I’m gonna be the curmudgeon here: I’ve been going on 3 day to 2 week wilderness trips since I was 7 years old which gives me 65 years of experience. Started with my family when my sis and I were little and we car camped with an old canvas wall tent, then starting with girl scouts in 6th grade did overnight canoe camping. Through my 20’s into my 40’s I backpacked or canoe camped at least one weekend a month year round as well as one to two week long backcountry trips several times a year, including guiding others professionally (adults and kids’ groups) and as part of a wilderness adventure club. In the 30 years since I have regularly done backcountry camping and adapted my cooking and food prep to that kind of travel.
I have NEVER used any sort of cooler or ice nor bothered bringing frozen food or fresh meat on a trip – not only is that asking for extra hassle and potential spoilage but the leftovers and mess from raw meat prep create clean up problems at a camp site that attract wildlife, from insects to apex predators (like bears), though skunks, mice and raccoons tend to be the most common and annoying. But despite this, I have always eaten enjoyable meals and nobody else on my trips ever suffered.
If you must have meat, bring pre-cooked, which will resist spoilage better. Trader Joe’s sells prepackaged grilled chicken servings each individually sealed in a plastic cell and other precooked stuff that doesn’t need freezing. There are plenty of great one dish casseroles you can make from scratch as well with packaged shelf-stable ingredients
In my opinion, part of the specialness of wilderness adventures is that the “cuisine” is different from what you get at home – no less tasty. In fact, as kids, we looked forward to the different camping foods Dad (an experienced outdoorsman and World War 2 vet who spend many months on the advance lines of combat in Europe) prepped. We loved canned corned beef hash to which he would add canned crispy fried onions. Even back in the 50’s he would manage to find foods that worked without having to worry about keeping them cool – we used to be able to buy tinned bacon (an entire pound rolled up and in a can that opened like sardines.) Not to mention sardines, which we turned our noses up at home but ate with gusto on a campfire toasted bagel with a big slab of sliced tomato when we were camping.
These days the stores are full of great packable foods that don’t need any special storage. I especially like the olive oil and lemon marinated seafoods (sardines, tuna, mussels, salmon) which make great additions to noodle or dried or fresh potato mix stove top casseroles or stove top pizzas. Vegetables, fruits and most hard or wax wrapped softer cheeses, butter and even eggs do NOT need refrigeration for 3 or 4 days. Pick greens like chopped kale, asparagus, green beans, shallots and corn on the cob that dont’ readily spoil. Summer sausage and pepperoni can be diced and mixed into eggs or casseroles or even garnish salads. Our dad also added a another feature to our wilderness trips because he was an avid fan of the “Stalking the Wild Asparagus” books that taught what wild foods could be collected (you do have to make sure you are not in an area where that is prohibited). We often got to prep salads that included wild greens and wild flowers, or sprinkle berries on our morning pancakes that we helped him find and harvest. And of course there was the chance to cook weenies and marshmallows over the campfire or Coleman stove – all part of the fun of camping.
So I propose altering your routine and making a change in the menu to make the trip easier and possibly more fun and unique. Kids are more adaptable than most parents realize and novelty is often more enjoyable for them than parents making strenuous efforts to keep things “normal”. Kids learn best when they are challenged with something out of their usual routine – “spoiling” them by trying to keep things familiar doesn’t stimulate growth.
It’s also been my observation that simpler foods that might seem dull at home, can taste like ambrosia after a long day out in the wilds. On one winter backpacking trip years ago 4 of us decided to pool what foods we had brought to make a quick one pot meal once we had made camp. We had a packaged egg noodle mix with a cheese powder packet, a can of SPAM, a package of freeze-dried green beans and some bacon bits. We cooked it up in a huge pot and everyone raved about how delicious it was. So a few weeks later I decided to make that “fabulous dish” at home and gathered the same ingredients and cooked it. You have probably already guessed that it was awful. Atmosphere and genuine hunger after a long day outdoors are major contributors to whether a dish is appetizing.
I have done 3 or 4 day trips and been perfectly happy and well-nourished with nothing but peanut butter and jam sandwiches, apples, oranges, cans of V8 (drunk without refrigeration – drinks don’t have to be chilled to be palatable), raw carrots, room temp water, crackers with hard cheese and summer sausage, granola bars and snack mixes of nuts, dried fruit (and some M &Ms). Why add the stress of complicated food storage and prep to your trips when it isn’t necessary? And most kids are happy with simple foods and all day “grazing” when they are out on an all day trip. They won’t starve and all of you can relax and not obsess about the larder and kitchen duty.
I have also been stuck camping with people who created a huge burden for themselves by hauling all sorts of high-prep need fancy ingredients and seen them waste a lot of time and frustration making a “gourmet” meal and then having to clean up after it and fret about continued storage safety.
Fresh air and sunshine and just being out in Nature creates a hearty appetite that doesn’t need to be prompted by fancy food. You can still eat well by finding creative and simpler alternatives to dragging your home kitchen with you. And who know, you might establish a new family tradition like ours did where the kids looks forward to the novelty of “camp food” as part of the fun of the trips.
Doesn’t address your cooler choice query, but maybe offers a different perspective?