Monday, August 11, 2014

On-the-Go Meals for a Road Trip

On our recent epic road trip across America, we decided to make the extra effort to plan our meals ahead and bring the majority of our food with us. I knew we would be spending a ton of money on gas and lodging so I wanted to look for a way to reduce some of the cost of traveling and eating on the road. Because we are cheapskates.

We have a family of six (four boys--two of them are teenagers) so even just eating fast food can cost upwards of $30.00 per meal. Do you want to super-size that? Multiply it by two meals a day (we only booked hotels that offered continental breakfast--see Tip #4 of this post) and many days on the road and we are getting close to $1,000.00+ just for food! Plus I start to feel really yucky after eating fast food too often.

I planned our meals, did the shopping and then put everything non-refrigerated that I would need for each meal together in a labelled paper bag ("Lunch, Day 1", etc). I labelled the things in the cooler with a sharpie as much as I could and had a master list of the meals we had planned to help me stay organized (and because I am a little crazy when it comes to things like this.) Initially the bags took up quite a bit of room in the car, but I wasn't opposed to my little boys practically sitting on top of each other in the back seat for a couple of days so that we could save some money for their college tuitions. Dividing the meals into bags made it easier for me to keep track of what we had available to eat and when. This helped ensure that we ate the food in the cooler before the shelf stable food. Doing it that way meant we only had to buy ice a couple of times--Holla! (If you wanted though you could probably use the hotel's ice maker to fill your cooler. We just didn't want to go to the hassle of bringing the cooler in every night). We also utilized the small refrigerators in our hotel rooms for refreezing ice packs, chilling our water bottles, fruit, butter and other small things. A couple of times we went to grocery stores in the towns we were staying in to pick up some fresh food for the evening or the next day. I also had a smaller insulated bag that we kept in the front seat that we could put string cheese, fruit or cans of soda in along with the ice packs.

For lunches we had things like sandwiches and for dinner each night we had a main course that could be cooked in one pan: my electric skillet. If you don't have one, you need one. Really. You never know when you are going to go on a girls' trip to Toronto and need that puppy to cook eggs and bacon for your besties for breakfast. We also brought things like fresh fruit and vegetables, those squeeze packets of applesauce--because who doesn't love slurping applesauce?--and cookies and other treats for desserts.

We wanted simple, reasonably balanced meals that wouldn't be hard to put together. In addition to my electric skillet (and it's cord--I didn't bother to bring the lid), I had a bag that contained a spatula, salt and pepper (the kind in cardboard shakers that you might take camping or on a picnic), a tub of butter, a travel bottle of dish soap, a dishcloth and dish towel, a good knife with a cover and a can opener. I also brought a plastic one cup measuring cup, a washed out cool whip container to use as a disposable bowl (for chicken salad day and heating things in the hotel room microwave) plastic utensils, paper plates, paper towels and disinfecting wipes (for cleaning surfaces before and after prepping food). Each night after I cooked, I just washed out the skillet and washed off the spatula in the hotel room's bathroom sink.

I'm not going to include what we ate while we were camping in this post because cooking while camping is a little different than cooking in a hotel room, but I will share some of the lunches and skillet meals we cooked.

What We Ate:
Lunch Ideas

  • Spinach garlic bagels with cream cheese (between the six of us we used an entire one of those small containers of whipped cream cheese so there was no waste) and watermelon cubes.
  • Peanut butter and banana sandwiches (Elvis Presley's favorite!), baby carrots, string cheese, fruit snacks. No need to refrigerate bananas like you would have to for jam.
  • Chicken salad on Ritz crackers. I used canned chicken (drained) and mayonnaise and Wickles pickle relish (if you haven't tried Wickles pickles I highly recommend them--so delicious!). I just bought the smallest jar of mayo I could find, but if you can find those individual packets of mayo like they have at some fast food places those would work great too. We also had blueberries in plastic cups.
  • Whole grain pita pockets with ham, cheese and bagged salad, served with ranch dressing so the pitas wouldn't be so dry. We bought the individual snack cups of dressing to avoid wasting a whole bottle of dressing. We ended up using all of them. Some of my boys may or may not have just drunk cups of dressing--the rest got used up with the carrot sticks. We also had baby cucumbers and chips and Twinkies (*bleh*) that day.
  • Submarine sandwiches (we bought delicious fresh bread at a grocery store), SunChips, cherries (we spit our pits into plastic cups) and cookies.
  • Grocery store rotisserie chicken, crackers, grapes, olives, and mini dill pickles (you can get them in little plastic cups like fruit and applesauce come in).
  • Banana bread, yogurt, apples and cheese.
  • Bagged salad--We had this at our hotel one day along with some fresh fruit and crusty rolls. Just buy what you will eat that day. We bought several different kits. They come complete with toppings and dressing and can be served in a paper bowl with a fork and some bakery bread.
  • We did Lunchables one day on the road because I knew my kids would be excited about that.
  • As an alternative to Lunchables (which really are kind of meh, in my opinion) you could have summer sausage, good cheese (like Tillamook) and crackers. This is exactly what we ate, along with fresh Oregon fruit, the day we went to Cannon Beach. It would work great in the car as well.

Dinner Ideas

  • Pizzadillas, i.e. quesadillas made with pizza sauce, pepperoni and mozzarella cheese. These were a favorite among my boys. Serve the pizzadillas with the extra pizza sauce for dipping. 
  • Tuna Helper. I got the kind that is basically macaroni and cheese and tuna. It called for milk, so I brought a baggie of powdered milk with the exact amount that I needed and measured water to reconstitute. We honestly couldn't taste the difference. We also had canned fruit. 
  • Bacon, Eggs and Pancakes. I bought two containers of shake and pour pancake mix. I brought some syrup in a disposable plastic container. We had lots of leftover pancakes and snacked on them in the car the next day.
  • Taco Tuesday (Everything is awesome!). You could buy hamburger in the morning and keep it in the cooler until dinner (just make sure it is well refrigerated unless you are a fan of food poisoning), but for convenience I would substitute canned chicken. Use either crunchy taco shells or flour tortillas. Serve with bagged salad, cheese and tomato (or salsa).
  • Grilled cheese sandwiches. I wanted to do grilled sharp cheddar cheese and granny smith apple sandwiches on ciabatta bread but apparently Wall, South Dakota does not have ciabatta bread. No big surprise there, I guess. Have potato chips and fresh fruit to round it out.
  • Frozen tamales, steamed and served with avocado, shredded lettuce, cheese, salsa and sour cream. This was probably my favorite thing we made in the skillet. It was so delicious. We procured some foil for steaming them from somewhere since I didn't bring my lid.
  • Smoked salmon, crackers (a few of my favorites are Ritz, Triscuits or club crackers but just choose what you and your family like), fruit, raw vegetables (carrots, celery, cucumbers, radishes, etc.), cheese. 
  • We ended up eating fast food a couple of times when we knew we were going to be very late arriving to our hotel. I was not all that sad about it because we got to have Chick-Fil-A.
  • Once we met up with our extended family we had a lot of dinners together and home cooked meals. Sometimes we prepared food together. Sometimes someone made a meal for us (like when my sister-in-law made sauerkraut casserole for everyone). Occasionally we ate out since we were on vacation.

Other Ideas That Would Probably Work

  • Beef stew or chicken and dumplings from a can. Heat and eat. Add some grocery store rolls for a heartier meal.
  • Canned ravioli or spaghetti o's. My brother-in-law recommends the Disney Princess kind.
  • Pork chops. Buy them fresh at a grocery store and fry them up with salt and pepper. That's my favorite way to eat them. My mom always let us eat them with our fingers like fried chicken when we were kids. 
  • Make yourself a dang quesadilla. Gosh.
  • Vegetable stir fry--buy a frozen kit that day or buy fresh vegetables to make your own. If you wanted to add rice I'm pretty sure you could do minute rice in a hotel room microwave or even in the skillet.
  • Salted tube steaks (a.k.a. hot dogs). I don't particularly like hot dogs, but they would be easy to cook in a skillet and my kids and husband love them.
  • Wraps. We had sandwich bread, but it was hard to keep it from getting smashed with all the other things in the car. Using tortillas instead would be a good alternative.
  • How 'bout some sloppy joes--extra sloppy?
  • You can always heat canned vegetables in the hotel room microwave (in a plastic container) or the skillet or add bagged salad to the meal if you feel you are lacking in the vegetable department.

What Not to Bring

  • Melon--unless you are going to eat it right away. It starts to ferment quickly once sliced if not refrigerated. We ended up tossing a bunch of watermelon that had started to get sparkly. For the record, do not try to flush fermented watermelon cubes down the toilet. Or be prepared to take the walk of shame to the hotel's front desk to ask for a plunger.
  • Juicy fruits like peaches, plums, etc.-- Opt for things that won't drip juice everywhere like apricots, apples, grapes, blueberries and cherries (we used plastic cups to spit our pits into).
  • Mini sweet peppers--Don't get me wrong--I love these--but unless you plan to eat them the first day, don't do it. They get stinky fast and the smell permeates everything. Ugh.
  • Seasoned lunch meat like roast beef. Unless you want to smell like a department store Santa impersonator. Again, the smell can be overpowering.
  • Anything that might give you food poisoning if the ice in your cooler completely melts before you have a chance to replenish it.
Which of these ideas sound good to you? What other foods do you think would travel well or make good one-skillet-meals? Please feel free to share in the comments! Also, I didn't mention many of our snacks in this post. What are your favorite go-to road trip snacks? 

**Disclaimer: I know these meals are not perfectly balanced and some of the choices might not be exactly healthy (uh, hello? Twinkies?), but in comparison to fast food, I felt we did pretty well. 

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