Cook This…Get Burned: A Guide To Food Prep In the Desert

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(Burners, skip to paragraph five.)

Those of you who have read this blog before, I need to share something with you. I’m what’s called a ‘Burner.’

Every year, I head to the high desert to a festival called Burning Man. This post is not going to explain what it is, so you’ll have to do your own research if curious: 

While there, I’ve done my fair share of cooking in seriously extreme conditions. The days often see 100+ degree temperatures, with nights being chilly down to the bone at 40 degrees. Considering that the closest major city is 2.5 hours away, planning is essential. So I’m sharing how I do it. And if you’re a camper/hiker/etc., this is a good guide too.

Now that I’ve shared with you non-Burners what today’s discussion is about, I’ll now turn to my fellow brethren, and speak in another language altogether about how to eat well at Burning Man.

I know some of you really don’t care about your meals out on the Playa. Some would rather put their focus on other things. I’ve also seen that many that simply don’t know how to cook, and would rather not add to their workload. And then there are the folks who believe a gifting society will take care of them. Whatever your position, I can respect it (except the freeloaders), and I am here to help with some tips, ideas and flat out just telling you what to do.

Make a menu first, then a shopping list.
You’ll spend less and waste less. But before you do that, consider the next point. Print out that menu and have it in plain eyesight. This will keep you aware of when you need to start defrosting food for Thursday’s meal on Wednesday.

You will eat far less than you think.
Veterans, you already know the drill. You head out to check out the art. You wake up and nibble on a small bit of food. You then hop on an art car in the late morning and the next thing you know, you’re cocktailing with new friends and you can’t remember where the sun went. You may or may not have an appetite while you head back to camp, but that day is done. And the breakfast, lunch and dinner you planned will have to be eaten tomorrow the next day. Or not. The point is, you can count on eating far less than your standard meals. Whether it’s something about the heat suppressing your appetite, just plan for consuming less. I usually go for a light breakfast and maybe dinner. Snacks that have shelf life go a long ways. Read: nuts, trail mix, chips, salty meat (salami, dried sausage, or jerky), and meal replacement bars that don’t have chocolate. That stuff will melt right in your hand, or worse: on your favorite outfit.

The other thing that sucks: bringing food home from the Playa. It is not the best use of your time/energy/money.

The best kind of snacks are…
NOT bananas, berries, stone fruits (plums, nectarines, peaches, etc.). These are things that don’t last long in your home kitchen, so why would they last on an dried ancient lake bed? The same goes for tomatoes and melons. Melon rind will fill up your garbage, plus they get smelly and slimy.

Eating vegan is the way to go.
Meat goes bad very quickly. Unless it’s cured and/or stored properly, it will go bad and stink up your tent worse than you imagine. But you can’t just throw it away. Remember, you’ve got to take out what you bring in, and that stanky, rotten meat in your car might cause you to lose your mind on the long drive home. I am a meat eater, but a meal like  vegetable curry and rice can be made to taste delicious, without the worry of spoiling. Our illustrious Sarah Firefly made one last year that was an absolute hit. Vegetarian chili is another way to go. Which brings me to my next sunny point.

If your next thought was, “F!#$ off Mona, I’m not eatin’ any of that save the planet hippie food! Give me my meat!”
Believe me, I love it too. But eating meat usually involves the one thing needed for it to cook properly: fat. Whether the fat comes from your chicken, beef, bacon or by adding vegetable oil – the runoff from that fat can be an issue at a no-trace event. Let me give you an example. Check this out: (pic) I fried up pounds of bacon last year. Enough for about 50 folks. Everyone wanted at least two pieces, which resulted in at least ten cups of grease from that bacon. So if you’re going that route, get the kind that is pre-cooked. Like this: bacon

Secondary note: cook and eat that bacon when it’s the cool morning hours. There is nothing less sexy and fun about cooking a bunch of bacon in high heat.

Rethink that pancake breakfast.
Pancakes sound like the best thing on the playa, right? A pancake breakfast, sausage, bacon. But it requires power and or a stove. Pancake batter is great. Cleaning it up, not so great. Oh yeah, and syrup on the playa? Messy.

Garbage: Handle your own trash. Don’t dump it in the kitchen.

If you’re coming early for setup, bring foods that don’t require heating up a stove.

More importantly, you should be able to find that food quickly, along with a means to prepare it. With that in mind, let’s talk about labeling your food storage containers.

Over-labeling is underrated.
Knowing where all your foods are located is what you want. When you’re man-killing hungry, do you really want to tear apart your kitchen to find your desired item? Picture you putting all of these things back after your ransack. A simple piece of light colored masking tape and a Sharpie is all you need for this extra step of organization.

Garbage: Handle your own trash. Don’t dump it in the kitchen.
FOR REALS people. The camp organizers have enough to handle because you don’t want to deal with your own garbage. Please, pack out your mess. 

Coolers are your friend, but they’re not deep freezers.
Dry ice works VERY well to keep things cold, even though it is pricey. But sometimes, no matter what you do, things melt. It’s hot from 10am until 5pm, and depending where you put your food can cause massive meltdowns. Last year, a designated campmate and myself drained ice so that our food didn’t float around in our coolers. Plan for this, so estimate that you’ll need to dump/drain water too. By the way, this job isn’t so bad when it’s hot out. Getting your hands on icy cold water at 2pm can be reeeefreshing.

You may want to share a meal with others, but coordinate with them first.
Before you have the brilliant idea to host a peanut butter & jelly sandwich day (I mean this, it is fab idea), you might want to let everyone know first. They may not be into it. Or maybe someone else had that idea. Don’t be that guy/girl who brings home 12 loaves of bread, jam and PB.

If there are people coming later in the week, ask them to bring in reinforcements.

Last year, Kevin Bourque and Sarah Firefly brought in fresh yogurt, berries and salad fixings on a Thursday, which we prepared that same day. It was a fresh, yummy oasis on the desert floor, and a massive success. We planned this well in advance.

Ziplock bags (of various size) are essential.
And don’t just use one, double it up. If you have a vacuum sealer, use it! Package your meals so that everything you need is in that one bag. It’s easiest when you double the bags before you fill them with food. If you don’t like either, the next one talks about how to plan for individual meals with a really cute to-go container.

If you didn’t opt-in to the meal plan and plan on prepping individually for yourself – here’s one way to do it.
Prep your meals at home, place them into plastic to-go containers (check the link in the previous paragraph) which are inexpensive enough from Amazon, and plan meticulously for your own tastebuds. I have one friend who had no leftovers and ate whole meals. He ate snacks along with the following great, healthy menu:

  • Monday: marinated kale, barbequed tofu, multi-grain rice.
  • Tuesday: marinated asparagus, curry tempeh, multi-grain rice.
  • Wednesday: vegetarian burrito with black beans, corn, whole grain rice, salsa and avocado
  • Thursday: vegetarian chili with corn chips
  • Friday: roasted sweet potatoes, black beans and whole grain rice
  • Saturday: vegetarian chili with corn chips
  • Sunday: leftovers

Breakfasts were typically instant oatmeal, and he snacked on nuts and dried fruits all week.

Recipe for kale salad, which will last for a week if you keep in a container and chilled.

For the marinade:

  • 1/2 cup olive oil
  • 1/3 cup fresh orange juice
  • 2 1/2 tablespoons Soy Sauce or my favorite: Braggs
  • 2 1/2 tablespoons rice vinegar
  • 1/2 tablespoon sesame oil
  • 1/2 jalapeño pepper, chopped
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt

For the salad:

  • 1 cup of crimini (baby portobello) mushrooms, sliced
  • 5 healthy handfuls of shredded kale
  • 1 cup shredded carrots

Put all the marinade in a blender for 30 seconds. Combine all other ingredients in a gallon plastic bag. Pour marinade in. Put in fridge and let marinate for at least overnight before you start eating it.


I’m talking about things like figs, dates, apples, prunes, raisins dried apricots (without pits). Not only do they fill you up (don’t go crazy though), but they can determine whether or not you’ll have a BM at BM.

Nut Butters
A single serving of peanut or almond butter on a spoon gets you full. This is the meal that works when you just realized that you’ve got to be across the Playa in 15 minutes, and need to haul ass.

Nonstick pans = Less clean up.

Bad Tummy
If your stomach is having some issues, bring mint tea. Tums and Gas-X should be in your bag too. If you’re really jacked up stomach-wise, white rice can help calm things down. If you bring rice, bring frozen or pre-made packets that can be warmed up in hot water.

On that same tip, god forbid that you get food poisoning. But if you do, a tablespoon of apple cider vinegar, warm water and a teaspoon of honey will help turn your system from sour and nasty for a week, to better in a few hours.

Garbage: Handle your own trash. Don’t dump it in the kitchen. Or leave it on the Playa before you make the exodus.

Cool Storage
Last year, I found that a two or three cooler system works perfectly for two people. The first one is for your beverages in your shelter. It hardly matters what’s in here, I keep ice for drinks. This one requires a trip or two to get ice almost daily.

The second cooler is for food defrost. The meals that are coming up and were frozen but need some time to get less icy. This one doesn’t need to be massive.

The third cooler is your deep freeze. Dry ice can work well in the deep freeze (it is quite expensive), and you’ll need to layer foodstuffs with cardboard so that it keeps longer. If you have a cheap cooler, do not use it for deep freeze. Everything will melt and you’ll be sad and pissed off.

Minimize your need for heat. Create a menu where you don’t have to cook everyday.

Handle your own trash. Don’t dump it in the kitchen. God damn, I have I made this point already? Just don’t be that guy/girl.

Meal ideas for a delicious/easy successful food Burn:

Breakfast: Mozzarella, flat bread and fresh basil. Do this as a repeat early in your trip. Flatbread lasts longer than most other breads.

Rice Paper Wrap RollsLunch or dinner: Rice paper spring rolls are delicious playa food, but early in the week. Do the prep at home and place in containers: long strips of red bell pepper, cucumber, strips of basil, tofu, chopped romaine and soy sauce. The key ingredient: rice paper wraps. Find them in any Asian market, or Amazon. To get these pliable, dip them in less than an inch of water right before you’re ready to serve. Fill in just a small amount of veggies, wrap them like a little burrito, dip them in soy or peanut sauce and OH MY LORD, HONEY THAT IS SO GOOD. I’d recommend adding shrimp if you’re an extra careful food handler.

Breakfast/Lunch/Dinner: Grilled cheese tastes amazing for breakfast when your body says, “Kill me,” after a late night of doing whatever it was that you were doing all night.

Lunch or dinner: Chili, soups or stews. Whether you eat meat or not. Make a gigantic batch of it. Freeze it in single serving Ziploc bags, so that you can defrost them in a pinch. I’ve even defrosted something by sitting it in the hight heat of day for an hour, and it was perfect.

Lunch or dinner: Indian food. Mmmmm. Curry tastes so good after the sun goes down,  or when it comes up.

A better pasta replacement: Polenta is so very good. Get the the tubular pre-made ones at Trader Joe’s and use it as a replacement for pasta. Cut them into individual saucers and heat them with a bit of vegetable oil. 2-3 minutes on each side, then put your favorite jar of pasta sauce on top. Don’t try to heat water for pasta. It takes forever, and you have to dispose of the water.

Lunch/dinner: Sloppy Joes. Freeze them in individual sized packs.

Breakfast: Granola with non-animal milk. Your choice. Everyone has their preference of soy, almond or rice. Cow’s milk will go bad quickly.

Lunch/Dinner: We brought frozen taquitos from CostCo, heated up those puppies to have a hot meal. They were great, BUT, they were very hard to keep frozen. Most store bought, pre-made frozen foods will be tough.

Best of luck! I won’t be there this year, but have a blast without me.


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About Mona

I'm a food writer and home cook that loves to talk about healthy food and romance.
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2 Responses to Cook This…Get Burned: A Guide To Food Prep In the Desert

  1. BGV says:

    Thanks Mona! I opted out of the meal plan and my friends opted in. Now, I’m on my own and a little panicked. You have calmed and inspired me. 🙂