Vacation Meals on a Budget

One of the largest expenses on a vacation after accommodations (or airline tickets) are the meals.  Obviously, meals are NOT something we can eliminate from the plan, 🙂 so how do we make it economical?    Picnics or cooking on a camp stove are pretty common ideas (and we do that a LOT) but that’s ‘common knowledge’.  In addition to those ideas we also prepare simple meals right in our hotel room to help us afford family vacations.

What are the advantages to this?

  1. Economics:  We can eat our own food for less than going out.
  2. Convenience:  After a long day of ‘fun’ we often prefer to go to the pool, shower and relax….not get dressed again and go out.
  3. Healthy:  Fast food is NOT healthy and more upscale restaurants with healthier options are MUCH pricier.  If we do that twice a day, it could easily cost my family $75-$100/day….  Multiply that by a 5….or 7…..or 10 day vacation.  You get the idea….

Kitchen in condoFor that reason, we come up with our own meal plan for vacations – using a camp stove, the kitchen/kitchenette at a vacation condo (justified cost-wise with the savings from simple meal prep), the hotel room microwave 20140808_105744or sandwich grill/George Foreman grill brought from home.

I DON’T want to devote a lot of time to meal prep while on vacation.  I need easy, quick but HEALTHY meal options.  That requires a little “out of the box’ thinking.  Use my ideas as a springboard to come up with ideas that fit YOUR family’s eating preferences.


  • paper goods (plates, etc… include both thin, cheap ones, some sturdy types – for different meals)
  • plastic silverware
  • roll of THICK paper towels  (to serve multiple purposes)
  • salt/pepper
  • POSSIBLY:  handheld can opener, a paring knife (if you’re NOT flying),  sandwich grill.

Most hotel rooms have cups and there’s always an ice machine.   You’re set to go!

Breakfast (Many hotels these days provide breakfast…but if they don’t  – Nat’l Parks come to mind – here are some ideas):

  • cereal and milk   snacks for travel
  • Fresh Fruit – or canned if that’s all we can do  (My family loves it when I make a  fruit salad…)  🙂
  • Breakfast bars/Protein bars
  • Pop Tarts or pastries are a less healthy but quick choice
  • Bring From Home items:  boiled eggs….and sometimes I’ve brought bacon I cooked at home and brought in a Ziploc  (heat up in the hotel microwave)
  • microwave oatmeal  (bring toppings 🙂 )


Of course everything is easier in a kitchen but many of these can be made using just a hotel room microwave – or camp stove.

  • Hotdogs – This is SO easy!
  • Sandwiches/Soup/Salad in any combination: Sandwiches aren’t a ‘new’ idea for vacation meals…but we really like sandwiches on the sandwich grill.  🙂   Soup can be heated in the room microwave. Salad can be purchased ready-made.  Any combination is great!  🙂
  • Photo Credit: Kathleen Franklin on Flickr CC Lic.

    Prepare a favorite meal/casserole at home and bring it to heat in the hotel room microwave. (The possibility of this is dictated by the type of travel we’re doing)  I make these weeks ahead of time and freeze them.  Then it serves as “ice” in the ice chest)  My family’s favorites include Mexican casseroles, homemade  lasagna, or chicken n dumplings.  This works great if you have those with allergies or restricted diets.  You CAN travel with these restrictions… you just have to bring the food with you.

  • Cheese nachos:   This is super easy and my family LOVES it!  Everyone ‘personalizes’ their own nachos – and they enjoy it!!  We add toppings that are a little ‘out of the ordinary’ …..but of course, Rotisserie chicken from Walmart, Target et al, is always popular on Nacho night.  If you purchase it after 3 pm (I think…) it’s discounted.   🙂
  • Microwaveable meals: These will be more

    Photo Credit: Felke Kloostra on Flickr CC Lic.

    pricey than other options, and sacrifices the healthy criteria, but it allows you to ‘personalize’ everyone’s meal.  🙂  Of course, I ALWAYS add salad to all our  meals.

  • Canned meals such as Ravioli, Spaghettios, et al. if you have young children who like this sort of thing.  Pair this with salad or a vegetable heated in the microwave for a little ‘healthier’ meal.  My family never liked these canned things, but for those who do, this is super easy.
  • If you can find a grill:  Grill your own chicken for grilled chicken salads.  (Bring Cooking supper on the campstovesalad and toppings, salad dressing and of course, crackers!) 🙂   When we do this, we try to grill 2+ lbs of meat (it’s all time-consuming so we want to get a couple of meals prepared at the same time)    The leftovers become chicken salad, nachos, etc….
  • On road trips where we can bring our own Coleman camp stove, we really enjoy ALL the grilled options.  I like not having to ‘search’ for a grill…and knowing that it’s clean… haha!!  Hotdogs, burgers, chicken…sometimes even steak.
  • Hobo meals are a great ‘total meal’ idea.  These are complete meals wrapped  in foil and slow cooked over the fire.  They’re VERY good!  There’s a ‘Basic’ recipe here: and a website with video  instructions for putting your hobo meal together (and a few more variations) here:    NOTE:  Search online for even more recipes…. or create your own with ingredients/seasonings your family likes.
  • On a recent trip to Hawaii, my husband and I bought pineapple, mango, papaya, Hawaiian bananas,  IMG_2946coconut, etc… at one of the many roadside stands.   We then made fruit salads for supper.  It was enough to satisfy us.  Now, if our children had been with us, we might have needed something more substantial, but for just the two of us, it was a perfect evening meal.   🙂  Pineapples and bananas ripened on the plant are SOOOOO much better than what’s available at the local grocery stores.


A Word about Allergies or Gluten-Free Eating:  For those on restricted diets, travel can present a whole set of challenges.  Restaurants are beginning to cater to these in small degrees, but it can still be hard to find options –and ‘trusting’ a restaurant can be a little scary.  I recently found an article about preparing/taking gluten-free meals while on the road.

A Word About Nutrition:  The challenge for me with vacation meal planning is how to get healthy foods/vegetables into my family.  Fruit is fairly easy…we take it with us or buy it local.  I’m always handing someone an apple or grapes or a peach, et al.   It’s the vegetables that are the toughest.  As often as possible, I try to make salads for meals…pre-cooked chicken on salads, chopped ham and cheese on salads, ANYTHING that can go on a bed of lettuce is fair game for us.  🙂  The rest of the time, I just try to incorporate vegetables into our meals as much as I can.  Carrot and celery sticks always accompany the chips with sandwiches, and there’s FRESH produce/veggies in the evenings whenever I can make it happen.


Photo Credit: slworking2

These are only ‘doable’ when you can build a fire or have a Coleman Stove but when you do…this opens up a LOT of options!!!

The traditional hobo meal is a beef patty, sliced potatoes, carrots, onion, Worcestershire sauce, salt and pepper.  A little butter or cooking spray keeps it all from sticking. (The butter tastes better….  🙂 )

HOWEVER….there are HUNDREDS of variations to this basic recipe using chicken, ham, fish, pork, and even steak (cubed).  By varying the  vegetables and seasonings, you can create your own personalized meal. It would be possible to plan an entire vacation menu using only hobo meals.  With all the variations, the family would hardly notice the fact that it’s hobo meals every night.  🙂

  • You NEED fat content to keep it from sticking.  Either use meat with a higher fat content (80% works well) or add some butter/margarine.
  • ALSO, spray the tin foil with cooking spray.
  • heavy duty aluminum foil

    My Dollar Store ‘find’

    Use HEAVY DUTY Foil ONLY!   THEN, double wrap it. It’s just not worth it to have the foil rip and your meal end up in the coals. I get mine (pictured) at the Dollar store –  Their Heavy Duty foil is pretty good and since I’ll be double wrapping, I don’t want to pay a lot for it.

  • Completely seal the foil around the top  (fold it over several times) to keep the juices in and keep your meal from getting dry or burned.
  • COOKING;  This can either be done by placing the meal down among the coals/embers of a campfire (tastes the best…) or by placing meals on a Campstove (takes less time and is easier…but looses that slow-cooked in the embers factor)
  • Campfire Cooking:  Let the fire turn to hot coals or embers

    Photo Credit: slworking2 on Flickr CC Lic.

    before placing your meal into it.  Putting the meal directly into the flames will cook it too quickly and burn it. If your meal(s) have a lot of food in them, it’s helpful to actually cover the meal with coals (just make sure they’re sealed tightly.  🙂  )  Use a good set of camp fire gloves and LONG metal tongs for this…


Photo Credit: J. Stephen Conn on Flickr CC Lic.



Some Interesting Variations:

  • Ham:  Ham pieces, pineapple slices, mixed vegetables, dash of teriyaki sauce
  • Ham & Potatoes Au Gratin:  Cubed Ham, chopped potato, onions, grated cheese


  • Fajitas:  Marinated Fajita Meat, onions, green peppers. You’ll need tortillas, cheese, salsa, etc….
  • Stuffed Potatoes:  Core small to medium potato, insert a pre-cooked sausage or hotdog link. Cook 45-90 min. (depending on the size of the potato) over the coals.  Add sliced cheese, chili or toppings of your choice.
  • Mushroom Chicken:  Boneless chicken, frozen peas and cream of mushroom soup.  Put the chicken in; add a spoon or two of soup and serving of peas.  Cook on coals for 20 minutes, turning every few minutes



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