Groups With Special Dietary Needs Can Still Enjoy Camping Meals
Families, friends, girl scouts, boy scouts, and other groups can design meal plans for their camping trips that are healthy, delicious, and accommodate special diets.
Special food requirements may be due to allergies or other medical conditions, philosophical or religious convictions, or simply taste preferences.
Here you'll find ideas for planning healthy group camping meals, guidelines for accommodating dietary needs, and plenty of specific dishes that might be offered on your trip.
The meal examples are meant to illuminate and inspire but do not constitute an exhaustive list. Be creative!
There are many dishes that provide a lot of flexibility without a lot of extra effort. These work especially well for groups with multiple dietary needs or food preferences.
Wraps are a perfect example of an inherently flexible meal. Each member of the group selects the ingredients that meet their specific needs, while the group as a whole still shares a common meal.
The wrap itself can be made of wheat, corn, or other grain. Another option is to use lettuce leaves as the wrap; this is a great option for people who are gluten-free or who want to consume fewer carbohydrates, calories, or processed foods.
The protein might be hummus, refried beans, meat, tofu, seitan (wheat gluten), or other option. Add various chopped or sliced vegetables, as well as toppings such as salsa or guacamole.
For maximum flexibility, base camping menus on dishes that naturally lend themselves to ingredient options.
There are plenty of other camping-friendly dishes that offer similar levels of flexibility. Specific ideas are listed below.
Initial Checklist for Planning Camping Meals
- Are there any special dietary needs to consider in your group? Allergies? Diets informed by philosophical or religious conviction? Strong food dislikes? Get specific information, especially regarding food allergies, which could have serious medical consequences.
- What is the weather forecast? Hot? Cold? Sunny? Cloudy? Rainy? This might affect preferences for hot/cold meals, as well as the cooking method (e.g., campfires can be difficult when it’s raining).
- Is refrigeration available? Does the weather make food spoilage a pressing concern?
- How does the menu affect ingredient selection and preparation? Are your ingredients fresh, frozen, canned, precooked, or chopped? Do they need to be drained? Also, plan to bring the kitchen equipment required.
- Is any food preparation at home needed? Would doing some food prep at home make the trip a lot easier? Are there volunteers to do this? Food prep at home might include chopping veggies, fixing a marinade, making snack bars, mixing pancake batter or burger ingredients, etc. (Pancake batter, burger mix, and some other items can be frozen at home to stay fresh longer on the trip.)
- Everyone eats the same thing. The menu item encompasses any and all dietary restrictions present in the group.
- Everyone eats the same thing but with specific substitutions to address dietary needs (e.g., meat/vegan/gluten-free/nut-free options).
- Build-Your-Own (foil packs, wraps, tacos, sandwiches, etc.).
- Each person prepares their own meal. This is a good option if a particular dietary need truly cannot be accommodated, if the person prefers to prepare their own meal, or as an exercise in "a communal meal prepared separately."
Use standard, gluten-free, or vegan batter. If the batter is made ahead of time, it can be frozen at home to keep longer on the trip.
Eggs, Omelets, or Tofu Scramble
Include veggies on the side or as part of the omelet/scramble.
Provide vegan versions, if requested. Pre-cooked meats are faster to prepare and reduce the risk of foodborne illness.
Bagels or English Muffins
Top with cream cheese, peanut butter and jelly, hummus, or other spreads. Options for dietary restrictions include sunflower seed butter and vegan cream cheese.
Offer toppings such as fresh fruit, dried fruit, nuts, and seeds. Select gluten-free oatmeal if needed.
Serve with dairy or non-dairy milk. (No almond milk if there is a nut allergy; no soy milk if there is a soy allergy.) Provide cereal that is gluten-free, nut-free, vegan, etc., as requested.
A tapioca-style pudding made using chia seeds. It is high in fiber, protein, calcium, omega-3s, and antioxidants and can be made quickly. There are recipes featuring a variety of flavors (chocolate, banana, snickerdoodle, peanut butter, etc.). Top with fresh or dried fruit, granola, nuts, seeds, chocolate chips, etc. Also good as a snack or dessert.
Chia Pudding Recipes
- Basic Chia Pudding Recipe
This easy chia pudding is the perfect healthy breakfast or snack to meal prep. It's creamy, satisfying and loaded with protein, fiber and omega-3s.
- 32 Chia Seed Pudding Recipes: Fruit, Chocolate, Matcha, and More
No less than 32 crazy simple, good-for-you, chia seed pudding recipes for every possible dietary and flavor preference and pleasure. Picky eaters welcome.
- Camping Stove
- Backpacking Stove
- Campfire Cooking Coals (foil packs)
- Campfire Cooking Coals (pots, pans, or Dutch oven)
- Solar Cooker
- Foods that do not require cooking
There are many nut-free, gluten-free, vegan, low-carb, and other "analog" products available. But just because a substitute product exists doesn't mean it tastes good or is healthy. Someone who is vegan may or may not want a "fake meat" or vegan cheese product; similarly, gluten-free bread is tricky to make, and not all brands get it right.
Food Allergies and Other Restrictions
Be sure you know the details of any dietary restrictions present in your group. It is critical to know the level of sensitivity in order to prevent allergic reactions and medical emergencies.
The best sources for specific information are the affected individuals in your group. Ask them about their restrictions and how best to accommodate their needs.
Here are some examples of what dietary restrictions might entail:
- Nut and peanut allergies range from mild to life threatening. Some people simply can't eat nuts, while others have allergic reactions to airborne exposure. Check to see if anyone going on the camping trip requires foods with labels specifying that the products are made in nut-free facilities. Also, get clarity about which nuts (including peanuts) trigger the allergic reaction and whether they carry an epipen to treat allergic responses.
- Gluten allergies, including Celiac disease, can range from mild intestinal symptoms, itching, hives, difficulty breathing, etc. to severe intestinal distress. Clarify if a person just can't ingest wheat products or if they are highly sensitive and need to have completely gluten-free products, including such items as mustard, soy sauce, and vanilla. All of these foods are available in gluten-free varieties.
- Lactose intolerance can result in gastric distress.
- Vegan diets may be adhered to for health and/or ethical reasons. If a person in your group is vegan, no products from animals (any kind of meat, eggs, dairy, or honey) may touch the plant-based ingredients they will eat. Note: vegan options also encompass vegetarian, lactose-free, and egg-free requirements.)
- Kosher and halal dietary laws reflect religious obligations and should be given the same attention and care shown to food allergy restrictions.
- Special diets for diabetes, other medical conditions, or weight loss may also be present in your group.
- Miscellaneous food allergies affect a lot of people. Folks might be allergic to corn, soy, eggs, certain fruits and vegetables, or other foods.
- Serious food dislikes, while they don't pose a health risk, are also important to consider when creating group menus.
Lunch and Dinner Ideas
Peanut butter and jelly (use sunflower seed butter if there is a peanut allergy); meat or vegan meat; chicken, egg, or tofu salad; etc. Can be served on regular or gluten-free bread, in pita pockets or wraps, on lettuce leaves, etc.
Fresh salad or prepared "salad in a bag" with a choice of salad dressings on the side (provide vegan, gluten-free, or other specialty dressing as needed – or ask affected individuals to bring their own salad dressing); potato salad (can be served warm or cold); other interesting salads, such as cucumber/mint or strawberry/spinach.
Burgers or Hot Dogs
Choice of meat or vegan versions. Freeze at home in order to stay fresh longer in camp. Can be served without rolls or on gluten-free rolls as needed.
Wraps, Tacos, or Fajitas
Each person selects from offerings such as hummus, refried beans, tofu, tempeh, meat, lettuce, carrots, bell peppers, onions, tomatoes, cilantro, guacamole, salsa, etc. Wraps can be soft wheat, corn, or other grain, or use lettuce leaves instead. Hard corn taco shells are another option. Try Mexican, Indian, or barbecue versions.
Serve alone or as a side dish. There are lots of soup recipes – find one you like that meets everyone's dietary needs!
Add rice to make it more filling. There are lots of stew recipes – find one you like that meets everyone's dietary needs!
Cooked on campfire coals. "Standard" packs feature potatoes, carrots, onions, and ground beef, sprinkled with salt, pepper, and/or garlic powder. Jazz it up by selecting other veggies and different meats, offering a plant-based protein, topping with Italian or other dressing, creating "potato pizzas" or "samosas," including pre-cooked pasta; marinating ingredients ahead of time, etc. Enjoy as a side dish or main course.
Everyone gets veggies and rice or other grain, plus a choice of meat, tofu, seitan, and/or nuts for protein. Flavor and sauce options include soy sauce, peanut, ginger, coconut, sesame, Indian (garam masala or curry), Mexican, barbecue, etc.
Pasta with Sauce
Use rice or gluten-free pasta if there is a gluten allergy. (Gluten-free pasta may be made from rice, beans, or other ingredients.) Sauce may be marinara, chili, sweet-n-sour, alfredo/alfonso, sesame, etc. Include beans or meat/vegan meat for protein.
Can be prepared in a foil pack.
Foil Pack Recipes
- 21 Foil-Wrapped Camping Recipes
There are plenty of other recipes online, but this is a great start!
Don't Skimp on the Fruits and Veggies
- Fruits and vegetables should be specifically incorporated into the menu, not thrown in as an afterthought or ignored altogether.
- Some quick and easy raw options (can be served alone or with dip, peanut butter, etc.): baby carrots, sliced bell peppers, sliced cucumbers, celery, grapes, berries, apples, bananas, oranges, melon (can be cut and refrigerated at home).
- Integrate fruits and veggies into the main course (stir-fries, foil packs, wraps, tacos, soups, and stews); add freshly chopped herbs (basil, parsley, etc.) to dishes to boost both flavor and nutrition; serve berries, bananas, dried fruit, etc. with oatmeal or chia pudding.
- Serve on the side: salad (freshly made or from a bag, with a choice of dressings on the side), raw fruits/veggies, steamed veggies, veggies with hummus or other dip, applesauce, etc.
- Fruit can be offered as a dessert or snack (raw, cooked in foil packs, or prepared another way).
- Bring a container with a tight-fitting lid to collect and bring home food scraps for compost. (Cut fruit and veggie scraps into 1-2" pieces; do not compost meat, dairy, oil, or processed foods.)
Fluids and Hydration
Water provides the best overall hydration and it is best for campers to bring their own reusable water bottles to decrease costs and significantly reduce plastic waste. Please encourage water to be the beverage of choice on camping trips.
- Hot chocolate, tea, and/or coffee can be included in the menu and should definitely be available if the forecast calls for colder temperatures. Tea bags and coffee grounds can be brought home to compost!
- Make your own juice or infused water using lemons, oranges, mint, etc., adding sugar as needed (recipes can be found online).
Environmentally Friendly Camping
- Reducing Waste and Protecting the Environment on Camping Trips
Tips for individuals, families, and scouts and other groups to reduce their impact on the environment while on camping trips.
Make Camping Meal Planning Easier
It can be stressful to create a camping menu, especially if there are special dietary needs to be addressed in the group. Providing participants with ready-made lists of ideas can reduce anxiety and ensure that everyone's nutritional and other dietary needs are met.
In addition taking any food allergies into account, it's important to plan nutritionally sound meals so that participants maintain good health in the great outdoors. This means providing sufficient fruits and veggies, healthy proteins, and water, while limiting the amount of unhealthy fats, sugar, and salt.
It may be helpful to practice making the recipes ahead of time at home and to bring recipes along on the trip if needed.
- World Health Organization (WHO)
WHO recommendations for healthy diets.
Information from the U.S. government about choosing foods for good nutrition.
Solar ovens can be a fun science experiment or can be used to prepare significant portions of food on camping trips.
They can be homemade or purchased starting at about $50. They generally cook food at 150-300 F and can be used for soups, stews, and some dessert recipes. They are typically able to bake, boil, steam, and dehydrate food. Look online for solar oven cooking recipes.
Try a solar oven for some of the food prep, perhaps baking a batch of cookies, while making the bulk of the food on a camp stove or campfire. Use of solar ovens can be expanded if the group likes them.
How to Make Your Own Solar Oven
- Box Model
How to Make a Solar Oven: Many people rely on electricity or gas, but have you ever thought about using the power of the sun to cook? Here is a green, eco-friendly idea.
- Pizza Box Model
Capture solar energy (heat) from the sun in this collector pizza box oven and use it to cook food! Complete science project for ages nine and up!
- Nested Cardboard Box Model
How to make and use a solar oven. People around the world are using solar ovens to reduce reliance on firewood and coal. Even if you have electricity, a solar oven can be an effective, energy-saving way to cook your food.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2020 Valerie Bloom