There’s nothing like cooking a meal over an open fire. The rich sounds and smells of food being prepared outdoors are comforting, nostalgic, and a feast for the senses. Campfire meals cover a wide range of options; they can be as simple as hot dogs and Jiffy Pop or as gourmet as homemade pizzas topped with prosciutto.
Whatever you plan to eat on your next camping trip, consider involving the kids in the process. When you give your kids an ‘intro to campfire cooking’ not only do they learn valuable survival skills, but they are more likely to help plan (and eat!) meals, plus you’ll all enjoy some great bonding time!
It’s true that campfire cooking has some unique safety considerations — from low-light conditions to an open flame, and sharp tools. We will address some safety best practices, as well as age-appropriate tasks and tools, in the list below.
With the basics of a kid-friendly camp cookout in place, you’re ready to grab your mini(s) and embark on the next level of outdoor culinary adventure!
1. Involve them in the planning and prep
When you have kids, it’s tempting to seize any opportunity to get things done and get them done quickly … like during a nap or while the little ones are playing outside. This is especially true when we are getting ready for a big event like a camping trip. From a kid’s point of view, it can seem like food magically appears at the campsite somewhere in between the setting up of the camper or tent and polishing off the last S’more. They just don’t give it much thought.
Pull back the curtain a little. While kids don’t have to be roped into the whole nitty-gritty process of grocery shopping, onion chopping, and cooler Tetris (unless they want to), they will feel proud if you let them pick a meal, or prepare a snack for the family ahead of time.
Food prep and camping go hand-in-hand, especially when little ones are involved and you’re looking to simplify the trip. Good, pre-camp prep work can look like pre-chopping some veggies or preparing whole heat-and-eat meals! Some strategic preparation really reduces the work you need to do at the site, and just makes the whole excursion so much smoother, with more time for fun and relaxation.
So invite your kids to see the benefits and fun that come with thinking and preparing ahead. And while you’re at it, let them call some of the shots.
2. Start ‘em young
Kids are never too young or too old to help out with planning and preparing meals. Even a young toddler (especially a young toddler) will get a kick out of exploring foods with all of their senses.
A child of two or three loves to practice their independence. At this age, little ones can help find food items in your cooler or pantry tub, put paper cups into muffin tins, or add separate ingredients to a dish. Have them wash and dry the apple you will prepare for a snack with a peanut butter dip.
Children this age may also be happy to simply watch you cook and chat together about what you’re doing. Give them an empty pot and spoon of their own to keep their hands busy. Ask lots of questions about what they are making that smells so good!
As kids get older they can take more of a lead role in chopping veggies, cooking up flapjacks, and coming up with zany — and delicious — concoctions. Never underestimate a kid’s imagination when it comes to recipe-making!
Exposing kids to various foods and kitchen skills at a young age can help instill in them an interest and love of healthful foods. They will be able to identify fruits and vegetables and hone their confidence by helping you in this most important task.
3. Teach fire safety and best practices
We teach our babies that the stove is “hot” and is not to be touched. The family campfire should be approached with the same caution, as well as a few common sense measures for optimal safety.
It’s not a bad idea to review basic fire safety tips as a family, whether you are camping alone or with kids. Make sure you are building safe campfires in designated spots only, and that your camp and cooking fires are downwind and away from your tent.
Never leave a fire unattended, and always supervise kids near a fire. Teach kids to “Stop, Drop, and Roll” should their clothes catch fire. Have a shovel or bucket of water available to put out a fire quickly.
4. Put together a kid-friendly, stress-proof camp kitchen
With safety top-of-mind, you can now prep your camp kitchen. After the long drive out, your smallest campers are usually hungry and full of energy. Consider having one half of the camping party set up the tent while the other half concentrates on preparing the camp kitchen. This way, you can get food on the table sooner.
If you have really small babies or toddlers, you might bring a playpen or fenced-in play space so they can be part of the fun yet out of harm’s way during some of the busier moments of setup or meal prep (this is where that empty bowl and spoon would come in handy).
Organization is the key to a low-stress cooking setup that is both convenient for adults and safe for kids. Make sure you have a ‘wash station’ for hands and dishes. A big jug with a spigot, attached to a table with a bungee cord, works well. Bring a couple of bins for both rinsing and washing dishes (check out these collapsible sinks). Review best practices for disposing of food scraps and gray water to avoid drawing critters to the site and/or polluting.
Spend time at home packing just the essential cooking gear, and keep it all in one easily accessible ‘kitchen’ tote. Include heavy-duty cooking gloves, knives, pot holders, tongs, a spatula, and a mess kit. Then throw in some kid-focused gear like a wooden wedge or plastic serrated knives so your smallest sous chef can get involved.
A cast iron dutch oven is the gold standard for cooking over an open flame, as cast iron distributes heat evenly and a dutch oven will heat large portions of chilis, soups, and stews, as well as get a sear on breakfast sausages and/or veggies. Also consider using a camp stand and campfire cooking grate for more surface area to cook.
Don’t forget kid favorites like roasting sticks for hot dogs and marshmallows, or an iron sandwich maker aka “pudgy pie maker” (the possibilities are endless with this one!). Round out the meal with campfire popcorn and S’mores. What more could anyone ask for?
5. Play to their interests and have fun
In a perfect world, our kids would gobble up everything we put before them. But that is rarely the case. If your kid doesn’t care to venture beyond hot dogs and macaroni and cheese, don’t fret. It’s probably just a season of life, and life is about compromises. Keep exposing them to new foods while indulging them with favorites from time to time.
You might put the kids in charge of the weenie roast night, and also have them select a veggie for the potato and veggie packet. Kids are far more likely to try a new food when they have helped to choose and prepare it.
And at the end of the day remember that it’s a camping trip. Allow yourself to indulge a bit and don’t worry if those little powdered donuts are breakfast on more than one occasion. There’s plenty of time to revisit the well-balanced meals when you get back home.
6. Put them in charge
Whether you are a parent of one kid or ten, and whether the youngest is 12 or 2, give them a voice. When you think about it, kids make so few decisions in their daily lives that it can be extremely liberating for them to choose things like what to eat, how, or when. Not only that, but everybody wins in this scenario as it takes some of the decision-making out of your (already full) hands. Now you have kids who are more invested in the meal, and by extension — the camping trip!
Give each kid a turn at choosing what they want to eat each night at the campout, and then have them help as their age and abilities allow. Work with each child to fill in the meal plan, do the shopping, and do the ingredients prep. A four-year-old might not be stirring chili over the fire, but with a little help they can prep the sandwich ingredients in the iron — and maybe even give that sandwich a name!
7. Don’t sweat it if they’re not into it
Every parent knows the danger of pushing too hard. You can end up turning a kid off to something completely if they feel it’s being forced upon them. Rather, invite them to help, consider their suggestions and ideas seriously, and make it fun. If they see that you enjoy campfire cooking, they might want to give it a try, too!
8. Preserve the memories
Document, document, document. Yes, camping with kids can be excruciating at times — when they’re up multiple times a night for example, or in a perpetually grumpy mood. Lots of times (especially when kids are little) dinner prep will take longer than it should… and you will be tired. But dig deep, because there is so much magic here.
An old saying about kids is, “The days are long but the years are short.” Well, this sentiment is somehow enhanced during camping trips. A good day with your littlest campers in tow, where the day’s hike is wondrous and an evening meal comes together effortlessly, is a really good day. The trick of camping with kids is to find little ways to make the mundane magical. Food is a necessity of camping; you might as well make it fun.
Take pictures of your little Gordon Ramsey eating more berries than he chops. Record their little voices giving you a play-by-play of how they mix up the pancake batter. At the very least, jot some notes down in your Trip Book. Document (and celebrate) the first independently planned and executed meal your thirteen-year-old makes, because when you stumble upon these artifacts one month, 3 years, or 18 years down the road, your heart is sure to burst with happiness, pride, and memories of a great meal.
9. Encourage food fun year-round
Be sure to keep the little ones’ interest in food and cooking stoked even when you’re not camping. You don’t need an expensive toy kid kitchen or specialty food to do so; plant a small garden, let them help out in the kitchen and give them simple tasks like chopping mushrooms or baking cookies.
Consider giving kids free reign in their own outdoor mud kitchen, with old pots, pans, utensils, and all the pine cones they can get their hands on. The muddier, the better. Kids learn best with hands-on, largely unstructured activities where they can develop fine motor skills and let their imaginations run wild.
On your next camping trip, go ahead and don your sous chef hat and let the kids take the lead. Campfire cooking is an awesome way to help kids build confidence. Watch their eyes light up with pride when they help to prepare the fish they caught. Chat about tomorrow’s activities as you both hand-select the perfect strawberries for a fruit salad.
When you introduce your kids to cooking outdoors and all that entails, you are providing them with useful skills, encouraging a healthy relationship with food, and best of all, spending quality time together.
Cooking with kids is definitely a labor of love. But there are fewer ways quite as sweet as this to pass the time outside with the ones you love.
Leslie is a freelance travel and health/wellness writer who gets butterflies from telling stories and sharing information with readers across the globe. Her voice comes from a place filled with passion and dreams.
With over 10 years of experience in crafting words and years of embarking on travels that have taken this Montana girl to some incredible places, Leslie loves the adventures of both body and mind her writing takes her on.
To see what Leslie’s up to in the writing and design world, visit her website here.