chicken kebabs, steak fajita kebabs, and shrimp boil kebabs, to Turkish lamb and eggplant kebabs, BBQ seitan kebabs, and halloumi and vegetable kebabs, there’s bound to be a meal-on-a-stick to suit your fancy. Basically, spear well-seasoned chunks of whatever you like on skewers, wrap them well, and grill them up when you get hungry. You’ve got your protein and veggies all in one place, and all you need alongside is some rice or grains, or even just pita bread, warmed for a few seconds on the grate. Get our Lemongrass Pork and Red Onion Kebabs recipe.
Pro tip: If you’re going on a longer camping trip, you can freeze your skewers (after marinating or rubbing) before packing; they’ll thaw by the third day, so you can eat less longer-lasting camp vittles first and still have these to look forward to.
If you’ve ever made a batch of pulled pork, you know it’s delicious the first night, but also just as tasty every day for the next week as you try to find ways to use it all. This version is made in a slow cooker, so you can spend time sorting through your camping gear instead of tending a stove. (And if you’re not into pork, make slow cooker chicken chile verde, slow cooker chicken mole, or slow cooker BBQ beef brisket. Or pulled eggplant or pulled jackfruit if you’re vegetarian.) Then cool it, pack it up, and reheat it in a pot at your site for easy yet decadent sandwiches or tacos. Get our Slow Cooker Pulled Pork recipe.
Chili is a campfire classic, but if you’re a fan of shortcuts, make it ahead of time in your slow cooker and re-heat it once you’re there (Dutch oven optional). Enjoy as-is in bowls, maybe with some cornbread, or use it in walking tacos, which are perfect for camping since the clean-up is so quick! Get our Easy Slow Cooker Chili recipe.
Related Reading: How to Doctor Canned Chili to Taste Amazing
While making dough entirely from scratch on a picnic table might be a bit much of an ask for most (me!), I’m totally down with bringing some of those balls of store-bought pizza dough and turning it into skillet pizzas. Bring whatever toppings you want along in their own containers; I suggest keeping it simple with fresh mozzarella and fresh tomatoes (you don’t even need any sauce, though a smear of basil pesto might be nice). And check the bottoms sooner as they can burn faster over a live fire or hot camp coals. Get our Skillet Pizza recipe.
No skillet (or just don’t want to lug one along)? Try this Camping Pizza Log recipe instead.
There’s no reason you can’t have mac and cheese while camping—and no reason it has to be made from a box, either. This gooey, cheesy recipe is genius in that it has you tote the pre-made mac in aluminum pie plates, so you can simply reheat them on the fire. (The same idea can be used for lots of other foods too, and is similar in principle to our favorite foil pack recipes.) The secret is to let your pasta cool before mixing in the cheese, so it doesn’t glom up when you try to portion it into the pie tins. When it heats up over the fire, it’ll get melty and crispy in spots. Brilliant. Get the Camping Mac n Cheese recipe.
Indian Food (like Creamy Coconut Vegetarian Korma)
You can easily make a batch of korma or curry at home (ditto a batch of rice, perhaps with some raisins and almonds mixed in after cooking) and simply reheat for a quick meal fireside, but to really make it a breeze, just pick up some Trader Joe’s Indian fare. These foil pouches are ideal for heating in a pot of water, making clean-up a snap, and the contents are surprisingly delicious, from smoky eggplant to spicy tomato-sauced chickpeas and creamy lentils.
There are many similar brands of Indian food in pouches, but make sure your pouch is safe to immerse in water—unless you’re cool with dumping it out into a pot to heat. Bring rice and/or naan, and maybe a nice chutney or raita and you’re all set. If you want to go the homemade route with the vegetarian korma pictured above, get the Creamy Coconut Vegetarian Korma recipe.
For dessert, don’t overthink it—just roast marshmallows and make s’mores. Or get slightly more complicated with grilled banana desserts. And don’t forget to clean up so you don’t get any unwanted visitors in the night!
Header image by Chowhound