We all know that camping doesn't have to be exotic or far away. For kids, the backyard, as long as there's a tent and flashlights, is plenty remote from their bedrooms -- and parents.
So, why not hold a Friday or Saturday night camping party for family and young friends?
Young campers bring sleeping bags but leave electronic games at home. Adults help them pitch tents, but will head inside before the evening is over. (Except whoever draws the short straw and has to keep keep peace and quiet at 2 a.m.)
Build a fire with wood or charcoal in a pit, light some candles or pump up a Coleman lantern or two. Make sure your neighbors know ahead of time about this get-together.
Part of the fun should be the idea of cooking the food -- or most of it -- on an open fire. Have some long sticks or twigs on hand that have the ends shaved off a bit -- a do-ahead job for someone good with a pocket knife. (See tips below.) Let the campers roast Spider Dogs and kebobs over the fire. Adult supervision required.
Make sure there's a comfort food dish for picky eaters, like the Mix-In-Mac-and-Cheese.
After dinner, let the kids run around and burn off some excessive energy and calories before dessert. If you've got enough room in the yard, they can play Lightening Bug Tag (see instructions).
Later, bring out the makings for dessert. Just be sure you've prepared ahead of time for dough on sticks ending up being fed to the fire instead of your outdoor guests. Make extra biscuit batter for the shortcake and have an extra roll or two of refrigerator dough on hand for the eclairs. These are fun desserts for outside because they can be messy, so if anything winds up on the ground it's not big deal.
More supervision needed, plus paper towels.
That said, at some point, the adults get to go sit on the deck away from the tents or head inside while the youngsters get prepared for a night outdoors. Get everybody to slow down by gathering them in a circle and playing Mrs. Mumbles (see instructions here).
Adults can check out the grounds for obstacles, make sure the fire is out and that sticks are put away. Have extra batteries on hand for the flashlights.
If you've got a teen who's willing to help out, and have some fun matching tent mates or tucking them in, young children need that kind of attention until they are settled in.
A word about cooking with fire: Use green (freshly cut) sticks for roasting. Dried-out sticks can catch fire, and you might lose your food to the flames. Remove the bark from one end of a stick and whittle it to a point for skewering your kabob fixings and hot dogs. Use hardwood in your fire pit for good roasting coals.
These recipes and game ideas are from FamilyFun magazine.
Spider Dogs -- You don't need a magic wand to turn a dog into a spider. A roasting stick will do. Simply slice each end of a hot dog to form four strips, leaving about a 2-inch section in the middle uncut. Put the hot dog on a stick or long skewer and roast over a fire pit or charcoal grill until the legs curl.
Customized Kabobs -- Let your guests get creative with combinations by offering an array of kabob ingredients that all grill nicely together. Each child can pick the ingredients they like best.
Try sliced baguette, precooked chicken sausage, kielbasa, and prosciutto. For veggies, add sliced zucchini and red pepper, cubed apple and pineapple and cherry tomatoes. Mozzarella balls and cubes of Halloumi (a Mediterranean cheese with a high melting point) are especially good for grilling.
Also set out seasonings (salt, pepper, olive oil, vinegar) to brush onto the kabobs, and sticks or skewers for roasting.
Mix-In Mac-and-Cheese -- Whether you like it plain or fancy, macaroni and cheese just tastes better when you get to prepare it yourself and cook it to bubbly perfection. Before the party, mix a pound of cooked macaroni with a little milk and melted butter in a large bowl. Set out mix-ins for the pasta. Try chopped broccoli, diced red pepper, sliced mushrooms,cooked and crumbled bacon, several varieties of shredded cheese.
At the party, guests can spoon macaroni and their mix-in choices into a small foil pan, cover it with foil and place it on the grate or coals. Be sure to use long tongs to remove the heated pans.
Grill Your Dessert
Shortcake on a Stick -- S'mores aren't the only dessert you can make over a fire. Here, sweet, juicy berries perfectly complement toasted-on-a-stick cake.
To make the shortcake dough, mix 2 cups baking mix (such as Bisquick), 4 tablespoons melted butter and 1/4 cup heavy cream in a large bowl. Roll the dough into walnut-size balls. (If you're doing this well before the party, refrigerate them until dessert time.)
At the cookout, flatten and shape a dough ball onto one end of a stick so that it's about 1/4-inch thick, then roast it over a fire pit or charcoal grill until it's golden and cooked through. Crumble the shortcake into a bowl and top with strawberries, sugar and whipped cream.
Campfire Eclairs -- The classic eclair is undeniably delicious, but this roasted version adds a measure of fun.
Wrap a piece of refrigerated breadstick dough around the thick end of a stick. Roast the dough over the fire or coals until it's golden and cooked through.
Let the bread coil cool, slide it off the stick and fill it with vanilla pudding or whipped cream. (Place the filling in a plastic bag and snip a corner for easier piping.) Frost the eclair with chocolate icing.
If the coil is too small to fill, simply put it in a bowl and top it with the pudding and then the frosting -- it's just as tasty that way.
S'more Sandwiches -- No need to separately roast the components of this kid-favorite treat. Place mini chocolate chips and mini marshmallows in a flour tortilla, wrap it burrito-style, cover it in aluminum foil, then roast it on the coals or grate until the filling is melted. Open the package carefully and let the filling cool a bit before nibbling.
Lightning Bug Tag -- Players try to catch an oversize firefly in this nighttime version of tag. In a large open area free of hazards, one player (the lightning bug) takes a flashlight and moves away from the other players, silently counting to 60 as she does.
When she reaches 60, she flashes the light once. The rest of the players then count out loud to 100 before they set off in pursuit of the lightning bug, who tries to avoid capture by hiding and changing directions. The bug must continually count to 60 and flash her light each time.
The first person to tag the lightning bug becomes the bug in the next round.
Mrs. Mumbles -- The goal of this classic game is to never show your teeth.
Sitting in a circle, the first player turns to his neighbor and asks, while keeping his lips over his teeth: "Is Mrs. Mumbles home?" Also hiding her teeth, the neighbor responds: "I don't know. Let me ask my neighbor." She then asks the next person: "Is Mrs. Mumbles home?" and so on.
If anyone shows her teeth at any time in the game, she's out. The players who are out can try to make the remaining players laugh -- without touching them -- so that they show their teeth, too.