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Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Meals on a budget for the family vacation

I realize that family vacation time is on hiatus for the fall school-term for most families. But if I don't post this now, I'll forget all about it later. So . . .

Last week we were on our pre-university family vacation. Much of the vacation had been pre-booked and paid in advance. But the one area still open for changes, to help ease the budget, was meals.

Our usual frugal way with meals on vacation -- book a hotel/motel with free breakfast, find a local grocery store to pick up sandwich fixings and snacks, and eat out several dinners (but at somewhat budget-friendly restaurants and sharing meals).

This vacation -- we did much of the above, booked a place with complimentary breakfast, complimentary fresh fruit in the lobby of the hotel daily, fridge and microwave in room, and in-room coffee/tea, and we budgeted enough $$ for 3 lunches out and 1 dinner out (all sharing meals at counter-service restaurants).

However, instead of shopping at a grocery store at our destination, we packed all of our groceries with us on the drive.

I "shopped" my pantry, fridge, freezer and garden for most of our food.

I baked and cooked at home, freezing as I went. Then I packed this all into a large cooler and two insulated bags, where it stayed cold enough for the drive down. Once there, we popped it all in the in-room fridge, to continue thawing, and used through the first half of the week.

I also shopped the dollar store at home, for treats like chips, pretzels, and candy, for "fun" snacky stuff, to keep us from buying much more expensive snacks and goodies on vacation. This saved us a bundle!

I made up a menu plan, on paper, for each day's meals we would be gone, and included our dinner once we returned home at the end of the trip. We planned for 4 meals out, over the course of 9 days. The rest, we put together in our hotel room. I brought a copy of this menu plan, and for the most part stuck to it. We did switch around two meals in the hotel room, as one entree thawed faster than anticipated, and the other thawed slower.

I cooked the week before leaving, and froze enough for the 5 of us to have on the trip. I made mostly vegan entrees, to reduce the risk of food spoilage/illness for us. And I froze everything *solid* before packing in the cooler. These items stayed partially frozen, at the least, for the entire two-day drive. At the hotel on the first night, I brought the cooler into the room and put everything in the in-room fridge for the night, where it continued to thaw at a very slow pace.

The home-cooked items were consumed early in the week. For later in the week meals, we had canned refried bean and packaged flour tortilla burritos, and pbj sandwiches. I even baked enough bread for all of our sandwiches (I baked, sliced and froze the loaves, then kept in the hotel room fridge, and amazingly none of it developed mold!).

Items that I baked or cooked, and froze, for the trip:

2 jars of pinto and black bean sandwich spread
2 loaves of sandwich bread, sliced then frozen
1 loaf of French bread, frozen
1 batch of home made hot dog buns
1 vegan lasagna casserole
1 rice and black bean casserole
1 container of bean and vegetable soup
2 batches of cookies
1 batch of apple muffins for breakfast on the road on day one, and mini muffins for snacking later
5 gallon ziplocs of popped popcorn for the drive down, to snack on (these lasted all week, and we even had one bag left for the drive home)

Items I had in the pantry, fridge or garden, that we brought for the trip:

hot dogs, frozen solid
2 jars of peanut butter (only needed 1)
2 large packages of dried fruit (prunes and apricots)
Kool-aid (we decided to forgo any soda pop for this trip)
tea bags
hot cocoa mix
carton of soymilk
pineapple juice
carrot sticks
tomatoes, cherry and slicing for sandwiches (these came out of the garden the day before we left, and lasted the entire week)

Items that I bought, for the trip:

from Dollar Tree--
candy corn, mellow-creme pumpkins, Tootsie Roll Midgies
potato chips, tortilla chips, pretzels

from regular grocery store--
canned refried beans
Fig Newtons (I had a craving, and they're healthier than many cookie types)

In all, I spent about $15 on purchased items, which came out of the vacation budget.

The menu--


breakfast: apple muffins, milk and coffee in the car
lunch: egg salad sandwiches, popcorn, pineapple juice, carrot sticks, cookies
dinner: half-way to destination, in-room microwaved hot dogs, cherry tomatoes, cookies, (this hotel had fresh-baked cookies in the lobby)


breakfast: hotel provided, complimentary
lunch: in car, bean spread sandwiches, dried fruit, carrot sticks, cookies, popcorn
dinner: counter service -- split 2 entrees, candy/cookies from home


breakfast: hotel provided, complimentary
lunch: fast food -- split 3 entrees, brought carrot sticks and dried fruit with us
dinner: in-room -- rice and bean casserole brought from home, with fresh tomatoes on the side, Kool-aid


breakfast: hotel provided, complimentary
lunch: bean spread sandwiches, pretels, fruit (from hotel lobby), bought  onion rings to share
dinner: in-room -- lasgana brought from home, with carrot sticks


breakfast: hotel provided, complimentary
lunch: bean spread sandwiches, fruit, chips, cookies, carrot sticks
dinner: in room -- bean-veggie soup from home, French bread, last of apple muffins


breakfast: hotel provided, complimentary
lunch: bean spread sandwiches, dried fruit, pretzels, bought sweet potato fries to share
dinner: split 3 fast food dinners, fresh fruit/candy/cookies for dessert


breakfast: hotel provided, complimentary
lunch: pbj sandwiches, dried fruit, chips, cookies
dinner: Mexican counter-service, split 2 large entrees, ate outdoors, also had bag of tortilla chips from home

Saturday (on the road)

breakfast: hotel provided, complimentary
lunch: in car -- mix of sandwiches, dried fruit, Kool-aid, microwave popcorn, fresh fruit, cookies
dinner: in room (half-way point home) -- bean burritos with packaged tortillas and canned beans, fresh tomatoes, cookies (complimentary fresh-baked in hotel lobby)

Sunday (last day)

breakfast: hotel provided, complimentary
lunch: in car -- mix of sandwiches, mix of leftover chips and dried fruit, Kool-aid, cookies
dinner: at home -- homemade pizza, made before trip and kept in freezer, reheated once home

I've bold-printed the meals/side items that we actually bought on the trip. In addition, we bought a caramel apple to share, a piece of pumpkin fudge to share, and a package of honeycomb candy. Our budget was $100 for purchased food. We spent $117 -- a bit over budget, but we made up for it with spending less on gas for our trip. Based on previous vacations, I estimated that we saved about $70 on eating out on this trip. For a 9-day vacation, I think we did pretty well on the cost of meals.


  1. Awesome! Hope y'all had fun!

    I always find that packing at least a few items even if we don't have a refrigerator helps save money. We did a short trio last week and because of the conference center location did not have a refrigerator. I packed popcorn, beef jerky, homemade granola bars, etc. we picked up sealed containers of soy milk to use...still cheaper than eating out...and had dry cereal. We did buy one bag of We snacked lightly for lunches and then had heavier meals in the evening. Hubby and I shared entrees those nights.

    You did a great job on your savings! I am a firm believer in "where there's a will, there's a way."

    1. Hi Shara,
      You're absolutely right about even bringing a few items can save big money. There are all those moments when one person in a group will be hungry, so the entire group will go out for something, if they haven't thought ahead and brought some snacks along. It sounds like you did a great job, given your circumstances, too.

  2. You did a fabulous job -- both in terms of planning everything out ahead of time and in keeping to your planning and budget! Kudos to you. Too often, vacation mindset kicks in, which seems to make the frugal mind go on vacation too.
    good for you!

    1. Hi Jayne,
      Thanks! We did have one moment when one of us suggested that we all go out for ice cream. I had to remind everyone that we were indeed on a tight budget, and we "could" get ice cream, but we'd have to give something else up. In the end, we all agreed that ice cream was not as enticing as some of the other meals and treats we had planned.

  3. We use the same basic method when we travel. Another detail that we have found helpful. We use sandwich thins for our sandwiches while out. They don't smash like regular bread when we toss them into a backpack.

    1. Hi live and learn,
      We did have some funny-looking sandwiches (all squished from being tossed about in a backpack). Sandwich thins sound like a good idea!

  4. Wow, great job! I had never thought to pack certain items that you listed. I usually buy soda/juice when it's super cheap/with a coupon. I hide it so nobody drinks it and bust it out for road trips. It's not a road trip without soda or juice, in my husband's opinion!

    1. Hi Katie,
      We went back and forth on soda for this trip. It turns out that it wasn't that big a deal for us to skip. But I think it is important to recognize which items "mean" a lot to individuals, and try to accommodate them, as you do. For us, it was potato chips. We rarely have chips, so buying some for the trip made the trip feel like vacation.

  5. I remember road trips to Florida when I was a kid (my grandpa lived there). Mom would pack a hotpot and canned stew for dinners in the motel. This was in the days before complimentary breakfasts, so we would bring cereal and powdered milk for breakfast (she would make it the night before and put the milk in a cooler with ice because it tasted better cold rather than lukewarm). Not gourmet, but we all seemed to survive.

    1. Hi Kris,
      I haven't seen hotpots in years! We would bring those as well on trips when I was young. I also remember my mom packing an immersion heater to make instant coffee, instant soup and cocoa. This was back in the days before in-room coffee. Mixing the powdered milk the night before was a really good idea. Many years ago, we stayed in a room without a fridge, and did the powdered milk for cold cereal, but I mixed it just before serving the cereal. It would have been better if I'd made it the night before.

  6. I usually pack food when I travel by car, and go shopping in supermarkets at my destination if I'm flying somewhere (except when I go to Melbourne and mooch off my parents!). When I went to the Gold Coast recently for the blogging conference I had a full-sized fridge with a freezer and an oven and stove. It made cooking meals so much easier :)

    1. Hi Liz,
      what a nice set-up you had at the blogging conference! A good kitchen set-up can really save you a bundle on meals, when traveling!

  7. Looks like a bit of planning ahead saved you time hunting around for places to eat and a lot of money.

    1. Hi Sarah,
      I hadn't thought of the time savings, but you're right. We didn't have those times of asking each other, "what do you want for dinner?" "I don't know, what do You want for dinner?" That was definitely a nice bonus!

  8. I am glad you got to take your vacation, Lili!

  9. I always pack a cooler with water and soda and a "snack bag" for road trips. Sometimes we'll pack a picnic lunch for the first day on the road.
    As for make-ahead meals, I think you are a bit braver than I am ... I've found hotel room fridges to be hit and miss ... some great, some barely keep anything cold. When we've had a good fridge (and were spending several days in the same place), we've brought back "doggie bags" from restaurant meals and had them the next night.

  10. Great ideas on budget meals while going on a family vacation! Gonna try them out for sure!


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