Updated: Apr 12
There is NO reason to suffer through inadequate and unsatisfying camping meals.
In the last article I described why my food plan for camping trips now matches my favorite meals at home. Incorporating dehydrated and freeze-dried foods not only allows for meals that are comparable to home-cooking, but you can also literally eat the SAME meals you enjoy at home!
When camping, you can prepare almost anything you cook at home. Read on to learn how to ditch the prepackaged freeze-dried meals for food that is more nutritious, with larger servings, seasoned the way you like it, and with lower sodium and no added preservatives – ALL at a cost savings!
The “secret” is assembling complete dehydrated meals and building your stores of dehydrated and freeze-dried ingredients – fruit, vegetables, meat, eggs, cheese – you name it! Once you change your perspective, you will stop accepting anything less than your favorite home-cooked meals in the field. This includes backcountry canoe trips, backpacking in the mountains, or RV boondock camps.
More and more people are dehydrating food at home. With a countertop food dehydrator, you can preserve fruits, vegetables, herbs, and meat. You can also dry snacks, fruit leathers, jerky, soups, and pastes. All dehydrators include basic instructions and a few recipes. There are MANY great resources available online and in print.
The home dehydration process offers two broad options:
First, you can dehydrate individual food types. You then build a pantry of dried ingredients that can be substituted for fresh ingredients. As an example, instead of shopping for one red pepper, you measure out a quarter-cup of diced dried pepper and add it to the recipe. The advantage is a home pantry full of produce that was processed and dried at the peak of freshness. If the recipe calls for one-fourth pound of ground beef, diced chicken, or sausage, you don’t need to divide a package but only measure out the dried meat required. The added advantage is shelf-stable food that does not require refrigeration and takes up 75% less space in the pantry or in the freezer.
One of the books I rely on is The Ultimate Dehydrator Cookbook. This book includes details the How and Why of food dehydration. It provides specific instructions for every category of foods, herbs, snacks, and even flowers. There are recipes for each meal, soups, chili, desserts, and slow cooker recipes.
The Ultimate Dehydrator Cookbook also includes recipes where dehydrated vegetables are used as a side dish or combined with fresh meats. Using your pantry full of dried foods, you can quickly and economically prepare meals at home. You can then duplicate the recipe and pack the ingredients for meals on the road or in the woods. We call this the Individual Ingredient method. You simply substitute dried foods for fresh or frozen foods.
The second option is to dry and store complete meals. You can dehydrate leftovers to store for later. This is especially popular for singles and couples who find it difficult to enjoy large family-sized recipes. Or you can prepare a double recipe of your favorite meal, then dry half for a quick and easy meal weeks later. This Complete Meal method provides dehydrated, home-cooked alternatives to commercial prepackaged meals.
My favorite book for whole-meal dehydration is Backcountry Eats. While intended for campers, the complete, attractive meal recipes would be welcomed on any household table! (See my recent review of Backcountry Eats.)
Backcountry Eats discusses dehydrating individual ingredients, drying entire meals, and then outlines what the author has dubbed the “Hybrid Method”. In this process, the fully cooked “vegan” portion of each meal (vegetables, rice, noodles, etc.) is dehydrated separately, then packaged with dried meats (at your option) for a complete meal. The Hybrid Method has several advantages because meats and vegetables should be dehydrated at different temperatures for different amounts of time – often hours different. Dividing meats from the other foods results in optimally dried meals that rehydrate with improved taste and textures.
Backcountry Eats also provides full instruction on preparing each preserved meal. The author has sections on cookware, stoves, and food storage at the campsite. (See my recent review of Backcountry Eats.)
Beyond these options to create menus with dehydrated meals, my recipes also include dried and prepackaged foods commonly available at the grocery store and “dollar stores”. You don’t need to reinvent the wheel!
The range of instant potatoes, rice dishes, soup packets, Mac and Cheese, Hamburger Helper, biscuit mix and so on is remarkable and inexpensive. ALL can be vastly improved with the addition of rehydrated meats and vegetables, oils and spices. Even the lowly ramen noodles become a hearty meal when bulked up with chicken and vegetables. Canoe and kayak trippers routinely look forward to supplementing the menu with fresh fish. Any unused, dried meals add no penalty in weight or bulk to the packs. For more information, see the related article - CLICK HERE.
Home-cooked meals that are dehydrated are always the best since you eliminate both the excess salt and preservatives found in every prepackaged offering, plus the ability to tailor every meal to your exact tastes.
Prepackaged, home-cooked meals not only taste better, but they are much easier to prepare when you reach camp, tired and hungry. What’s easier than boiling water, then enjoying your favorite balanced meal? Don’t be fooled by the staged Instagram #vanlife photos with red wine in crystal glasses! Most camping meals are unimaginative, lacking in variety and nutrition. You can do better!
Even with this information on home food preservation and meal planning, I admit that I only use my dehydrator a few times per year. The best use for your dehydrator is to preserve home-grown produce and farmer’s market bargains at the peak of over-supply each Fall. I also experiment with extra lean, ground wild game jerky recipes in mid-Winter after a successful hunting season. The rest of the time I rely on freeze-dried foods that are more concentrated and more flavorful.
In Part 3 of this series, we will discuss the finer details of planning your favorite home-cooked meals with the goal of preserving them for camping. You will be encouraged to “think backwards” from the campsite to your home - or RV, van, or apartment - kitchen. In the process, you will be confronted with options for the ingredients you use in your recipes – BOTH at home and at camp.
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