Hobo Dinners for the Slow Cooker, Oven, or Grill
Do you remember Girl Scout or Boy Scout tin foil dinners? If you’ve ever had one of these campfire meals, then you know “hobo packs” or foil packet meals will be a hit with your kids. Hamburger hobo dinners are a tried-and-true camping recipe, but you also can make healthy packet meals in your slow cooker or oven.
Why bother with dinner packets when you aren’t camping? Mostly because your younger kids will think it is fun when dinner is delivered like a little gift. Making dinner packets can be like make-your-own pizza night — let everyone pick and choose ingredients for their individual dinners.
Yep, hobo dinners fall under the heading of “random dinner idea”, but if you are trying to cook more at home, they can help use up leftover ingredients while inspiring creativity. Don’t know what to do with your latest CSA box delivery? Have an open jar of capers? Buy a few fish fillets and let everyone make their own one-dish dinner.
And extra packets are a cinch to store for another meal.
Parchment Paper vs. Foil
If you are concerned about the possible health risks associated with aluminum, you can substitute parchment paper (preferably unbleached) when cooking in the slow cooker or the oven (up to 420°). Parchment also has the added benefits of being nonstick and nonreactive with salt or acids.
Obviously, you should use heavy-duty foil if you plan to use a grill or campfire.
Cooking en papillote
Cooking in a parchment paper pouch is also called “cooking en papillote”. Fine Cooking has an excellent video tutorial showing the traditional technique of cutting and folding parchment paper. The paper clip at the end isn’t necessary, as you can just fold the tail underneath the packet. Now your “hobo meals” are fancy and French.
How to make Packet dinners
Packet dinners don’t really require a recipe (but some ideas are provided below). Instead take a creative, mix-and-match approach and simply use up whatever is in your pantry and fridge.
Recently we made salmon packets and each one was different — one used teriyaki and bok choy, one used creole seasoning and cabbage, and one used lemons, cherry tomatoes, and sliced sweet mini peppers. And all were topped with salt, pepper, and green onions.
Cooking in a packet keeps ingredients from drying out and is most often used with fish and vegetables, but other lean, thin-cut proteins also work.
About 3/4”-1” thick on the protein is your max.
Cut meat into smaller strips or cubes, or pound it out so it’s thinner.
You want your ingredients to finish cooking at the same time, so avoid mixing longer-cooking foods with slower-cooking foods. You can cut slower-cooking vegetables into smaller pieces or thin slices. If using a crock pot, be aware that some vegetables like baby spinach may cook much faster in comparison to the protein and wind up looking like dark green sludge.
Do not overfill the packets with too many ingredients. Leave space for steam to circulate.
If you are using foil, lightly oil the inside of the packet to prevent sticking.
Layer the ingredients:
Start with a veggie layer under the protein to help with even cooking. Ingredients to consider: Napa cabbage, Swiss chard, baby bok choy leaves, squash, zucchini, round orange slices, spiralized carrots, etc.
Then choose a protein: fish, chicken, shrimp, hamburger, sliced pork, etc.
Add other vegetables: olives, cherry tomatoes, green onions, ginger, red onion, green peas, shallots, mushrooms, herbs, bell peppers, green beans, asparagus, garlic, lemon zest, celery, broccolini, etc.
Remember the seasonings: salt, pepper, fresh herbs, parsley, or other spices
Add more flavor: a pat of butter, a drizzle of olive oil, splash of citrus juice, white wine, pesto, teriyaki or BBQ sauce to increase flavor and moisture. But be careful not to add too much liquid.
Fold the packets tightly to prevent steam from escaping. Alternatively, you can use two pieces of parchment or foil, one under the food and one on top, then crimp them together at the edges.
If your kids are involved in choosing their own ingredients, make sure to write each person’s name on their packet.
If you are nervous about opening the packets before knowing for sure that the protein is cooked through, then you can always poke a meat thermometer through the packet to know for certain.
Consider garnishing dinner with avocado, salsas, parmesan cheese, or a sauce.
Fish Packet Recipes
Choose 6-oz fish fillets: salmon, halibut, cod, tilapia. Remove the skin from salmon before using in packets. You can also use peeled, deveined shrimp.
Pick your vegetables and slice thinly when appropriate: red onions, cabbage, shallots, baby bok choy, scallions, carrots, leeks, mushrooms, zucchini, olives, cherry tomatoes, artichoke hearts, etc.
Add a bit of fat and/or liquid: butter, olive oil, lemon juice, white wine, teriyaki sauce, etc.
Add seasonings: salt and pepper, fresh herbs like dill, thyme, or parsley, and other seasonings
Hobo Dinner Recipe - Hamburger or Steak
Mix lean ground beef with some seasonings and form into patties. You can also throw slices of precooked sausage into the packets. Consider cubed steak in place of the hamburgers.
Choose your vegetables and slice when needed: garlic, potatoes, carrots, onions, bell peppers, corn, or beans
Add a pat of butter.
Add seasonings: salt & pepper, herbs, perhaps a dash of Worcestershire sauce
Chicken packet recipes
Use thin-cut chicken strips or pounded chicken breasts.
Choose your vegetables: garlic, shallots, scallions, sun-dried tomatoes, mushrooms, capers, squash, olives, cherry tomatoes, etc. Consider adding fruit like pineapple.
Add a bit of fat and/or liquid: butter, olive oil, pesto, wine, vinegar, etc.
Add seasonings: salt and pepper, fresh herbs, or other seasonings
Cook packets in the slow cooker, oven, or on the grill
Cooking times will vary based on the protein you use and how thick it is cut.
Grilling your hobo dinners or cooking the foil packets over a campfire will be quicker than other methods.
The oven can allow you to monitor the progress of the packets a bit more easily. Watch them puff up as the steam builds up.
If using a slow cooker, you may find that packets on the bottom layer cook faster than packets on the top, so switch them up if you are available to do so. Start with HIGH for 2 hours or LOW for 4 hours.
The next time you have a little-bit-of-this and a little-bit-of-that needing to be used up, reach for the parchment paper or foil to change things up.