Once upon a simpler time, camping food was its own, separate category. There was food you'd eat at home, food you'd eat in a restaurant, and food you'd eat in the woods: cheese and crackers, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, summer sausage, cans of soup, tuna, and Tang. You would no more consume that stuff at home than you would think to have seafood fettuccini or risotto around the fire.
Here's an example of how things have changed. On a recent campout with some annoyingly young and energetic fellow hikers, a certain, somewhat old-school travel and food writer busted out his favorite dinner: a box of Lipton noodles, a can of tuna, and some green beans. As he waited 10 minutes for the pasta to cook, drained off the hideous juices from the can, and chopped beans down to bite-size, the youngsters poured boiling water into a pouch and enjoyed a sip of whiskey from a plastic flask.
"What does that can weigh?" they asked, not trying to hide their contempt. "How much wasted space in that box? Are those beans organic?"
"Harrumph," said the writer.
A while later, as he chowed down on his noodles and contemplated cleaning the cook pot, he asked the pipsqueaks what they were having for dinner from their little pouches.
"Oh, curried lentil bisque," they said blithely. "Actually, we're already done with that. Now we're moving on to the Bavarian chocolate mousse." They were eating with titanium "sporks."
Folks, if you haven't eaten camping food lately, you haven't eaten camping food.
"Freeze-dried food has changed," REI product manager David Fieth recently told The Seattle Times. "It tastes better than it did years ago, and it's following food trends by offering healthier ingredients and more choices. I think people who haven't tried it for a while would be surprised by how good a lot of it has become."
Easy too. Here's just a sampling of what you can get these days by pouring boiling water into a pouch and/or tossing something in a skillet: tuna in red panang curry sauce or yellow curry, wild or Spanish rice, various risottos, focaccia, wild blueberry scones, garlic fry bread, organic griddle cakes, minestrone couscous, mandarin orange chicken, vegetable risotto with turkey, chicken primavera, chicken polynesian, organic chili mac, tiramisu, and Organic Mango Almond Delicacy Delight ... you get the idea.
There are also now about 257 varieties of trail mix, where once there was pretty much dried fruit and mixed nuts. And the bulk sections at groceries now bulge with options for making your own mix.
One thing about the new hiker food is that it isn't cheap. That curried lentil bisque is $6.95 for a five-ounce package. A quick survey shows prices like $7.95 for a 6.5-ounce package of organic chili mac, $5.95 for four ounces of Southwestern couscous, $6.95 for four ounces of organic sweet corn and black bean chowder, and $6.50 for four ounces of Organic Mango Almond Delicacy Delight.
Brands to look for: Richer, Mountain House, Alpine Aire, Backpacker's Pantry, and Mountain Gourmet. The last one is a line of all-organic, vegetarian food.
If you're just a convenience hound, hit an Army-Navy store for Meals Ready to Eat, or MRE's. Each one has several courses and, in some cases, a heating element.
Now, don't think you have to write off fresh food entirely. On your first day out, eat fresh eggs, greens, and meat. Other produce like broccoli, peaches, and pears can last a couple of days in your pack, and peppers, herbs, apples, carrots, citrus fruits, and potatoes can last several days. Just buy under-ripe products, freeze them ahead of time if you want to, and pack them in cook pots or other hard containers so they won't get squashed.
I know some backpackers who do a kind of potluck: They each carry one or two ingredients for, say, burritos: tortillas, dehydrated beans, cheese, Mexican rice, guacamole, salsa, black olives, sour cream, sautéed peppers and onions, and tortilla chips in a Tupperware container. There are even, yes, margaritas you can chill in a stream: see Margaritainabag.net.
A search on Amazon.com for "camping food" turned up 78 hits, so there's no shortage of information out there. Just take two pieces of advice: Whatever you plan on eating, try it at home before heading out on your trip. Even accounting for what happens to your taste buds after a few days out, if it's crappy or a hassle at home, it'll be crappy and a hassle in camp.
The other is, if you're taking tuna, don't take cans. You can get it in pouches now -- along with salmon and other fish, many of them smoked or seasoned -- and besides, cans are heavy, bulky, and might lead your companions to make fun of you.