Are you tired of eating chili, hot dogs or burgers day after day? Or are you struggling with what to make that’s nutritious and delicious? It’s very easy and fun to eat good while “on the trail.”
For over 50 years I’ve been cooking and having delicious meals on-the-trail. That trail may have been on water, hiking trails, two track dirt roads, gravel or pavement. But, the fact remains I, my family and/or friends with me always eat good.
The challenge is, how to cook and enjoy a nutritious and delicious meal without it being overly complex, or boring. Meals that won’t weigh your camper down with too many ingredients or require a huge refrigerator. A good meal, that adds to a great day of truck camper adventuring.
Nutrition is fuel for adventure
Overlanding and adventuring requires fuel not only for the truck but for us too. Fuel or energy for us means proteins, carbohydrates and fats—good fats. As such our meals must contain these important ingredients. While at the same time avoiding foods that contain salts, too much sugar and saturated fats.
Protein boosts metabolism and fat burning, reduces appetite and hunger, and helps repair injuries and promote muscle recovery. Carbohydrates aid digestion and help you feel full. Glucose carbs are fuel to support short term activity needs. Finally, fats—mono/poly unsaturated fats—supply calories, help absorb vitamins A, D, E and K and help in blood sugar control. They also help to keep you warm and reduce inflammation.
Simple ingredients + easy + tasty = FUN!
Our meals should be simple to make while on the trail and include simple ingredients. And, they need to be tasty! I am a bit of an “adventure gourmet.” That is, being somewhere unique, no crowds and having a meal that no one else will be eating. Once, on a trip in the desert southwest we camped next to a couple who, out of the blue, invited us over for supper. We enjoyed an exquisite meal of chicken burritos filled with a deep, dark, spicy and rich Mole sauce. Here we were eating a delicious meal surrounded by rocks and cacti. The meal brought us even closer together and we talked and laughed well into the evening. Oh, as a farewell gift they gave us the tub of Mole mix where we enjoyed several more delicious meals in beautiful places where no one else was. It’s now a pantry staple.
Truck Camper Pantry – foundation for tasty meals
One of the most challenging things to have while truck camping is a pantry. Most truck campers just don’t have the space for spices or for many ingredients. This is one of the biggest culprits to boring meals. Just open a can of chili, make a hot dog or burger, or cook up some Ramen. Sorry, I say “boring!” And, it’s not healthy because it’s highly processed and loaded with sugar, salt and unhealthy fats.
So, what should be in a camper pantry? Well, that depends on your tastes. Staples such as salt, pepper, dried onions and garlic powder are, for me, a must. For healthy fats I have Ghee, olive oil and sesame oil. Ghee is clarified butter. But the real advantages is that it tastes like butter and it’s shelf stable—it doesn’t require refrigeration. Olive oil is unsaturated, tastes good and is healthy for you. Sesame oil is high in antioxidants and adds great flavor to marinades, soups and salads.
I also tend to bring a few spices along that compliment the area I’m traveling to. Such as cumin, chili powder, Chipotle seasoning, dried oregano and cilantro when visiting the Southwest. I also like to bring some beef or chicken bullion cubes/powder. They’re great for adding flavor to meals—use sparingly, a little goes a long way.
I tend to avoid spice jars and prefer small ziplock baggies. Baggies don’t tip over, can’t get crushed and break. They’re easy to pack and take up very little space. Some stores sell spices and herbs in small ziplock bags. Or, you can take spices from home and re-package them.
A lot of folks add to their pantry home dried fruits and vegetables. Or at some grocery stores or food co-ops you can buy dried fruits and vegetables or even soup mixes. That’s great and it can really expand your pantry. Again, dried fruits and vegetables rehydrate easily, pack well, don’t require refrigeration and have a good shelf life.
Raw potatoes, onions, garlic, carrots, leeks and cabbage keep nicely in a cool, dark place. They can add flavor to a meal or even be a meal unto themselves. A very simple and delicious recipe is potato-leek soup. Simply sautée chopped leek in 2 tablespoons ghee. Then add 2 cups water 2 teaspoons of chicken broth powder along with diced potato. Cook until potato is soft and can be mashed. Season as you wish.
I tend to avoid dried beans, rice or pastas that require a lot of cooking or preparation. They take time, use too much fuel (propane, etc.), or water. Although they’re very shelf stable and easy to pack, you can reduce cooking time by placing beans in sealed container with water (at least double water to amount of beans) and let them soak up to 24 hours. Once, I put 1/2-cup pinto beans in a water bottle and let it bounce about in my motorcycle pannier for a day. I poured the beans and water into a pot, added a chopped up “Slim Jim” beef snack, added spices, and let simmer while I set up camp. It made a wonderful bean soup.
Build a menu plan
I am a varied eater—American, Latin, Asian, or European. Each cuisine has a flavor profile which helps you define your pantry. Once, on a two week motorcycle adventure I decided that I would do Asian cuisine. So ingredients like star anise, garlic, green onions, soy sauce, powdered coconut milk, peanuts, carrots, instant rice, rice noodles, dried peppers and sesame oil were in my pantry. I used pork jerky and canned chicken for my proteins. Planned meals or impromptu meals from leftovers were easy. Additionally the forecast was for hot weather, so I could have cold noodle or rice dishes which were very welcome.
Another early spring truck camping adventure was planned using American favorites like stews, soups and chowder. I knew there would be cold days where I needed something hot and filling. My pantry was set up with flour, beef broth, beef jerky, canned corn, thyme, garlic, dried onions, Montreal Steak seasoning, potatoes and carrots.
A trick learned from adventure motorcycling is to use pantry items to support multiple meals. Ingredients that do “double duty” save space and weight. Jerky is a great lunchtime protein. Carrots and celery make great filling snacks especially when dipped in peanut butter (a rich protein and healthy fat source). Powdered eggs mixed with leftover rice is a filling breakfast. Raisins and dried fruit are a quick energy source and can be added to many meals as a sweetner.
Menu plans should be prepared with a weather forecast in mind and for the adventure you are doing. I also consider where I’m traveling. Make use of local farm stands, farmers markets and local specialties. Once an adventure trip to southern Colorado and New Mexico yielded daily bounties of fresh vegetables and peppers and resulted in incredibly delicious meals. A trip to the Pacific Northwest will provide a rich seafood diet that often you can harvest yourself!
A common meal technique I use is by making “meal baggies.” That is, at home, where I have a large pantry, I prepare all the ingredients for a meal like beef stew. I put flour, beef broth powder, garlic powder, dried onions, spices all into a ziplock bag. I write the instructions on the bag. When I get to my destination all I need to do is add water, beef jerky, some chopped celery, carrots & potatoes and heat. In about 10-15 minutes I have a delicious beef stew. Easy-peasy!
I’ve gotten fancy with making meal baggies such as chicken and dumplings (with real dumplings), Arroz con Pollo (Latin for chicken and rice), corn chowder and more. All of them pretty much—heat and eat. Use your imagination to make your own favorites. Just make sure you experiment at home first—you don’t want a “flop” on the trail.
Meal baggies also make it easy to make bread—dumplings, English Muffins, tortilla’s, Bannock Bread. All these breads don’t require an oven just a frying pan. I’ve even made my own noodles/dumpling wrappers out of flour, salt and water. They are fun and easy to make and cook up fast. What!? Dumplings? Yes, once I treated my camping friends to Chinese Szechuan Dumplings at a beautiful hot springs location in Idaho. Not all that hard or complex to make but they were unique and delicious. Bet no one within 300 miles were eating Szechuan Dumplings.
By doing meal baggies you can skimp on your pantry. They’re lightweight and easy to pack. And, if kept in a cool, dry place can last a month or more. And, they’re great to have on hand in an emergency.
Reduce the need for refrigeration
Refrigeration takes energy—battery power or propane. By focusing on ingredients that don’t need refrigeration you can extend your boondocking time by using less battery or propane. Beef, pork or chicken jerky can easily be rehydrated when preparing a meal. Canned meats are great ingredients and can save you cooking time. I also try to make use of condiment packets such as mayonnaise, ketchup, mustard and other items. By using condiment packets not only do you reduce your need for refrigeration but you save on weight, they pack easier and reduce waste – no bottles/containers. When I need refrigeration, I can save more energy by not having to keep the refrigerator as cold—less cycles = energy saved.
Tip! Want to add flavor? When cooking your protein add a ketchup packet near the end of sautéing and fry for a minute. Then add a splash of your wine/ beer or soda pop to deglaze the pan/pot. Careful! Watch the heat, don’t burn it! You’ll be amazed at the extra flavor added to your meal. You can do the same with other condiment packets too.
If you want to pack a protein—ground beef, pork, and chicken, I suggest cooking it hard—very little water/juice and add salt, prior to leaving on your trip. Of course refrigerate it and consume it within a week. I tend to avoid chicken and cuts of beef/pork—even refrigerated their safe shelf life is just too short.
A word about Ramen noodles. Although convenient they just are not good for you. They are fried with saturated fats and loaded with salt. When I want noodles for a meal, I either make them fresh, or use dried rice noodles which rehydrate easily with a little warm water.
A Simple Noodle Recipe
1-2/3-cup flour, 1/2-cup water, 1/4-tablespoon of salt. Mix flour and salt. Add water and mix, by hand, until a smooth dough is formed. Cover the dough so it won’t dry out and let sit 30 minutes (not more than 1 hour). To make it easier you can divide the dough into pieces prior to rolling. Roll dough flat to 1/4 to 1/8-inch-thick (noodles will swell when cooking so don’t make them too thick). I use a smooth dowel to roll the dough out thin. Cut dough into thin strips. Don’t slice but press down to cut with sharp knife. Bring water to boil and add noodles. Once water starts boiling again, add 1/2-cup more cold water. Cook 1-2 minutes more.
Camper cooking can really add memories to your adventures. Hopefully, I’ve demonstrated that it’s not all that hard. I try to post some recipes on the Facebook page, Meals On The Trail. Do you have a favorite recipe you want to share? Please send it to email@example.com or post it at Meals On The Trail on Facebook. Bon Appétit and happy trails!
WOW. Your great article gave me “food for thought”. Aye. I know that was bad, but seriously, thank you for the great ideas!
Don, very good article about some of your goodies for the road. We’ve used the “baggies” for years. Your potato leek soup sounds good, I’m going to add that to my traveling menu.