Eat what you like to eat at home
If you love mashed potatoes, have them! If you love spaghetti and tomato sauce, have that. Most of what we eat at home can be replicated in some form while camping. It all comes down to weight and prep time. If you want to be completely gourmet, and don’t mind a heavy pack (it’s worth it on a 2-3 day trip) bring fresh veggies, real cheese, and desserts. If you’re going to be out for a long time and can’t afford the weight, go with dehydrated and freeze-dried meals.
Think cooking basics
Onions, garlic, and fresh ginger will last several days on the trail. Bring a spice kit. Fresh ground pepper makes all the difference! Bring parmesan/romano cheese and olive oil — you can work wonders with pasta, cheese, spices, and olive oil. Add nuts to (almost) any meal for extra crunch and protein. Add packaged tuna, salmon, and canned chicken for protein and flavor. Use your leftover cooking water for hot drinks.
Look for favorite grocery brands
Fantastic Foods®, Spice Hunter®, and Near East® have great food selections. Check your local health food store and the natural foods aisle at your grocery store. Make a note of the food brands you like and don’t like.
Be sure you bring enough food. Take into consideration where you’re going, for how long you’re traveling, and who you are traveling with. Remember that not everyone likes the same food. If you’re cooking for a group, find out what they absolutely won’t eat, before you hit the trail—especially important with kids.
Dehydrate your own camp food
If you’re bored with backpacker meals and can’t carry fresh ingredients, get a dehydrator. The instructions are easy to follow and the results are surprisingly good. (I bought a dehydrator last year and used it to make “spaghetti leather” and dried veggies.)
The camp breakfast is the easy meal
Start with hot drinks (tea, cocoa, instant coffee, flavored coffees, hot cider, etc.). Instant oatmeal or cream of wheat with a handful of dried fruit and/or granola is enough to get you started. Granola adds crunch, dried fruit adds flavor and sweetness. Add some dried milk to your cereal for protein. Not everyone likes oatmeal, so try couscous (cooks in just 5 minutes) or instant rice, then add milk, cinnamon, and sugar for a yummy morning meal.
Lunch on the trail starts when breakfast ends
Lunch is a fun meal because you have so many options. Vary your food selections and don’t let yourself lose interest in this important energy-boosting meal. Some hints:
Granola Bars – Fruit-filled bars, yogurt-covered bars, cereal bars, chocolate-covered bars. Check both the natural foods section and cereal aisle of your grocery store.
Energy Bars – Lots more calories and protein in these than in granola bars, and some are almost a whole meal. Check your grocery store, health food store, and outdoor shops like Eastern Mountain Sports. Find a couple favorites, stock up, and carry extras!
Snacks – Dried fruit, mixed-salted nuts, GORP, pretzels, cookies, goldfish. You want things that are sweet and/or salty, and not so delicate that they will get crushed in your pack. Fresh or canned fruit can also work well (depending on your hike and load).
Cheese – On day trips, bring your favorite soft cheese (cheddar or gouda), but don’t count on those for day three of a backpacking trip. Very hard, dry cheeses like parmesan or romano will last several days without refrigeration. You can also bring mozzarella string cheese or cheese sticks (each piece is wrapped separately).
Peanut Butter – It even comes in a tube! Spread on tortillas, bagels, biscuits, and more. You can also get jelly in a tube.
Meats – Carry salami, pepperoni, and summer sausage (highly processed and don’t need refrigeration) in smaller packaged sections, and try to finish them at one time so the rest doesn’t spoil. Prepackaged tuna or salmon is also convenient.
Breads – The options are endless. Some of my favorites are French bread, tortillas, bagels, pita bread, and tea biscuits. Eat bulky items (bagels) or delicate items (French bread, scones) on your first days out.
Start with a dinner appetizer
A first course takes off the hunger edge while you prepare the main meal. Think black bean dip, hummus, or cheese with pita bread, crackers, or tortillas. Ramen noodles or Cup-O-Soup makes a light starter for those cooler days. For something a bit more lively, try pesto/cheese or black bean/cheese quesadillas.
Dinner is down time
Dinner can be as simple as “backpacker meals” where you just add boiling water, or as involved as sautéed fresh veggies, couscous with feta cheese, and a dessert of fresh-baked carrot cake! Whatever your concoction, kick back and enjoy your evening. Here are some nutritious, energy-packed favorites:
Pasta with dehydrated spaghetti sauceDehydrate spaghetti sauce at home, and rehydrate the sauce on the trail with boiling water. Tastes just like the real thing. Add dehydrated or freeze-dried veggies for more nutrition, color, texture.
Couscous or rice w/mushrooms, sundried tomatoes & pine nuts
Black bean soup w/rice, salsa & cheeseIf you use dehydrated beans and salsa, this can be lightweight. I have used canned beans and salsa (very heavy and you have trash to carry out), but it tasted great on a rainy night!
Couscous w/sautéed veggies & cheeseOn the first day of a trip, I like to have fresh veggies like red and green peppers, zucchini, onions, and garlic sautéed in olive oil. Mix with couscous and feta cheese. Sprinkle with pine nuts.
Instant mashed potatoes w/ veggies, meat, or cheeseBuy instant mashed potatoes, add dehydrated veggies, cut in meat or cheese for protein
Lipton noodles or rice w/veggiesAdd dehydrated or fresh veggies to any of your favorite noodle/rice dinners, and add a protein if needed.
Vegetarian chiliAll-in-one delicious with your favorite beans, onions, peppers, spices.
Don’t leave out dessert
Cookies, chocolate bars, brownies, instant pudding, no-bake cheesecake. Hot chocolate, flavored coffee, or hot tea. If you have a backpacker oven, make brownies, carrot cake, and other treats. Or sample some delicious prepackaged freeze-dried camping desserts.