When it comes to vacation expenses, food cost is a pretty big variable. If you eat out every meal, you’ll pay a bundle. But vacation doesn’t have to mean we completely blow the food budget. Will you spend more than usual on food during your time away from home? Probably. Does it have to be tons more? Definitely not. A little planning goes a long way when it comes to feeding your family away from home.
The most important tip: You can’t every meal at a restaurant if you want to save money. So if we’re not eating out the whole trip, where do we eat?
On the road:
- Pack a cooler full of snacks, drinks, fruit, crackers & cheese, and sandwiches.
- Fill a reusable water bottle for each traveler with lots of ice, then the rest water.
- If you’re traveling with small kids, drive while they’re busy eating (they have to sit still to eat–take advantage of the time that they’re occupied!). Make your stops at rest areas, parks, or playgrounds where they can run around.
- If you choose a restaurant meal, consider lunch instead of dinner, and drink water.
At your destination:
- If possible, stay somewhere with a kitchen.
- Prepare meals before leaving, freeze them, and cook them on vacation.
- Bring your crock pot for easy meals that cook while you’re out having fun.
- Consider simple favorites like pasta, or even a few packaged convenience foods so dinner won’t take too much effort (it is vacation, after all!).
- Take advantage of local specialties–if you’re near the shore, plan a seafood night! It’ll be fresher and cheaper than you could get it at home, so enjoy a treat on vacation!
- If a full kitchen isn’t an option, at least try for a refrigerator and microwave.
- Breakfast options can include milk, juice, cereal, fruit, instant oatmeal, yogurt, bagels & cream cheese, or breakfast bars.
- Lunch/dinner can be sandwiches, fruit, veggies, cheese, or even microwaveable meals.
- Consider staying at a hotel that provides a breakfast–many reasonably-priced hotels include both hot and cold items in a self-serve breakfast area, which can be a great (and free!) start to your day.
- If you can manage two meals on your own and only go out once a day, you’ll save a bundle.
- If you know of a few restaurants you’ll visit before you leave, you can get gift cards at Giant Eagle to take advantage Fuelperks.
- Use gift cards you’ve received as gifts. You can also check online for restaurant coupons to print.
- Look for places where kids eat free.
- Consider carry-out a few nights rather than dining in a restaurant. A carry-out pizza or grocery store rotisserie chicken dinner can feed a family fairly reasonably, and you can use your own beverages.
Bring em from home. Lots of them. Start stocking up a few months before you go, use your coupons, and bring the stash with you. It will always be cheaper than trying to buy something on vacation.
Most of us are frugal throughout the year so we can afford to splurge every once in a while on something awesome. We ate PB & J every lunch for a week at Disney World so we could have breakfast with the princesses one morning at Cinderella’s Royal Table in the castle at Magic Kingdom. The “Shoestring” part of me nearly died paying the bill for that one meal, but I’ll admit it was probably the most memorable meal of my life. And the fact that three years later, my kids still say “There’s where we ate breakfast” every time they see the castle at the beginning of a Disney movie reminds me that sometimes it’s OK to throw down for something really special. This summer, we needed to do dinner out in Phoenix, so we went to the TGI Friday’s in the Arizona Diamondbacks’ stadium on a non-game night. It was the same menu and cost as a Friday’s at home, but with a pretty fantastic view!
Pre-Vacation Shopping List:
Before you go, match coupons and sales to get these things for the lowest possible price:
- Juice boxes
- Bottled water
- Granola bars/breakfast bars
- Fruit snacks
- Go-gurt or yogurt cups
- Individual fruit cups
- Apples and carrot sticks (they travel well)
- Microwave popcorn (great for hotels)
- Peanut butter & jelly
- Sandwich crackers (for snacks or a light meal)
- Bagels & cream cheese
- Twizzlers, M&Ms, other favorite non-melting sweet treats
- Snack-size, sandwich, and quart Ziploc bags for packaging snacks to go
- Paper plates, plastic utensils, napkins
- Personal care products (hair care, toothpaste, etc.)
- First aid products (band-aids, pain relief, cold/allergy medicine)–they don’t take up much room, but you’ll be glad you don’t have to pay full price if you need them!)
Pre-cooking list: If you’re staying at a place with a kitchen and have room for a cooler to bring frozen meals with you, these can be great options. Double up on family favorites when you make them, throw the second batch in the freezer, and you’ll have dinner ready while you’re on vacation. If you freeze them flat in a gallon-sized Ziploc, they’ll travel well in the cooler.
- Meatballs and spaghetti sauce–bring a box of spaghetti and have dinner on the table in 15 minutes
- Taco meat–reheat frozen meat
- Lasagna–freeze in a foil pan, no dishes to wash!
- Creamed chicken–serve over canned biscuits with a bag of microwaveable veggies!
- BBQ pulled pork or sloppy joes–just add buns
- Prepped ingredients for easy crock pot meals (like stuffed pork chops)
- Fresh fruit/veggies
- Steam-in-bag veggies (quick, easy, no clean-up=perfect for vacation!)
- A few easy dinner options (frozen pizza, chicken nuggets, pre-cut salad greens)
- Local specialties: lobster in New England, fresh seafood anywhere on the shore, fresh local produce, etc.
- Dinner ingredients to supplement what you brought, like taco toppings or garlic bread
- Anything else you run out of…even full price (gasp!) at a grocery store will be cheaper than a restaurant!
How do you “do food” on vacation? I’d love to hear your ideas in the comments below!
Have you checked out our other Travel on a Shoestring posts?
- Travel on a Shoestring: Lodging and Transportation
- Travel on a Shoestring: Road Trip Shopping List
- Vacation Planning on a Shoestring
- Travel on a Shoestring: Feeding your family away from home
- Road Tripping with Kids series: General Tips, Behavior Tips, Road Trip Fun for Kids, Avoid Emergencies
- Northeast Ohio Staycation & Summer Fun Ideas
- Nationwide Staycation & Summer Fun Ideas (check the list to find free & frugal fun near your vacation destination!)
- Travel on a Shoestring: Fun for the family without busting the budget
- Travel on a Shoestring: Staycations (general staycation ideas)
- Travel on a Shoestring: Disney World on a Budget
- Travel on a Shoestring: National Parks with Kids
- Travel on a Shoestring: Megan’s Month-Long Cross-Country Road Trip
- Travel on a Shoestring: Mount Rushmore and Jewel Cave
- Travel on a Shoestring: Yellowstone National Park with Kids
- Visiting Laura’s Little Houses Part 1: Intro and Little House on the Prairie
- Visiting Laura’s Little Houses Part 2: Little House in the Big Woods and On the Banks of Plum Creek
- Visiting Laura’s Little Houses Part 3: Laura’s Little Town–De Smet, South Dakota