Cooking Outdoors with Kids: A Few Bites of Dirt Never Hurt (+ Recipes)
I wouldn't blame you if the thought of involving your kiddos in cooking outdoors made you want to curl up and take a nap. And you wouldn't be alone in feeling that way. Last summer when I told people that I was teaching 3-4 year-olds how to cook outside at summer camp on a camp stove, the overwhelming response I got was "Ummm...why?" or "Yikes...that sounds dangerous". I'm here to tell you that culinary adventures with little ones are, in fact, a uniquely rewarding and valuable way to spend a few hours outdoors. They impart an early love of food, bring the family together, broaden senses of taste and smell and the vocabulary surrounding them, and better yet, these activities help everyone involved appreciate the outdoors in an entirely new light.
Creating a meal in the natural elements provides an opportunity to help kids hone a slew of practical skills and develop some seriously useful qualities that aren’t available in the comforts of your home kitchen: resourcefulness, flexibility, creativity and problem-solving, to name a few. Even when you think you've planned to the very last teaspoon of oil, bowls of carefully grated cheese become a snack for the ants and spoonfuls of flour become one with the dirt.
Yes, this may be a tricky endeavor at first, I will give you that. The first time you ask your little one to take on just about any task in the camp kitchen will be a learning experience for everyone. They will likely surprise you with what they can do on their own, though. My advice to anyone who has yet to take on this unique outdoor venture is to keep it simple, at least to start. Make recipes that you are comfortable with yourself and have had success with in the past. Use foods that you know your children like so that they are bought-in to the activity and want to be involved. Once they begin to develop ownership – and they will! – over meals they have helped create, you can start to add in new ingredients that they may have been less than enthused about on previous occasions. In my experience, most kiddos are inherently curious about food and want to show off their chopping skills (even if they don’t have any yet) or expert mixing abilities. This innate enthusiasm is not only a joy to watch but, once everyone gets the hang of things, it can also take some of the stress out of meal planning and prep during an outdoor adventure.
Cooking outside taps into an entirely different part of the brain then learning a new summer sport, while still offering some positive risk taking. I would encourage you to choose your own adventure and give it a try. Whether you decide to compose a batch of skillet nachos, or bake a quick bread on the camp stove, your kiddos will likely appreciate that you are entrusting them with important culinary tasks, and I would venture that you might just be pleasantly surprised to see them rise to the challenge. It may even benefit your kid's health down the road! Bon appétit!
Simple Recipe Ideas:
2 Bean Chili
~1 tbsp oil
1 can pinto beans
1 can black beans
1 can corn
1 sweet potato
Red bell pepper
Green bell pepper
Handful cherry tomatoes
Salt and pepper
Cilantro for topping
Items You’ll Need:
Grater (if your cheese is in block form)
Knives and cutting board
- Chop the bell peppers and sweet potatoes into small pieces. If you’re feeling ambitious, chop the cherry tomatoes in half (Don’t be afraid to entrust your kiddo with chopping tasks, especially when it comes to softer foods like bell peppers. Keep a watchful eye, and show them techniques that keep their fingers safe, but also trust that they can do it! You can also buy plastic safety knives for kids too).
- Heat the oil in a pot on medium heat on your camp stove, toss in the peppers, and let them cook for about 2 minutes, stirring occasionally (if they know how to behave safely around the camp stove, your kiddo will be thrilled to help you stir).
- Add everything else into the pot with whatever combination of spices/flavorings your heart desires and cook until the sweet potatoes are soft (I recommend showing your young sous-chefs how to add seasonings by pinch-ful; dishes can very quickly become over-spiced if you’re dumping straight from the container). If your chili is looking a little too thick, go ahead and add some water until it is a consistency you like. Keep in mind you’re diluting your seasonings as you add water, so taste and adjust as needed.
- While everything is warming up, break out the cheese and have a grating party (After a quick demo, and a cautionary tip about not getting their fingertips, kids will be so happy to take over this task).
- Serve up the chili with cheese, avocado, cilantro (kids will love ripping up their cilantro leaves into little pieces), or any other topping that suits your fancy!
Ooey Gooey Bananas
One banana per dessert-eater
A few handfuls of chocolate chips
Nut/seed butter (peanut, almond, sunflower)
Other toppings: craisins, raisins, chocolate covered sunflower seeds, slivered almonds, coconut flakes…
Items You’ll Need:
Spoons and knives
Heat source (camp stove or a fire pit)
- Peel each banana and make one cut length-wise so there’s a long slit down the middle (If you enlist the help of your littler chefs with this step, use the ‘show, don’t tell method’ and do an example cut first)
- Wrap each banana loosely in tin foil, leaving it open so you can still access your banana
- Fill the slit in your banana with whatever toppings you’re into. It’s ok if things spill out - that’s why you made the tin foil house, so let your kiddos sprinkle/spoon on toppings to their heart’s content
- Complete the wrap so that your banana is fully enclosed. Place it on a heat-source (coals in the fire pit, or in a shallow pan over the camp stove) and, checking on it every 5 minutes or so, let everything melt into some chocolatey, gooey deliciousness.
*A Note About these recipes:
You might notice a few things about these recipes. There aren’t fixed quantities, for one thing. Vegetables are measured in handfuls, for another. That’s because, even more than cooking on an average occasion, camp cooking is all about making it work for you. If your family doesn’t like pinto beans, try kidney beans instead. If you’re not cilantro people, no problem. The best thing about these dishes is that you don’t have to worry about measuring items correctly, or printing out a recipe before you leave for your trip. You might even say, there’s almost no way to go wrong. Just make whatever concoction suits you best, embrace the unpredictability that is cooking in the outdoors, and enjoy!
For confidence-building summer activities for kids, check out Avid4 Adventure summer camps in California, Colorado and Oregon. Kids from pre k - 12th grade experience outdoor adventures like survival skills, mountain biking, rock climbing, kayaking, backpacking and more (even outdoor cooking!). Click the link below to learn more.