Camping (and Cooking) With Kids Will Change Your Life (and Theirs)
Cookbook author Marnie Hanel serves up the how and why of great family cookouts.
Marnie Hanel—star of the campfire cooking video we just made with our friends at Tillamook—picked a pretty cool theme for her cookbook series with coauthor Jen Robinson. After The Picnic, they weighed in on The Campout; they plan future books on beach cooking and skiing-related fare.
The veteran Portland journalist is also mom to three kids from four years (and three-quarters!) to nine-month-old Dash. (“He was almost born on the Fremont Bridge. The nurses said we needed to name him something speedy!”) At a strategic naptime, we chatted about one of our favorite subjects: cooking in the great outdoors. (The Little Sous Kitchen Academy kit “Campfire Cooking” is all about it, and available now.) We also borrowed some great recipes from the book—keep reading, below!
Picnics, beaches, skiing. Your books explore iconic moments. How did camping become the second installment?
This book came out of something that resonated about the picnic book—a nostalgia people really connected to. Being outside, being with family: these are just great moments that people want to savor.
We also wrote it, in part, out of a sense that entertaining at home has become intimidating in the Instagram age. I’m starting to hear people say things like, “Well, I don’t really know much about food.” Wait a minute—you eat food every day! You know more about food than you do about anything else! But I think people feel like they need to know what’s on-trend. I want to say that cooking is for everyone, and more about connection than about presentation.
That’s interesting, because camping—and camp cooking—can definitely seem intimidating.
You can do almost everything you can do at home. You have most of the same tools, you just have to think about them differently. You have an oven; it’s just a Dutch oven. You have a refrigerator; it’s just a cooler.
How would you sum up what makes camping with kids valuable?
There’s always a moment when you feel like it’s not going to be worth it. There’s always a moment when I feel like backing out. But you forget all about that when your kid sees a deer, or when they taste melted marshmallows for the first time.
I think that the big plusses for kids include realizing and learning that comfort doesn’t depend on routine. It’s great to try new things! We don’t need all the things we have—we can pare things down and still be happy.
What kind of camper are you?
Oh, car camper, definitely. That’s what this book is about. We dedicated the book to “survivalists with standards.” I’ve done backpacking, I’ve done an Outward Bound trip. I’ve planned for light-weight camping. That wasn’t the book we wanted to write. Our approach is not about being uncomfortable. It’s about getting out there and having fun.
Right now you’ve got a real little one: young Dash. Have you been camping with him?
We haven’t been out this year yet. But we did go last summer when I was eight months pregnant. The kids are still talking about it. The communal experience is an important part of it—there’s something just so nice about waking up with your whole family in the tent.
Okay, what do we need to know?
One thing to remember is that your goal is to create a positive experience—that’s the absolute most important thing. So whatever that looks like for your family, do that. If that means you camp in your backyard for your first outing, that can be a win.
Plan with an eye for what kids find comforting. For our family, we keep our bedtime routine pretty much the same wherever we go. We bring their lovies, we bring books to read, we bring a travel sound machine—everything we need to make that smooth and comfortable.
Don’t make the first meal too ambitious. There’s a lot of set-up, and kids are used to meals being made fairly quickly at home. It’s not a good idea to leave them hungry and waiting. I always try to start with a great, hardy snack—happy hour. It’s camping happy hour.
I also strongly advise bringing hardwood charcoal and a chimney to get your fire started. Get that going fast, then you can use firewood to build the bonfire for s’mores later.
Meals like the Little Sous fajita packets are great, because they can give kids a chance to have input on the meal planning and get involved in the prep. Our book relies on doing a lot of the prep in your home kitchen, so really you’re often just assembling at the campsite. You can involve your kids in the prep, which is a great thing to do because it really gets everyone keyed up and excited—anticipating the experience is a major part of the fun.
Pizzas are a good, easy win. The easy wins tend to be the same as at home: tacos, pizzas, burritos.
This is all great. What else?
Know when to fold—don’t stick to your plan if it means an unpleasant experience. We went to a cabin with my parents and there was some … miscommunication about the first meal. And I had planned something pretty elaborate. But I took a look at my hungry kids and said, you know what, breakfast for dinner. We made our pancakes right then, and my kids still talk about it!
But also keep in mind that the bad stuff is actually the good stuff. When things go wrong—it rains, the fire won’t start, a raccoon gets into the egg carton and redecorates your campsite—you get a chance to play out all the big life lessons we’re always on about, like how to be resilient and inventive and see the humor in the hiccups.
Spend two nights if you can. There’s so much packing and set-up. If you can make extra time work, it really helps it all feel more worthwhile.
Oh, and—you can take kids of any age camping except crawlers. The dirt management is just out of control.