Our ultimate hiking goal is not to push for the lightest possible pack. To us, it's more important to add a few extra food pounds and cut back our pack weight in other ways -- a super lightweight tent and sleeping bag, a Katadyn water filter rather than packing excess water, and almost no cooking equipment (more on this later).
It's important for kids to look forward to your meals -- usually because it means you've reached a milestone (lunch) or the end of your day's worth of hiking (dinner time!). So do the math: is it more important to save two pounds by taking only freeze-dried, prepackaged food, or is it more important for your kids to want to go on two more trips with you before it snows?
2. CONSIDER CLEANUP EASE BEFORE ALL ELSE. Kids hate to clean up on backpacking trips. Actually, adults hate to clean up on backpacking trips, too -- so do yourselves a favor and pack food that involves practically no cleanup at all.
Food that is ready-to-eat and only needs to be reheated is the best choice. We make our food at home (recipes will be posted in the coming weeks), and then vacuum seal it with the best little investment ever, linked below. Rather than open the package at your campsite, boil a #10 can of water and drop the still-sealed bag in until the contents are piping hot. Take it out, cut it open, serve it, use the already-hot water to rinse your plates and eating utensils, add the empty vacuum bag to your trail garbage, and that's it -- cleanup averted. No rinsing, no scrubbing, and no animal worries (depending on where you're hiking) due to bits of food still caked to the inside of your cooking pot.
The grossest night I EVER spent backpacking was when I was 16 and it was my turn to do the dinner dishes -- it was an 11-night trip, and we were already about 8 days in, so things were getting grungy anyway. But I got to deal with this raspberry cobbler mess that ruined me for prepackaged, just-add-water backpacking food for the next 31 years, no joke. Back then we used to bury our leftovers, and I can still remember the exact spot at Emigrant Lake in the California Sierra where 3 pounds of raspberry goo left the topsoil squishy and gelatinous, like a giant nasty earthbound jellyfish. Really, the sight, smell, and feel of it is completely emblazoned in my mind, even to this day. I missed all the evening antics while dealing with this raspberry disaster, which obviously left a huge impression on me. Not to give away the secret of how weird I am, but I actually showed my husband the exact spot where this took place when we packed to Emigrant a few years ago. So let this ridiculous story be a lesson to you: spend your evening watching the sunset or playing games with your kids instead of washing dishes and making nightmare memories.
If you cook this way, you can make several things in the same "pot," thus eliminating the need for additional cooking equipment (and giving you more room in your pack for things like compound butters and spice mixes instead). The only cooking utensils you need are a pair of lightweight tongs (for retrieving the hot vacuum bags from the boiling water) and a pot grabber (both linked below), and you're finished packing. Of course, you'll want at least one backup #10 can, so it's smart for each person to carry one -- they make great little mini-fridges in your pack, too (how to hike with perishables, coming soon!).
This does bring up something I don't want to dwell on here, but will in future posts -- the importance of kids taking part in absolutely every aspect of your trip. Don't ignore this No Dishes rule, thinking you'll do the dishes yourself anyway. They eat it, they clean it. So just as you should make the eating part awesome, so should you make the cleaning part.
3. INCLUDE YOUR KIDS IN THE MENU PLANNING PROCESS. Ownership of and excitement over anticipated meals can do wonders for kids, especially during that last (whiny) mile. We don't use food as a reward ("if you make it to that next rock, I'll give you a lemon drop!") but many folks do -- and that's ok. Instead, giving kids the opportunity ahead of time to talk you into their favorite meal gives them a reward they helped to create in the first place. Talk about empowerment.
Now, if their favorite meal is spaghetti, that's a no-brainer on the trail. But if their favorite meal is pepperoni pizza, you'll have to do some adjusting (although I'll share how to cook a great vegetarian backpacking pizza in a future post). Instead, you can bake, vacuum seal, and freeze individual calzones, which may be boiled and eaten safely the first night you're on the trail (if they include meat) or the second night (if they're vegetarian and dairy-free).
Regardless of what they want to eat on the trail, the important part is that they have a hand in the planning process. This can be as simple as a lively dinner table discussion a week before your trip, or as involved as having them do the grocery shopping for you (shameless plug: check out this post on my old blog on intense meal planning and grocery shopping with kids).
4. DON'T MAKE BREAKFAST AN AFTERTHOUGHT. Most people I know opt for instant oatmeal, dried fruit and coffee or tea as their default hiking and camping breakfast. When we go without the kids, I admit this is our usual habit, too. But there are so many other quick-let's-get-moving-and-pack-up-and-hit-the-trail breakfast options that don't include a super-pain-in-the-rear-to-clean oatmeal cup (see #2 above).
A great breakfast also gives kids incentive to get out of that warm sleeping bag (don't underestimate this) and start packing up their own gear (really don't underestimate this). Now is the time to splurge a bit on your food budget, and it doesn't hurt to keep some of these little goodies a secret until you surprise your kids with them on a chilly trail morning.
If you really need to do oatmeal, try lining your cup or bowl with foil -- that way, you can eat your oatmeal and then wrap up the foil, and your kids will have zero crusty oatmeal dishes to wash. Bring a vacuum sealed bag of chocolate chips, or -- if your kids are like mine -- fry up some bacon at home and add the crushed pieces to the chocolate, and you'll have instant Amazing Oatmeal.
Make silver dollar pancakes ahead of time, freeze them individually (so that in the next step they don't get squishy), seal them in a vacuum bag, and reheat them as described in #2 above. Or make cinnamon rolls -- the night before, cut some oranges in half and give the kids the orange guts for dessert; place a cinnamon roll inside, put the halves back together, wrap them in foil, and throw them into the outer coals of your evening campfire for about 30 minutes. Keep them wrapped til you eat them the next morning. Or, if you'd rather they be hot (and you don't mind getting up that early or building a morning fire, something we personally hate to do, but definitely an option -- especially if you're not planning to head out right away so you'll have time to be sure the fire is completely extinguished), do it in the morning.
Eggs Benedict is a fairly adult food (but see #5 below), but relatively easy to do on the trail if you have an egg carrier and don't mind the extra weight and space. Eggs are easily poached in simmering water (no frying pan needed!), and placed atop muffins that have been toasted (using your tongs) over the fire or stove flame, or steamed atop a chopstick-topped #10 can of water, the same can you use to poach your eggs. Add some pre-sealed and reheated trail-stable hollandaise (recipes and info on the chopstick steaming method to come, of course), top with basil salt, and you're finished.
Use your imagination: secretly pack colorful sprinkles to add to their hot chocolate; drizzle maple syrup (in a single meal, vacuum-sealed bag) over their pancakes or oatmeal or bagels; cut tortillas into star shapes before vacuum-sealing and use them in a deconstructed "breakfast burrito" bowl. The point is to keep your breakfast additions, no matter how minimal they might seem to you, a secret from the kids. You'll be glad you did.
5. KID FRIENDLY IS AN INSULT. I used to write for the 100 Percent List blog, which focused on the effort to get kids to eat meals that the majority of American society deems "adult" or "grownup" food. Kids who have never eaten frozen fish sticks or chicken McNuggets certainly don't miss them, despite the fact that the corporate, commercialized food industry tells us otherwise. "Kid-Friendly Food" usually means something they can eat with their fingers like a chimpanzee, something deep fried and then reheated, something bland, something you can drench in ketchup, something with tons of sugar added, and/or something that hides all possible containment of anything even remotely resembling a vegetable. We don't eat kid-friendly, either at home or on the trail.
Trail food is inherently unique, so there's no reason why you need to make special accommodations for kids who don't even realize that it doesn't come from a brightly colored box covered in cartoons. Backpacking is an adult-feeling adventure, so don't undermine the value of the experience for your kids by serving them different, "lesser" foods.
Of course, you should alter your meals somewhat -- leave the super-spiciness out and take along your own sriracha or whatever you choose, which can then be added just to the adult meals (however, my kids' tolerance for spicy foods exceeds my own at this point; maybe your kids are the same). If you already know that your child hates cooked carrots (I mean, who doesn't? Oh wait...that's just me...), then leave them at home and have everyone on the trip eat something different. But there's no reason, especially if you've followed the first 4 points above, for your kids to have different meals than the adults on the trail -- especially if that difference was dictated by some archaic notion about what kids "like" or "don't like."
6. MAKE MEALTIME SPECIAL. Suck it up and add a few ounces to your pack in the form of a little tablecloth designed to set your dining area apart from the rest of your campsite. Or check out these awesome little spoon-fork things, which made a huge splash on a recent backpacking trip my daughter took with her camp friends (linked below). Or have your kids choose your dining location, set out your tablecloth, and choose a centerpiece (a great opportunity to teach what can and can't be touched in the forest). Treat your trail meals as special occasions rather than a necessary evil. If you brought along special lighting (like these cool little solar powered blow-up lanterns, linked below), place them around your eating area. Plan your meals so that you can watch a sunset or watch the birds come out to feed, and let your kids know what you're doing. Since food is the one thing kids remember most about backpacking trips, use the opportunity to "spin" those memories into something fabulous.
But really, get those spoon/fork/knife thingies. They're awesome and your kids will love them.
| || |
| || |