As a boy growing up in Northern Arizona, I had one particular friend who I loved to go camping with because his Mom used to make the best camping food.
She called them “foil dinners” and I’ve grown to love them more and more as an adult.
They are simple, delicious, customizable, and all the prep work is done at home so you can have an amazing camp-fire meal with essentially no work, giving you more time to enjoy the great outdoors.
There are a few tricks to these things, though.
Cutting the Veggies -- Size Matters
When it comes to foil dinners (sometimes called hobo dinners or foil packets), how big you cut your meat and veggies matters. It also matters how much you put into one packet.
Everything is going to cook together, for the same amount of time, and some veggies cook faster than others.
The key to understand here is that larger pieces of anything take longer to cook. Also, it’s going to take the heat longer to reach the middle of large foil dinner with food for four people than a smaller foil dinner made for a single person.
Taking this into account, I leave my mushrooms and bell pepper in pretty large chunks because those tend to cook faster and lose a lot of water, shriveling down to almost nothing when overcooked.
I’ve also packed a large amount into one packet so had to let it cook for a long time.
The recipe here is for 3-4 people but can easily be halved for 1-2 people. If you choose to halve the recipe, keep in mind that it will cook a little faster so you can shave a few minutes off the cooking time for each side.
The strength of the coals will affect the cooking time as well so use your best judgement and always check that the meat is cooked thoroughly before eating. Check the middle of the largest piece of meat that is in the middle of all the food. If the large chunks in the middle are cooked, your foil dinner is ready to eat!
You can always throw the packets back on the coals if the meat isn’t thoroughly cooked.
A dinner like this calls for a lot of seasoning. Feel free to get creative and use what you like. Paprika, for example, would go great in this dinner but I didn’t use it here. Garlic powder, onion power, or chili powder are all options too. To simplify things, you could just use some kind of steak seasoning.
In this recipe I’ve kept it to the essentials -- salt, pepper, and Italian seasoning.
Personally, I like to season my veggies separate from the meat but feel free to mix it all together if you’d like.
Veggies need oil -- olive oil, and plenty of it. I’m not shy with this delicious nector of the fat gods. The oil also helps bring out the savory flavor of the italian seasoning that I also use generously.
I like to keep meat seasoning simple -- plenty of salt, preferably large ground sea salt, and pepper. I hold off on the pepper though if I’m cooking for my 2-year old because she thinks it’s “spicy”, otherwise I use a bunch of it.
Whatever you decide to use, I encourage you to use it pretty generously. All that flavor will be appreciated around the campfire.
A Word About Cooking
It may take you a try or two to get a feel for how hot the coals should be and how long to leave these packets on and that’s ok. It’s all part of the art of foil dinners.
Don’t beat yourself up if you overcook the veggies, as long as you don’t serve your fellow campers under-cooked meat that will make them sick (unless they ask for it rare).
But the trick to cooking foil dinners well is to get a well-established bed of coals going before you start cook.
That means starting a fire at least 30 minutes before you want to start cooking so you want to think ahead a little bit. If you’re already hungry and you haven’t even started the fire yet, it’s going to feel like the whole process takes a while.
So once you get a good bed of coals, you want to separate them from the wood that is still burning using a stick. This is where you will cook your foil dinners. You don’t want to just throw them in the middle of a raging fire -- you will have very little control over how much the foil dinners are cooking.
The Hand Test
You should not be able to hold your hand 1-inch above your bed of coals for more than a second. If you have to take your hand away almost immediately, you’re ready to cook. If you can hover your hand above the bed for a second or two and it feels hot but you can keep your hand there, you’ll need more coals from your fire.
If you have the option to bring charcoal briquettes, this is certainly an option but is by no means required. I was camping with our car in an area where I was unsure we could gather enough fire wood for a really good fire, so I used a combination of charcoal and wood coals. I was able to establish a really good bed of coals more quickly than with a fire alone and I was also still able to have a fire to sit around and stare at after a day of hiking 🙂
- 1 Lb Steak -- NY Strip or your favorite cut
- 1 Medium Sweet Potato
- 1 Yellow Onion
- 1 Green Bell Pepper
- 10 White Button Mushrooms
- 2 Tbsp Olive Oil
- Italian Seasoning, Salt, and Pepper to Taste
Before Camping -- Prep Work
- Prep your veggies -- rough chop the onion, mushrooms, and bell pepper and cut sweet potato into 3/4-inch squares. Combine together in large bowl.
- Season your veggies -- drizzle your veggies with olive oil, Italian seasoning, salt, and pepper then mix it well.
- Cut your meat in 1″ cubes.
- Season your meat with salt and pepper; massage to mix and work into the meat.
- Wrap it up -- lay out two 2′ sheets of aluminum foil perpendicular, making a cross. Put about half your veggies in the middle, followed by all the meat, and top with the remaining veggies. Fold each layer of aluminum foil over your food, engulfing it in a pocket of aluminum foil. Fold and pinch the sides as you go to make a seal. Add a third layer of aluminum foil if necessary. You want the inside to be air tight so all the food steams as the packet cooks.
While Camping -- Cooking
- Start a fire at least 1 hour before you plan on eating and establish a good bed of coals. If using charcoal briquettes, you can build your fire on top of the briquettes and wait for them to turn completely gray.
- Separate the fire from the coals -- using a long enough stick, move the coals away from the burning wood and arrange them in a bed slightly larger than your foil dinner. The coals should be hot enough where you cannot comfortably hold your hand 1″ above the coals for more than a second (see hand test above).
- Cook the foil packet 15 minutes on each side, making sure to cook each side equally. Remove the packet from the coals and let cool for 10 minutes before opening. Check the doneness of the meat and veggies and return to the coals if necessary. If your packet is not fully cooked by now, you may not be using enough coals. Tip -- Be VERY careful not to poke holes in the packet while you’re handling it. You don’t want to let juices or air get out and you don’t want ashes getting in!
- Serve warm and enjoy!