In Sweden, where I’ve spent almost six months this year, the habit of eating outside is deeply entrenched in the cultural fabric and many Americans can probably also relate to the notion that food “just tastes better when you eat it outside.” When you go camping, cooking over a campfire or on a camp kitchen is par for the course. But have you ever heard of community-run outdoor cooking groups for families?
Eating outside is an effective way to subconsciously foster a connection with the natural world. Even when having a meal on a balcony in the middle of the city, you can’t help but notice nature through the air that you’re breathing, the wind that might blow your napkin away and – inevitably – the small fly that will at some point during the meal drown in your water glass.
Cooking and eating together outside can also be a way to build community, especially if you’re a stay-at-home parent suffering from cabin fever. When Mats Hellman of Tibro, Sweden, was on paternity leave with his third child, he came up with the idea of starting an outdoor cooking group for parents.
“I never thought cooking inside with a bunch of kids was very enjoyable,” says Mats, who today is a father of five children under the age of twelve. “Outside, the cooking becomes an experience in itself, instead of being a chore. When you’re outside the kids can run around and be wild and it’s okay. It’s a little more laid-back, and even though the food is simple it usually tastes really good.”
Mats’ idea was as simple as it was brilliant: The group would meet in the woods or one of the public parks around town and cook lunch together. Before each event he would post a map with a location and a recipe with a breakdown of the ingredients on a website, then anybody who wanted to join in could bring their share of the fixings and help put it all together. The city council contributed funds for a tripod, a large pot and reusable tableware. Around 11 a.m. one snowy Friday in January 2010, the first strollers started to roll in.
Every week, rain or shine, the parents gathered around the fire to cook, while the older kids played and the younger ones often napped in their strollers. Initially, none of the parents knew each other, but this soon changed. “Standing around the fire and adding the ingredients created a feeling of community,” Mats says.
The recipes ranged from the basic to the eclectic: fish soup, risotto, chicken casserole, spaghetti Bolognese, taco soup and more. The families soon noticed that cooking outside wasn’t all that complicated, and that pretty much anything that you can cook inside also can be cooked over an open fire. “The best part is that you don’t have to interrupt a day of outdoor play to go inside and cook. You can tell that you feel good after being outside the whole day,” Mats says.
Now that his paternal leave is over, Mats’ job as a project manager keeps him inside all day. But the family still often eats outside together. “When you eat outside it’s easier to stay outside all day, and you know that it’s good for you.”
Does cooking together outdoors sound like a fun idea to you? The tips below can help!
How to Start Your Own Outdoor Cooking Group
- Gauge the interest. See if you can find somebody to partner with and if not, decide whether you are willing to go it alone.
- Start a Facebook group (or, if you have a knack for web development, a website). An online forum is crucial, since it gives participants a way to communicate and find all the necessary information, such as recipes and locations.
- Work out the details. Will the group meet every week or just once a month? For a set number of times or an ongoing basis? At the same place every time or different places? Decide who will be responsible for breaking down the recipes into one-person servings, so that each family that joins in can calculate how much to bring of each ingredient.
- Check the rules. If you’re eyeing private land for your get-togethers, make sure you have permission from the landowner to use it. If you’re sticking with public spaces, check in advance if there are fire restrictions.
- Acquire materials. At a minimum you will need tableware (unless everybody brings their own) and a large pot; a Dutch oven combined with a tripod usually does the trick. A community foundation might be willing to contribute money toward the purchase.
- Spread the word. Put up fliers around the community, approach homeschooling groups, and include a message in the elementary school bulletin. Send a brief to the newspaper and a public service announcement to the local radio station; they are often willing to help.
- Do a test run. You will feel much more in control if the first time you’re meeting up isn’t also the first time you are starting a fire and using the equipment.
Check out my Pinterest board Vegetarian Camping Recipes for some culinary inspiration!