I know you are perfectly capable of wandering down the grocery store aisles before heading out of town to camp, tossing mildly perishable or canned goods into your cart. I know from experience that when I do that, I rarely use everything I’ve bought and have to lug it home again, or I forget the can opener, or once I arrive, I can’t be bothered with cooking anything (because I forgot the camp stove) and so I survive on cold black beans, eaten with a plastic knife (because I forgot the spoons). Perhaps fears of being in a similar situation are keeping you from getting yourself outside overnight for some adventurous family fun.
Know that with very little effort and minimal planning, you can have a relaxing camping experience, even if you’re a total newbie, and the kids wake you up at 6. Designed for one-stop shopping, or by using what you already have, everything recommended here is simple, available in your grocery store, won’t cost you any more than it would to stay home, and no specialized equipment is necessary. Not even a can opener. Certainly not a camp stove. If you’re willing to toss some ice in a cooler, it opens up your options, especially since you can pack beer. (You should pack beer.)
What follows are basic meal ideas for stress-free camping with no-cook meal suggestions. If you don’t intend to pack a cooler, choose only items without asterisks.
The Basics – Simple camping meal plan
Consider how much food you need. In this weekend camping example, I need to pack/prep/shop for 2 breakfasts, 3 lunches, 3 dinners, and 3 days of snacks, assuming I leave Friday morning and come home Sunday.
Make a simple grid of necessary meals (for some reason, I always end up doing this on the back of an envelope), and shop so that there are multiple uses for your ingredients. Buy things you wouldn’t mind eating at home or use what you already have. Although you may have a certain type of meal planned, you can mix and match later. I have to admit I don’t differentiate much between meals. Breakfast food is interchangeable for me with lunch and dinner. Camping is about flexibility and adapting (think, WEATHER!) If you’ll be in camp, hummus with veggies or chips and dip are great. On the trail, you might want something sturdier to manage the rough and tumble innards of your backpack and with minimal waste to pack out. Back at camp, that won’t matter so much.
You may think you are going to want a huge variety and many choices, but once you get out there, you’ll usually end up prioritizing the easy camping meals, and simplicity usually wins out. Everything tastes fabulous outdoors anyway! If you want something even simpler than assembling a sandwich, you can subsist on jerky, dried fruit, granola bars, and Vienna sausages, and we won’t judge you for it. Wandering to the next campsite, hoping they’ve overpacked, and staring at them hungrily until they feed you is a time-tested alternative. It’s hit or miss, but wins bonus points for absolute effortlessness.
Food choices and storage
Consider some of these factors as you choose foods and plan meals.
Repeating food in different meals
Consider multiple uses for your meal ingredients. This ensures you’re not stuck with a bunch of random leftovers when you get home and that you’re making the best use of your cargo space and cooler. For example, you can eat hard-cooked eggs as a lunch or snack with salt & pepper, and mash the rest of them with a fork, add mayo & mustard, and have egg salad the next day. There’s no rule that says egg salad can’t be eaten with the rest of your crackers, either. Use the rest of the mayo with tortillas, deli cold cuts and cheese. Use wraps for several meals and vary the fillings for variety. Great meal ideas don’t need to be complicated.
In my example, a 6-pack of bagels will make 6 meals if I eat only one per meal, so I have all my breakfasts and lunches covered and one extra in case of supreme hunger, midnight snack-age, or a raccoon night raid. Now I just need to mix up the toppings so I don’t get bored. I would probably have butter, ham, and sliced cheese – or Boursin or cream cheese & ham — for breakfast on the day of departure, and for 3 lunches. Breakfasts at camp could be bagels with cream cheese, honey or jelly, and cold brew coffee. Lunch is water, flavored or not. I could add a deli potato salad for lunches at camp, or pack chips in a Pringles can for my backpack. Add a granola bar or two, an apple, and some jerky for snacking. Or I could have granola and jerky for breakfast and use my bagel for dinner instead of lunch. Christine frequently eats nuts and dried fruit for breakfast, while I’m more likely to eat them as snacks.
Camping with perishable food
Consider perishability. Butter is a great condiment for deli sandwiches and can be left at room temperature in a baggie for a couple days or tossed, wrapped or bagged, straight into the cooler. I especially love it with crunchy rolls and ham. Contrary to popular myth, mayonnaise is not the germ breeding medium it’s made out to be, so go ahead and pack a small jar. If you get sick, it won’t be from the mayo, so see the paragraph on proper food storage below, or skip the cooler altogether.
Use the most perishable stuff first, especially if the cooler is being opened frequently. Hard salami or summer sausage serves double duty, as it doesn’t have to be refrigerated & holds up well in a backpack. (Don’t forget the knife to slice it! Then again, you can always hold it in a tight fist and tear chunks off with your teeth, caveman style.)
Keep food dry in your cooler
Consider how to keep things dry. There are a couple of tricks to storing perishable foods on ice. Anything stored in baggies, opened plastic deli tubs, or food storage containers (even the ones that claim to be watertight) will take on water eventually. This usually isn’t an issue with pre-packaged store-bought foods until you open them. Once they are open, they need to be used up or resealed in Ziplock bags and kept out of the water. You may prefer shelf-stable tortillas and bagels to the kind that require refrigeration, but this is a matter of personal preference.
Storing food in mason jars
I have found mason jars with their lids (rubberized lids & rings, not the plastic storage lids) and anything already bottled or jarred with a plastic seal in the lid works well and can be submerged. If you feel like investing in some ½ pint or pint canning jars & lids and you have the time or inclination to prep your condiments before you leave, these make excellent containers, as do washed, used salad dressing and glass condiment jars. This way, you can use what you already have at home.
If you can’t be bothered, just buy smaller size foods in jars. As long as the lids are on tight, they will be fine, even if they end up submerged. If your ice is still intact, you can put bagged items in the cooler on top of the ice. Once the ice melts down, a plastic tub that sits on top of the ice in your cooler (or floats) works well as a “dry shelf” to keep things out of the water. This is where your beer comes in handy, holding both your mood and the aforementioned tub aloft. Plus it gives you an excuse to bring extra. Just in case.
Consider durability. If you’re mostly going to be lolling around camp (and more power to you!), you can store more delicate items like crackers and chips in the car or on top of the picnic table. (Put it away at night, so the critters don’t get it!) We use the tough Rubbermaid tubs with lids for this. (They are NOT squirrel-proof or racoon-proof, alas!) They are butch and stackable, so they also make a good surface for preparing meals. If you will be eating lunch on your rented paddleboats or out on the trail, you would do well with wraps or bagels. I prefer bagels to almost any other bread because they hold up so well in a backpack. Similarly, pita chips hold up better than tortilla chips and so on. Pringles cans are good protection in a backpack for some of the more delicate items, but no one has ever died licking squashed chip crumbs from the corner of a baggie.
Plan meals around the weather
Consider the weather. We frequently change meal plans based on what the weather is doing. Packing food this way makes it very easy to eat even if your camping trip is rained out, you decide to nap while it’s hot outside, or all you want to do is snuggle in your tent with a partner, chill with a good book, or play a ruthless game of gin rummy while the rain shreds your tarp. (More on rainy-day camp fun later.) Many of the things that make our list are easily managed without actually having to be outside your chosen shelter. If you hammock camp, you could be forgiven for never being upright the entire weekend. Send your kids to the neighboring campsites to play, and enjoy your downtime. You’re welcome!
Consider cold soaking overnight oatmeal for lazy morning breakfasts. You can soak oatmeal and some other things (cold ramen, anyone?) for consumption later. In general, you use equal parts of a chosen liquid and rolled oats, plus whatever sweeteners and enhancements you want. This method is growing in popularity among hikers and food bloggers alike. If you want to check this out for future outings, we will be covering the basics and some suggested combinations elsewhere on the site.
Camping dishes or paper plates?
Consider sanitation. You can use reusable dishes. Plastic or enameled metal is recommended for this. Washing a few dishes requires a bit of dish soap, simple scrubbie, sponge or washrag, a dish tub, and either a net bag, towel or tub for drying. Sure, it’s a bit more effort, but it will lessen the number of unnecessary trips to the dumpster, so it all evens out in the end (maybe), leaving you free to snore away in your Eddie Bauer rocking camp chair. If you set aside your soapy dishes as you wash, you can get away with a single tub for washing & drying. Dump the soapy water, rinse the tub out and put the dishes in to dry after you rinse them. If you feel like springing for a mesh bag, those work well and free up picnic table space. Then again, disposable is good, too. You still want a towel and soap and perhaps a disposable tablecloth. We often let our dish soap double as hand soap. One of the best things to transpire post-pandemic is hand soap making an appearance in the restrooms of our state parks, but you can’t count on this everywhere.
If you are willing to fiddle with perishable foods, pack these:
Ingredients w/ asterisks* require refrigeration, even when unopened. Double asterisks** require refrigeration once opened.
- pita bread
- pita chips
- rice cakes
- bolillos, hoagie or other rolls
- hotdog/hamburger buns
- tortilla chips
- English muffins
- sandwich thins
- almond or peanut butter (Jason’s has individual serving packets)
- deli cold cuts*
- tuna pouches** – these come in various flavors
- prepared tuna salad*
- jerky (bacon jerky! Yes, please)
- Duke sausage jerky
- hard salami/summer sausage** – can be left unrefrigerated for several days, but don’t push your luck in hot weather
- sliced cheeses* – particularly vulnerable to cooler swamping (water in the baggies)
- cream cheese or Boursin soft cheese*
- canned meat* – deviled ham, Vienna sausages
- energy bars & trail mix
- hard-boiled eggs*
- bean dip**
- meat sticks (Vermont pepperoni, omg)
- deboned rotisserie chicken from the deli*
Miscellaneous & Snacks & Sides
- oatmeal (you can mix this ahead of time for cold soaked, overnight)
- cereal, served dry or with milk* **
- store-bought deli salads*
- fresh or dried fruit
- cinnamon & applesauce cups (can add to oatmeal)
- yogurt* (can add to overnight oatmeal)
- avocado* or guacamole*
- s’ mores: milk chocolate bar, graham crackers & giant marshmallows (you need an open fire for this)
- trail mix
- veggies*: cherry tomatoes (good w/ dip, guac & BJLT), broccoli, cauliflower, baby carrots (good w/ hummus) or party trays with dip
- goldfish & raisins
- Quisps (Parmesan crisps. You can make these easily! Can be a protein, too.)
- individually packaged olives & pickles (or portion your own from home)
- Lara bars – macerated nuts and dried fruit bars
- pre-made chicken,* egg,* ham* &/or pasta salads* from the deli counter
- honey (shelf stable option)
- agave (shelf stable option)
- sweeteners for coffee, cereal, or overnight oatmeal: sugar, brown sugar, honey, agave & maple syrup are shelf-stable
- salt & pepper
- tub of butter or ghee
- small jar of mayo*
- mustard packets or small bottle
- Tobasco or Crystal
- dried minced or fresh chopped onions
- powder packets for flavoring water
- instant coffee (makes cold coffee, obviously) (Starbucks Via is readily available)
- milk* (Horizon has shelf-stable milk if you’re not bringing a cooler)
- beer – glass is not permitted in all areas, and check rules on alcohol display/consumption (I’m not sure the “I was only using it to prop up my dry shelf” will get you out of a ticket.)
- bagged wine is the best for storage and to prevent oxidizing. Science, baby. It also takes up less room in the cooler, but is useless for supporting your dry shelf. Unlike beer. Just sayin’.
- pre-mixed or single-serve cocktails (again, check the rules wherever you are camping. Some ban alcohol.)
- Gatorade (does double duty for heat sickness)
- juice boxes (can bring larger bottles if packing a cooler)
- water (I usually fill a large beverage cooler w/ water from home or use the large jug w/ a spigot)
- cold-brew or instant tea
- bottled cold brew coffee
Random tip: I usually grab coffee and breakfast on the way out of town. This is a great time to grab a few condiment packets: mayo, mustard, sugar, jelly, honey, hot sauce, salt & pepper.
Some of our favorite food combinations
Bagelwich: onion bagel (or bagel smeared with cream cheese & red onions, or minced, dried onions);* butter (or mayo* & mustard or cream cheese/minced onion combo); black forest ham*
BJLT: Bacon jerky; sliced tomato*; pre-washed lettuce*, mayo*; bolillo, roll, bread or bun; salt & pepper
Tortilla, large slice deli cold cuts*, *sliced cheese, pickle, condiments of choice. Roll it up.
Cold-soak tropical overnight oatmeal: (equal parts rolled oats & liquid of choice), brown sugar, dried pineapple, powdered milk (if not using milk as your liquid), macadamia nuts, coconut, pinch salt
Tuna salad made with packaged plain tuna, chopped dill pickles, chopped hard-boiled eggs (or mash with fork), diced sweet or red onions (optional), mayo, pre-washed lettuce* (optional), salt & pepper on a roll or bun
Hummus, pita bread or pita chips (This is seriously a favorite. I’ve even dehydrated it for backpacking trips.)
Both of us are addicted to Cheetos Simply Puffs White Cheddar Cheese.
Christine swears by a pairing of Whisps (parmesan crisps) and a white wine on the sweeter side.
Next camping trips
Once you get the hang of things and you feel more confident, you might want to take the next steps, investing in a camp stove and cooking simple pantry meals. For more information an getting started, check out our other articles: