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 plates or bowls ( variety of qualities – some cheap, some a little more sturdy – for different meals)
  • plastic silverware
  • roll of STURDY paper towels  (to serve multiple purposes)
  • salt/pepper
  • MAYBE a handheld can opener, a paring knife (if you’re NOT flying) or the Foreman or sandwich grill.

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

Breakfast (if your hotel doesn’t provide a breakfast):

  • cereal and milk  (This one’s easy…) snacks for travel
  • Fresh Fruit – or canned if that’s all we can do  (make a fruit salad…)  🙂
  • Fruit-N-Nut, Cereal or granola bars –
  • Packaged pastries or Pop Tarts are a less healthy but quick choice
  • Boiled eggs brought from home; for shorter trips/get-aways; I sometimes bring turkey bacon I’ve cooked at home as well.
  • microwave oatmeal  (bring butter/sugar??)


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:  Bring a pkg of hotdogs, buns, mustard & chips
  • Sandwiches/Soup/Salad in any combination: Sandwiches aren’t a ‘new’ idea for vacation meals…but we toast them on the sandwich grill to make them a bit more appetizing.  Soup in the microwave is a ‘comfort’ meal in the winter.  A salad is a great addition to a cold meal in the summer.  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.  (I make these weeks ahead of time. When frozen, they serve as “ice” in the ice chest en route)  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:Bring chips, grated cheese, and toppings of your choice.  This is super easy and my family LOVES it!  Sometimes I add grilled chicken (brought from home, purchased pre-cooked at the grocery store or grilled on the Foreman grill)  OR browned hamburger cooked at home and brought frozen.  🙂
  • 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.
  • Grill chicken breasts (at a picnic area with grills) for grilled chicken salads.  Bring Cooking supper on the campstovesalad toppings of your choice (grated cheese, croutons, bacon bits etc…) and salad dressing (maybe some crackers). When we do this, we cook 2 lbs of chicken to have leftovers for the next day (sandwiches, wraps…more chicken salads…)
  • In ANY locations outdoors, the camp stove or grill brings so many options….everything from hotdogs, hamburgers, and chicken to even steaks if you’re willing to spend the $$.  🙂
  • 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 stopped at roadside fruit stands to buy pineapple, mango, papaya, Hawaiian bananas,  IMG_2946coconut, etc…    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 a little 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 gluten-free diets, travel can present a whole other set of challenges.  Restaurants are starting to cater to these in small degrees, but it can still be hard to find options –and ‘trusting’ a restaurant can be a very scarey prospect.  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 and 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 go with ALL lunches, tomatoes on all sandwiches, and there’s FRESH produce/veggies in the evenings whenever possible.


Photo Credit: slworking2

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 using so much, I don’t want to pay a lot for it.

  • Completely seal the foil around the top.  (fold it over several times)  This keeps the juices in and 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 into 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.



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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