What is it about family groups cooking together on campsites that fills me with mild dread? Couldn’t my next camping trip with extended family have the potential to be like a scene from an italian olive oil commercial? Generations gathered around long picnic tables, dining under the stars with platters laden with delicious treats, glasses chinking, candles twinkling, smiles and laughter for hours as the sun gently sets. The children giggling quietly in their seats and everyone having a marvellous time… or could it?
In reality, I know some of the children in our group have great anxiety over food. As parents, my sisters and I all have different approaches to how strict we are with our kids at mealtimes. Within our group of twelve we have meat lovers, vegetarians, diabetics, fussy children, sensory children, gluten free, wheat free, dairy free people, lactose-intolerant people … all these needs associated with food!
With five weeks to go emails have been flying with suggested menu plans for the entire weekend, debates have begun over who’s cooking what and when. What we shall all bring for breakfast?.. Do our children eat chicken or quorn?.. How about a big chilli?… Someone prefers a cooked breakfast, some else just wants cereal, someone else is gluten free… Aarrgh! I don’t even know what I am feeding my children tomorrow night, let alone in a month’s time in a field. I literally cannot think about it!
It has got me thinking about the shared experience of group camping though. Living in close confines with other people, with little privacy save the screen of canvas. And with shared cooking, losing control over food can bring on some anxiety. What if I don’t like it? What if my kids won’t eat it? What if I have to contribute to a kitty to buy food there isn’t enough of? What if we waste money buying far too much food that nobody eats? Can I grab a snack when I want one? Can I skip the big shared barbecue and sneakily feed my children frankfurters at 5pm? Am I actually just a control freak who can’t bear the idea of someone else being in charge of what I eat and when (yes!). Are there too many women in my family and we are ALL control freaks ? (quite possibly!)
The least stressful solution to these problems seems to me to simplify. To remove the stress around food by giving control back to each family, but bringing us together to eat it. So no meal plan for the whole weekend (who knows what the weather will do, where we will go, would we prefer a pub lunch on sunday? What time will we all arrive on friday eve?). No bringing sixteen cool boxes to keep piles of food cold/luke warm for three days. No kitty. No cooking single-handed for a large group and worrying while you do if it will be nice enough.
Definitely no cooking in advance. Who has time? A friend gave me a camping cookbook filled with delicious recipes, 90% of which were to be done at home BEFORE you even get to the campsite. Hats off to anyone who can be bothered with that. Who are these wonder women/men that can actually schedule a day just baking as well as packing up, working, parenting, living…? Isn't that just more chores?
Eat whatever you like without debate, we tried scallops and lardons - so quick, so delicious
Family camping food - the easy way
My approach for a minimalist family camping trip is always the same – just bring the first meal, and breakfast. So Friday night when we all arrive each family bring what they want to cook on the fire pits (one meat, one veggie) and whatever salads etc they want with it. Of course we can share things if we like. Each family brings its own breakfast. I bring cereal and get a pint of milk from the campsite shop every morning. If we feel inspired for a fry up we can buy bacon and eggs on site too. Its just for me and my two young children who need quick refuelling bright and early before they dash off to play, they won’t wait usually for breakfast to cook! We put our tables together and eat together if we can.
And then we take it meal by meal. A quick chat over breakfast can decide meals for the rest of the day. There are always shops nearby. The world will not end, there WILL be food.
Enjoying my fab saucepans on a campsite in France - merguez sausages and ravioli
So yes that vision of alfresco family dining is achievable, yes it can be even be delightful but it doesn’t need to be planned weeks in advance. Life is too short! It is worth the effort but in the least stressful, easiest way you can. One of my favourite campsites actually has an amazing outdoor cafe on site, so you don't even need to cook all. And once my friends just ordered a takeaway that was delivered to their tent. Do what you want, there are no rules! Just get out there.
Delicious menu at outdoor campsite cafe in Dorset
There may be cooking disasters, there will almost certainly be fractious children (feed them earlier if need be), the timings may not be quite perfect for everyone (eat crisps and drink gin!) but those moments of delight will come. Often when you least expect them.. when the toddlers spontaneously gather pine cones for the fire, when the halloumi cheese burger turn out be a hit with the fussy eater, when you find yourselves laughing at your childhood family camping meals (a bag of ‘Savoury Rice’). The point is will you have done it. In your frenetically busy chaotic lives you will have found time to stop for a few hours, reconnect with your friends and family, to sit still under the stars with nothing else to think about and just find a little peace and love.