Backyard Campfire Cooking: A New Idea for Frugal Family Fun Nights

Here lately, we have been trying to come up with winter activities to add to our collection of frugal family fun night ideas. While making trick-or-treating rounds on Halloween night we noticed several families with fire bowls burning a campfire. That looked like a lot of fun, as we don’t get the opportunity to do much camping, and my kids haven’t seen many campfires.

The Fire Bowl Search Begins

We scoured the sale papers and Craigslist over the last couple weeks, but couldn’t find any particularly good deals this time of year, until yesterday.  We had looked at a couple fire bowl models are Target, but I was convinced they were overpriced (not that I had much to base that on, but this was Target, and they aren’t exactly known for their deals on large, household items).  On Saturday night we looked at one, even put it in the shopping cart for closer inspection.  It was $79.99.  We decided to put it back, convinced that just wasn’t in the budget.  The next day it was on sale for $55.00!  I dashed back the store on Sunday and picked up the last fire bowl on the shelf.

My wife had already picked up a set of pokers for the four of us from the dollar store.  I stopped by the grocery store and grabbed a bag of marshmallows, a box of graham crackers, and found a three-pack of Hershey bars on sale.  I also grabbed a small bag of firewood, though I’ll be rounding up some free wood from now on.

Assembling the Fire Bowl, and the S’mores

On Sunday night we assembled the fire bowl.  It was a snap; we simply had to attach the four legs and the handle for the screen cover.  I rounded up some kindling and an old brown paper sack to get the fire going, while my wife prepared the trimmings for hot dogs.  When the fire was hot I added two pieces of firewood and we sat around and roasted our hot-dogs and marshmallows.  The kids loved making S’mores, and best of all, enjoyed being outside cooking on a campfire in their own backyard!

Fire Bowl Safety Reminders

  1. Follow manufacturer recommendations on how far the fire bowl should be from a structure, such as your house.
  2. Use a pot holder of the hook end of a poker to lift the handle on the screen cover.  I only learned this myself after burning the fingerprints off my left hand when grabbing the fire bowl’s screen top handle.  Doh!
  3. Do not set the fire bowl down directly on grass, particularly in dry conditions.  While the fire remains well above the ground, hot embers could drop through the drain in the bottom of the bowl and ignite the grass.  Consider a small paved area, or kill back the grass and put down a few bricks to keep the fire bowl up off the ground.
  4. Watch small kids! Do not leave small children unattended around the fire bowl.  Curiosity could get the best of them and if they get too close they could inadvertently ignite their clothing.

Basically, apply the same rules you would for an inside fire in a fireplace, but be a little more vigilant since the fire is accessible from all sides. A backyard campfire is a great way to spend a fall or early-winter evening, and once you have the basic supplies it is an inexpensive way to entertain your family.


  1. Great idea! Just make sure you use “real” wood if you’re cooking over the fire, and not one of those processed firelogs. They contain lots of chemicals and will make your S’mores taste like the inside of an oil drum.

    Another idea for a full meal over your firepit is to make tinfoil dinners (also called hobo dinners, but I find that to be insulting to hobos). Just wrap some meat and veggies in tinfoil with a bit of butter and toss it at the base of the fire. After about 30 minutes (carefully!) cut the pouch open and it should be done. It’s a fun way to have a cookout supper at home.

  2. Sounds like you found a pretty good sale. I can’t help but think though, that this is one of those items that would be pretty easy to hack from salvaged materials, provided you didn’t care too much about aesthetics. And if you did care, there’s probably some creative type out there with a way to pretty up the end of a fifty gallon drum.

    Sorry. No criticizing. Just musing… Maybe I should see what I could come up with.

  3. I’m on my way, and I’m bringing the hot dogs! 🙂

    We started making s’mores in the microwave this summer, and stumbled upon strawberry-flavored marshmallows at Walmart – paired with dark chocolate, ohmigod….

  4. One of the things I love about our new house is the firepit in the backyard. Next summer I plan on using it a lot. Right now it’s too cold and rainy.

    The previous owners made it themselves with bricks. I can’t imagine it was too expensive.

  5. LOL, as soon as I saw the fire pit, I said to myself “Now I KNOW he didn’t go and buy one!” But you did. $55 is a deal and definitely a good one compared to some of the fire pits I’ve seen at lawn and garden stores (some as high as $400-$500!).

    As a fire/fireplace aficionado (is there such a thing?) I can say that there’s quite a lot to enjoy about a nice warm fire on a cool/cold evening. It also helps that pretty much everything tastes better when cooked over an open fire — that’s why BBQ tastes so good! 🙂

    If I’d known that you were getting the fire pit, I could’ve warned you about the screen handle. Though it looks ok, those things get hot. I find the best thing to do with fire building/stoking/handling is to buy a decent pair of real leather work gloves (about $7). The leather doesn’t really burn and the insulation will protect your hand very well. I’ve even handled smoldering logs with the gloves — for only about 4-5 seconds, but it worked fine. It would be best to use those to handle the screen and to place wood on the fire as well so you don’t get that “sunburned” feeling on the back of your hands.

    By the way, you can also use the dead ashes in your flower beds or lawn as a sort of fertilizer. Just don’t use it where you can see it — it doesn’t always look appealing. ( Keep in mind though that ashes can remain hot and ignitable for up to 24 hours after the fire goes out.

  6. Hi FD,
    I have had one of these firepits for a few years now and I have a suggestion for you.

    I don’t know if it would be good for cooking, my guess is probably not, but I get FREE WOOD by getting pallets from people/stores that are giving them away. I cut them up and use them in my firepit and they work great. If you do this, try to bundle the pieces togethor (I use left over wire) as the “logs” will last longer in the fire. Did I mention they were free? 😉

  7. Yea, pallet wood is probably not good to cook with as many times it has been painted to allow for color-coding of the pallet. It is almost never a good idea to use painted wood as the fumes can be bad for you and especially for kids. I would recommend either cutting wood yourself or getting it cheap from someone who has a huge wood pile themselves. Often, people will sell it by the road and will cut a deal with you as they don’t really want to haul it back anyway.
    As we have three huge pecan trees in our yard that basically self-pruned quite a bit this past summer, we’ve got a whole pile of wood in our backyard just waiting for a cold front to sweep in.

  8. Rocks work fine too, for those of you who don’t want to spend the money. Dig a circle a few inches down in the dirt (just a few, too deep and the wood won’t burn) and surround it with some decent sized rocks. Voila, a free fire pit!

    We love ours…except now its snowing out so it’s not too fun to sit outside anymore. 🙂

  9. Wood can also be obtained from tree cutting companies, just give one in your area a call.

    One thing my wife and I do for a fun (and frugal) meal is cut a steak into bite sized chunks and marinate it (if you so desire). We cook the chunks of meat over the fire on our skewers one at a time and eat them as they finish cooking. You can cook your piece of meat as rare or as well done as you desire this way. Keep some steak sauce around for dipping if you want.

    Because we’re cooking them one at a time, it slows down the rate at which we are eating and one steak between the two of us is plenty, we both feel full at the end of the meal.

  10. I second the avoidance of wood pallets if you are going to cook over them – those are full of paints, solvents, and wood preservatives. Regular old wood direct from trees is the best way to be safe.

  11. I got mine at my fav shopping place – the local dump.Free. I’m there a lot as I work for a subsidiary of the same company. Why someone tossed it, I do not know, as it was in perfect shape.

    I was going to grow strawberries in it with the screen to keep the birds and slugs out…. but this sounds like even more fun! I get my free firewood at the same place… but I’m definitely going to look for those strawberry marshmallows! Now that does sound good! Enjoy!

  12. Also good for the foil dinner type of thing is to make an envelope of foil – put in one top ramen of your flavor choice – add canned or frozen veggies – frozen meatballs if you like and about a cup of water. Fold the top of your envelope over several times to avoid leaks – place in the coals. Cooks in about 5-10 min. You’ll want to use tongs to turn your packet over halfway through cooking and when finished to remove from the fire. I suggest then dumping your packet into a bowl for eating – once you open the foil leaks are very possible.

  13. @Craig, usually a BBQ pit is made of thinner metal and isn’t designed to stand up to red-hot coals resting directly on the metal. BBQ coals also don’t usually get as hot for as long as real wood can as coals are actually made from already burned wood. Some more expensive pits can handle it, or definitely if you’ve got ahold of one of those half-steel-drum BBQ things. You can definitely build a fire in one of those!

    On the neighbor issue I’ll bet that FrugalDad, like myself, doesn’t have to worry about neighbors complaining about smoke when their windows are open. Living in the south (I’m in south Louisiana, FD is in southeast Texas I believe), you basically have to use AC for about 8 months out of the year so almost no one has their windows open. (Even today, we had our AC on as it was almost 78F and humid outside!!) It can be a concern for others, so just try to be nice about it and keep an open mind when using your fire pit. Maybe look for still nights or evenings when the wind won’t blow it into your complaining neighbor’s home. Other than that, you’ll just have to work it out for yourself.

  14. EMILY- Strawbery marshmallows….oh oh i bet that is good! I discovered microwave s’mores this summer (is that a good thing or a bad thing? haha)

    FD- have fun with your firepit. There is nothing like sitting around a lovely fire on a summer or fall night, looking up at the stars, listening to night sounds. My fella bought one for us last year and we even use it to burn small batches of sticks and leaves (our county allows burning on certain days…) A fire pit is a magical thing!

  15. We have done this on movie nights and the kids love it.

    Movie night consists of a kids movie projected on the side of white barn that feels just like a real theater.

    Maybe a game system or two gets projected on the barn after the kids go to bed and the fire begins to die down.

  16. Sounds like a great idea! In general I’ve found it much easier to be frugal since I had my first child. I enjoy spending time with the family without spending a dime. I’m going to try this with some potstickers.

  17. We love camping and we especially love campfires. My parents have a fire pit in their backyard, which is wide, flat and open. Their fire pit is completely free because they use fallen wood from the trees in their yard and they made the fire pit out of river stones. We have spent many, many hours around that pit as a family and now our daughter loves it too.

    Great post. Thanks!

  18. This is such a fun family night idea- I think we will have to try this. We have everything needed and that makes it a fun & very frugal family night. I am always looking for ideas as the weather cools down and we feel more limited with our choices. That is a great sale price too on the fire pit. I think we paid $89 at Target for ours.