When we go camping or out to the lake, our biggest obstacles are usually how to keep the food cold (cooler space and/fridge space) and how to pack enough food in one cooler to last the weekend. These obstacles are easy to overcome if you plan and prep before you go.
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Maximize cooler space
I mentioned in How to pack efficiently for your weekend getaways, one of my favorite food packing tips. Freeze everything you possibly can, so it can act as an ice pack and save valuable real estate in your cooler. Another way to maximize cooler space is to bring smaller containers of larger items like condiments. Do you really need a whole bottle of Ketchup for one weekend? Not likely. Using small mason jars or reusable containers will help you save space.
It’s easy to save space when you bring less stuff. My best tip for reducing the number of ingredients to pack, is to try to use them in more than one way. For example, you can use naan for Breakfast Pizza, then use it again for Greek Chicken Wraps for lunch or dinner. When planning your menu, start with one meal, then see what ingredients you can use in the next.
Prep before you pack
There are very few disadvantages to prepping before you pack. You will save on cooler space and you will save on cooking time when you’re camping. A general rule that I follow when packing a cooler is that anything that is frozen stays in the original packaging or in Ziploc bags (double up meat and liquids to avoid a mess in your cooler) and anything that is cut or pre-cooked goes in containers.
How to prep and pack meats
- Smoked meats (hot dogs, bacon, farmer sausage, breakfast sausage) should stay in their original packaging and frozen to function as ice packs.
- Whole cuts of meat (chicken breasts, steaks, fish, shrimp) should be portioned and sliced if necessary prior to cooking, then frozen in Ziploc bags to act as ice packs.
- Ground meats can be frozen in Ziploc bags uncooked, or take it a step further and cook it (for example for tacos, pasta sauce or meatballs) then freeze it once it has been cooked.
- Pre-made burger patties should be stored in containers so that they don’t get squished.
How to pack and prep fruits and vegetables
Fruits and vegetables are the number one space hogs of the cooler. I remember going on an Outdoor Ed. hiking trip with some grade 11 and 12 students and one student actually packed a whole watermelon in his backpack! Totally unnecessary.
- Large fruits like melons and pineapples have staying power if they’re cut in advance, so storing them in a container is sure to save you space and time.
- Berries tend to spoil quicker if washed and cut ahead of time, so keep those in their original containers if you can, and wash and eat as needed.
- Whole fruits like apples, oranges, peaches and bananas don’t need to take up valuable space in your cooler, so store them in a large storage bin with your non-perishables. This is a tip you’ve seen before in How to pack efficiently for your weekend getaways.
How to pack and prep non-perishables
As I just mentioned, it’s a good idea to store non-perishables in a large storage bin, to avoid squishing, crushing, and for easy access throughout the weekend. Also great if you need to store food in your car to keep the bears out. Storing in a bin makes packing a breeze, because when you get home with your groceries for your trip, you can pack them directly in your bin.
Sample meal plan
I’ve included a PDF sample two-day meal plan here, if you want a detailed look at how I plan. It includes ingredients required, pre-pack prep instructions, on-site prep instructions, and additional considerations.