Lessons from the field: How to prepare food

Dear Lake Nerds,

It has come to my attention that, for the first time, people other than my parents are reading these posts. Incredible! Today I would like to share some lessons learned from my (admittedly little) experience preparing food for field expeditions, as well as an example of a meal plan for a five-day expedition.

Recently I was in charge of preparing food for a six-person, five-day expedition to Barry Lake, in Southwestern Ontario. I was surprised by the amount of effort required to prepare the meal plan and shop, cook and serve the food. I would recommend dedicating at least 2- 4 hours to preparing the meal plan and shopping for food, depending on the size of the expedition.

Important considerations for meal planning include:

1. Dietary restrictions and/or medical considerations. This is very important! Make sure to ask your participants ahead of time. The Barry Lake expedition included two vegetarians, and one of the vegetarians was also lactose-intolerant. These restrictions did not hinder my meal planning since we had minimal access to refrigeration at our campsite, so we did not want to pack meats/cheeses anyway. Also, I am one of the vegetarians, so I knew what to pack (e.g., tofu dogs, frozen perogies, vegetarian chili, spaghetti). Other than the participant who was lactose-intolerant, no one had medical considerations related to food.

2. Access to refrigeration. On this expedition we were staying at a KOA Campground with very basic amenities. Although we did not have access to a refrigerator, we brought many coolers along with ice packs for storing food. The KOA Campground also sold ice. If you too decide to bring coolers, make sure that you bring enough for samples AND food. Also keep in mind that the ice packs melt after a few days, which can make a mess and potentially contaminate samples. Do not get the food and sample coolers mixed up.

3. Financial considerations. Be aware of the amount of money that the University/department/organization will provide for food expenses. Also note whether compensation is provided on a daily or per meal basis. I made this mistake. I thought that each person was allotted a certain amount of money per day, but it was really per meal. Rules regarding compensation may differ between university departments.

4. Cooking the food. Since we were staying at a KOA Campground, we did not have to worry about restrictions surrounding campfires. We used a handy portable stove to cook our food. In my field site in Utah, however, campfires may be restricted. Make sure to find this out ahead of time, or you will be eating raw spaghetti.

5. Storing the food properly. Everyone knows to lock your food in the car to avoid attracting animals. But when it is dark and raining, and you have just worked for 14 hours outside in the blazing heat, it is easy to forget one package of chocolate chip cookies in your tent. And then you might wake up at 4 a.m. to a gigantic skunk a few feet away from your face… Also, if you are washing dishes, dump the water away from your campground!

6.  Repetition. Nobody should be a picky eater in the field! Providing slightly different meals each day, however, is an easy way to boost the spirits of teammates. On our expedition, for example, when confronted with an abundance of hotdogs, we combined the hotdogs with chili and shredded cheese to make chili dogs. Be careful to buy canned foods with pull tabs unless you bring a can opener.

7. Lunches. Do not underestimate the importance of lunches. Make sure that lunches are quick to pack and easy to retrieve from your bag, particularly if backpacking is involved. Choose something that has some fat in it, like a peanut butter sandwich, to keep you full for longer periods of time. For some reason I became accustomed to eating peanut butter and cheese sandwiches while in the field… I must have been pretty hungry.

8. Water and drinks. Consider carefully whether you will have access to freshwater where you are travelling. Be careful to test your water purification equipment beforehand and pack extra filters if necessary. If you have bought a new water cooler, make sure to wash it out thoroughly before using it, or the water might taste like chemicals and the whole team will have to drink Powerade for the remainder of the trip. In other news, buy lots of Powerade.

Those are my tidbits of advice gleaned from very little experience. Without further ado, here is the meal plan and grocery list. Our actual food cost was $160.00 since most of the food I bought was on sale, and we decided not to buy the optional meat products.
Meal plan by itself


grocery list by itself

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