What are the benefits of cooking outside at a campsite?

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Young chefs aged nine to twelve gather around tables in the camp dining room at lunchtime, holding knives and plastic cutting boards in front of them. They sliced up kielbasa sausage, red potatoes, onions, and peppers while trying to follow orders in the loud room. They thread their cut-up delicacies onto the tines of sharp metal skewers wielded like swords. They hurry outdoors, to a low, metal trough filled with hot, burning embers. They cook their shish kabobs over an open flame. The air is filled with sizzling noises and delectable aromas. Some meals are charred, some are undercooked, and still others fall off the skewers into the hot embers. Meanwhile, the time is ticking, the campers are expected to return to the dining room for the remainder of their lunch, and the afternoon session begins in 20 minutes. Does this seem like a formula for disaster? Does this seem to be a major danger for first aid emergencies? Appear to be a meal failure and a horrible snafu in the schedule? No, it’s outdoor cooking at camp, where no other class combines food, fun, and fire!

So how do you, as a camp director or class instructor, manage these dangerous elements including knives, sharp metal tines, fire, coals, and hot metal together with a group of young, untrained cooks with no knife skills and a tendency to run rather than walk? Moreover, how can you prepare a safe and nutritious lunch in the time provided in your schedule while still offering the kids a really exciting experience and teaching them tremendously essential life skills?

Planning, Organization, and Flexibility Are Key

Professionals and camp staff who wish to include outdoor cooking at camp should be aware of the amount of preparation, organization, and flexibility required to include this difficult activity into the program. Even camp staff experienced in outdoor cooking from personal camping, hiking, or hunting trips will find themselves facing a steep learning curve when it comes to teaching outdoor cooking to a group of youth, especially if trying to fit it into a busily scheduled day or event.

“Camping with kids involves the three P’s of planning, preparedness, and patience,” explains Gregory “Gus” Wickham on his website, campingwithgus.com. It needs much more planning and attention to detail than an adult camping excursion. Everything from camp cuisine and recipes to camp games and activities must be planned with children in mind. If an adult camper is missing anything or the weather becomes bad, he will make do. It’s a tragedy if it occurs to a child! Preparation and camping checklists might come in handy here” (Wickham, 2018).

Outdoor cooking may be presented at camp as part of an activity, such as a campfire or a walk, as a separate lesson, or as part of one or more daily meals. Menus, ingredients, cooking equipment, supplies, condiments, fire management, amounts, timing and sequence of preparation, and prices must all be planned ahead of time. A spreadsheet is useful for bigger groups or whole meals, particularly when it is designed to scale up or down items dependent on the number of campers or participants.

Why Offer Outdoor Cooking at Camp?

Outdoor cooking at camp is a favorite pastime among youngsters, and it is something that most children and teenagers have never done entirely on their own. Except from toasting marshmallows or hot dogs on a stick, most children have their meals prepared for them by adults rather than gaining hands-on experience. Outdoor cooking combines adventuresome elements — fire, knives, sharp skewers, hot pots, etc. — in a controlled environment to keep kids safe while learning valuable life skills, allowing them to step outside their comfort zones in the midst of enjoying time with their friends.

Outdoor cooking teaches adolescents a variety of vital life skills, including:

  • Food preparation and nutrition
  • Following directions and recipes
  • Practical, hands-on cooking with little tools or materials
  • How to build, light, manage, and put out a fire
  • Math and science (various sorts of heat) (measuring and cutting)
  • Confidence to try something new
  • Problem-solving and comprehension of consequences (improperly threaded food can fall off the skewers and into the coals; improperly wrapped foil dinners can leak or burn)
  • Camping without leaving a trace (picking up trash and debris, leaving the site as it was)
  • Being outside with no technology or gadgets to distract them
  • The capacity to cook a variety of meals in a range of outdoor or “grid-down” conditions, such as backyard barbecues and camping vacations, as well as during power outages or other survival scenarios.
  • Skills Needed by Outdoor Cooking Leaders
  • In addition to the previously stated organizational, planning, and flexibility qualities, outdoor cookery leaders at camp will require a range of talents:
  • First aid
  • Hygiene and food safety, certification of food handlers
  • Cooking experience and knowledge of fundamental cooking terminology
  • Knowledge of the equipment to be used
  • Principles of fire building, coal management, cleanup, and leave-no-trace
  • Individual and group leadership experience with kids
  • While dealing with adolescents of various ages, patience and flexibility are required.
  • When things don’t go as planned, you must be able to problem solve and improvise.
  • Readiness to train others and distribute authority
  • Ability to answer many questions at once

Challenges to Offering Outdoor Cooking

Whatever your own experience with outdoor cooking is, providing outdoor cooking to a group of youngsters will present obstacles.

First and foremost, the children themselves provide a significant obstacle. Most have limited cooking skills and no experience cooking outdoors and, because of age and inexperience, will need constant instruction and supervision. “Train the trainers” by training staff how to cook outdoors effectively before camp so they can assist monitor the campers. Assist with the cooking by using expert cooks. It is critical to keep children focused and interested throughout the preparation and cooking process.

Younger youth, kids 12 and under, seem to want to do “their own” cooking and are not patient or cooperative enough to do a “group” cook. They have a “get ‘r done” attitude and are eager to move on to the next task. Teens do considerably better when it comes to cycling around cooking stations and/or group cooking. They enjoy just hanging out and are better able to manage their time socially while food is cooking.

The scheduling and timing of outdoor cooking with adolescents in a group is a second important problem. Cooking outside is the polar opposite of fast food or having someone offer a ready-to-eat meal, such as when campers rush through the chow line. Everything takes longer, from hand cleaning to listening to directions to preparing meals to cooking. The only activity that moves quickly is consuming food! The timing of having food ready to consume when it is needed, such as at a certain meal hour, may be a challenge. Would you allow children to consume their food as it is prepared (which is their preferred method) or will you force them to hold it on the plate and bring it into the dining hall to be combined with the rest of the meal?

Staff should precut/prep goods, open cans, place everything on trays so it’s ready to go, or precook specific foods such as ground beef, carrots, or potatoes to aid with time. Campers may begin their meals and then go for another activity while staff complete the meals on-site or in camp ovens. Slow-cooking activities, such as Dutch oven cooking, may begin before the evening entertainment and supper.

A third and extremely important challenge when it comes to outdoor cooking with kids is health and safety issues. While cooking outside, you will almost always have restricted food preparation and cleaning facilities. Handwashing and cleanliness of food and cooking equipment is crucial yet hard to maintain in an unpredictable outdoor environment with dirt, dust, mud, leaves, pine needles, insects, etc. Perishable things must be kept cold, whereas heated meals must be maintained hot to ensure food safety.

When cooking outside, participants and staff should wear closed-toe shoes. Hair should be tied back, as should strings and ropes. Aprons are useful for keeping garments clean. If nylon or plastic clothing catches fire, burns may penetrate deep into the flesh as the material melts. (For safety, turn shirts containing plastic decals or text inside out and/or backwards.) While holding or stirring pots or skillets, use pot grips or oven mitts. Keep a first aid kit and cold water on hand, as burns, cuts, and scrapes are inevitable — and part of the process of learning about the potential consequences of cooking with heat, knives, and sharp skewers. Prepare to put out flames by keeping a bucket of water, a fire extinguisher, and/or a fire blanket on hand. Keep an eye out for youngsters who may come into contact with or walk on burning embers. Use a bell or whistle to signify an emergency halt. Again, preparing ahead of time and utilizing a checklist for materials and instructions can be beneficial.

Another issue of outdoor cooking applies to both groups and individuals in the woods. There are several aspects to consider. Uneven heat sources; the impacts of wind, rain, or specific microclimates; problems or failures with fire, coals, or equipment; and the inescapable occurrences of food falling into coals and burning to a crisp, food not being cooked correctly, or picky eaters deciding they don’t like what they just cooked. Another thing to consider when dealing with bigger people is controlling your charcoal briquettes or fire for cooking coals. You always require more coals than you anticipated, and it always takes longer than expected to heat the coals to the proper temperature.

Think about how and where you will prepare the initial fire or pile of briquettes, how you will transfer coals or briquettes to your young cooks, and how you will protect the soil the coals will sit on. Our camp experiences have shown us to use fire pits and metal troughs for coal preparation, and metal shovels for moving coals from the main fire to individual cooking spots. Quick cleaning is achieved by arranging coals on top of double-folded layers of foil. Before commencing on this excellent activity for your campers, consider everything.

Outdoor Cooking Methods and Equipment

Outdoor cooking techniques and equipment for small and big parties are available. Some equipment may be bought commercially, but others can be built from pebbles, bricks, or other materials like foil or cardboard. In addition to the cooking equipment, you will need fuel and a long list of materials, such as:

  • newspaper
  • wood or pellets
  • briquettes
  • propane, canister fuel, butane, etc.
  • matches
  • water pail
  • fire extinguisher or fire blanket
  • pots and pans
  • spatulas
  • pot grips or oven mitts
  • lid lifters
  • aprons
  • first aid kit

Again, checklists will be immensely useful for planning and organizing. Consider which cooking methods/equipment will work best for your needs:

  • Rocket stove — commercial
  • Rocket stove — built from bricks
  • Buddy burner with chafing gel or cardboard/paraffin candle (made from a galvanized #10 can)
  • Pan over fire supported by bricks or rock
  • Pie iron
  • Skewer over coals
  • Rotisserie over coals
  • Over the fire, place a foil package (identify packets using mustard, which cooks to a dark brown, or Sharpies)
  • Foil-covered box oven over coals
  • Instant barbecue – a disposable, portable barbeque.
  • Metal grate or grill over coals
  • Skillet over coals
  • Dutch oven with coals
  • Tripod with pot over coals
  • DIY pizza box or cardboard box oven for solar cooking
  • Solar cooking — commercial
  • Camp stove or grill
  • Smoker
  • Fryer
  • Outdoor oven — commercial
  • Backpacking stove

Outdoor cooking is a marvelous activity to add to your camp, whether as a stand-alone class, activity during a hike or after a campfire, or as part of regular meals. For effectively addressing the problems of leading a group of adolescents in outdoor cooking, planning, organization, and flexibility are required. All of the upfront work you do will result in your campers gaining life and survival skills ranging from fire starting and management to food preparation and knife practice, from understanding the science of how things cook with heat to following directions and problem-solving, and, of course, socializing and enjoying a relaxing time in the outdoors. Also, one of them may share a s’more with you.

Outdoor Cooking Receipes

Buddy Stove Breakfast

1 piece bacon, cut in thirds

1 egg

Small cup of ready-made pancake batter

First, fry the bacon; conserve the oil to cook the egg in later (add more bacon for more oil). Place the bacon on a platter. Fry your egg until done the way you like it, and remove to a plate. Add batter for one pancake, cook until bubbles cover the pancake then flip over.

“S’Mores and More: A Handbook to 4-H Outdoor Cooking and Living Basic Skills,” Oregon State University Extension Service: https://ir.library.oregonstate.edu/concern/technical_reports/8p58pd06v

Omelet in a Bag

Write name on side of quart-size freezer bag

In a bag, combine two eggs with pre-cooked bacon, sausage, or ham.

Sprinkle with cheese

Secure bag tightly

Carefully lower into a kettle of boiling water and simmer for several minutes, or until the egg is set.

“4-H Camp Culinary Adventures: Grab and Go Project Bag,” 4th edition. University of Missouri Extension: https://4h.missouri.edu/doc/grab-go-camp-cooking-adventure.pdf.

Fruit Kabobs

Fruit cut into slices, such as banana slices, strawberry halves, and cubed melon (apples take too long)

Place fruit pieces on skewer

Brush with mix of honey and lemon juice

Cook over hot coals until warm and toasty

“Cooking Over Campfire Coals,” a recipe for grilled meat. Iowa State University: https://store.extension.iastate.edu/Product/Cooking-Over-Campfire-Coals-4-H-Youth-Development

Foil Packet Meal

Cut a two-foot piece of heavy duty foil in half to produce a square.

Put meat — such as a hamburger patty (precooked), hotdog pieces, sausage pieces, chicken cubes (precooked), or boneless fish — and various vegetables cut into tiny pieces — such as onions, potatoes, mushrooms, peppers, tomatoes, maize, and carrots — within the packet.

Season with taco, Cajun, lemon pepper, or garlic powder to taste.

Optional: Add ketchup, BBQ sauce, or salsa

Put opposite sides of foil together, fold over to securely seal, roll up opposite ends, and flatten package

Customize with a name, initials, or numbers in mustard (which will dry and brown for easy reading) or a black Sharpie.

Put on a bed of burning embers. 10–15 minutes until hot; watch for hot spots and burning

Cindy Brown, Oregon State University Extension, Sherman County, based on years of expertise and a variety of recipes

Cupcake in an Orange

Follow the box instructions to make a white, lemon, or yellow cake mix.

Cut the top third of a big navel orange on a cutting board, reserving the top.

Scoop out (and eat) the fruit in the center, leaving some on the edges and bottom for taste.

Fill the scooped-out orange with cake mix, then reinstall the top.

Cover tightly in double-thick heavy-duty foil and bake for 15-20 minutes, or until done.

Faith Durand’s “Campfire Dessert!” https://www.thekitchn.com/campfire-dessert-a-cake-baked-130853

Sherman County 4-H Camp, Moro, Oregon; Girl Scouts of Minnesota and Wisconsin River Valleys, Camp Singing Hills, Waterville, Minnesota; Camp John Marc, Dallas, Texas; and Camp Walden, Cheboygan, Michigan provided the photos on pages 46-47.

Related Questions

  • Why is outdoor cooking important?

    You’ll get more enjoyment out of your meals
    It is also beneficial to your health. Fat flows off the grilled meal, making it a healthier alternative. And once you’ve found a way to cook delicious meals at home, you’ll be less likely to order takeout or eat in restaurants, helping you save even more money.

  • Is an outdoor kitchen on a camper worth it?

    If you eat the majority of your meals outside your RV, an RV with an outdoor kitchen is worth the extra expense. It also avoids cooking odors inside your RV by cooking outside. During cooking, the chef might also enjoy the social side of being with the rest of the family or visitors.

  • Should you cook away from camp?

    Prepare meals and wash dishes (and hands) far enough away from your tent to avoid attracting animals near where you sleep.

  • What does outdoor kitchen mean on an RV?

    An outdoor RV kitchen provides an additional place to cook food, which can come in handy if you’re tailgating, cooking something with a distinct smell, or don’t want to heat up the inside of your RV. You may even cook outdoors while preparing food inside the RV.


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