There are many options out there for parents trying to travel with kids (and feed them), but packing travel food on a budget can be especially challenging. Getting the right food combinations provides the energy that you need to take care of your family while enjoying whatever fun adventures await on your next vacation. Buying healthy travel food cheaply is more groundwork at the outset, but the benefits are hard to ignore.
*some meals in this post count on having access to a heating element (stove, microwave, fire, grill etc.)
When More is Less
There is a reason why stores like Costco succeed. By selling food in bulk they can provide very competitive prices due to the fact that packaging and production costs are much lower. If you do not have a Costco card I suggest getting one. If you cannot afford one, try seeing if you can get on a friend’s account.
Buying a big bag of frozen, individually packaged chicken breasts can be appealing, but compare them to buying whole, halved, or quartered chickens. You can learn how to section the birds up yourself and stop paying for someone else to do it for you. Save and freeze any bones and use them later to make chicken stock for soup. This same approach can be applied to many meat products. You don’t need to buy expensive cuts of steak. If you aren’t sure, just ask the butcher about different cuts and what the best deals are. This tactic works over a wide variety of products. I’ve found that a bag of whole carrots is half the cost of buying baby carrots. Cut them into carrot sticks for the same effect.
Watch for sales on everyday items, and then stock up! A freezer is your best friend when budget shopping. If you have the room and the resources, get a chest freezer, and prep your food in the weeks leading up to your trip. You can prep and freeze enough meals to last the entire trip if you’d like, or for every day you don’t plan on eating out. If you have limited freezer space you’ll have to get creative. Instead of using plastic freezer tubs switch to large freezer bags. These will conform to shape, saving you space, and they are still reusable to a point.
Don’t Be Fooled
When comparing prices, make sure you compare the price per ounce or price per pound (if you’re really buying bulk). You’ll often pay more initially, but it will work out to save you money in the long run, when the costs per servings are lowered.
The All Important Fruit & Veggies
These can rack up the grocery bill quickly, and most people stay away from fresh produce when they’re travelling on a budget (hello chip bags and gas station jerky!), but knowing what to buy (and when) can make fresh produce practical. Make sure you’re buying fruit and vegetables in season. If you’re not sure, there are free charts you can print off and stick on the fridge. In season produce will not only be cheaper but will taste better as well. If you’ve ever had a cantaloupe that tasted like… nothing… you know what I’m talking about. Frozen packs of assorted vegetables can be fairly cheap, same with frozen fruit. If you’re travelling in the summer, snacking on frozen fruit can actually be a welcome, refreshing treat.
This is the golden egg of travel food on a budget–planning ahead. Planning out meals a week, or even a month, in advance can greatly reduce the day to day stress of planning a trip, and will also make food shopping much easier. Put aside a day or weekend to prep, and possibly cook the meals so they’re ready to go when you need them. Chilis, sauces, soups, pastas and other dishes can be made, frozen, then warmed up and ready to go. A crock-pot or dutch oven can be your best friend (but don’t tell the freezer) here as well. Prep all of the ingredients on your prep day, then pop them in the slow cooker/dutch oven the day off, and you’re ready to go. There are thousands of resources online for freezer and slow cooker meals that will save your sanity without breaking the bank.
The Spice of Life
Spices might sound like an extravagant extra, but budget meals made from bulk products can often end up being the same recycled meals. Getting the basic spices like basil, garlic powder, paprika, cinnamon, nutmeg, and thyme can give an old meal new life, and may prevent a mutiny from children.
Making a schedule for when to shop (watch for sales!), when to cook, and what to have will undoubtedly save you money. Look out for sales and stock up when they happen. Find out what works for you and stick with it. Operating on a travel food budget isn’t impossible, but it will require more legwork on your part. When you’re going through your pre-trip checklist in the days and weeks before your next adventure, make sure to keep meal planning at the forefront. Your kids will thank you and you’ll thank yourself for coming up with hearty meals that don’t come out of a box.