I’ve been wanting to write this post for awhile, and this month’s Eat Well, Spend Less theme of vacations and travel finally motivated me to do it!
As self-employed folk, neither Jeremy nor I get any sort of paid vacation. But, since most of my Colorado Bargains tasks can be done remotely, and some of Jeremy’s job as a real estate agent can be done sort of remotely (at least for a couple of weeks), we’ve been able to be able to take a few vacations of one to 2.5 weeks over the past few years. We’ve also been hugely blessed to be able to use weeks at Jeremy’s parents’ timeshare resort to have a place to stay for free – otherwise it really wouldn’t matter how much time we could take off; the cost of lodging seven people would be huge!
Even with staying for free, though, vacations get expensive – especially when you are trying to feed seven people who happen to really like to eat. Enter freezer cooking.
Yes, freezer cooking for vacation!
By preparing ready-to-cook or easy-to-assemble meals ahead of time and then freezing them, we save big time on vacation food and eat out very little. It takes a lot of planning and a lot of work, but the savings is worth it, and I have to say that having to spend ten minutes on dinner preparation is a lot easier than taking five little people out to eat at a lot of places. ‘Nuf said.
I’ve written somewhat extensively about how I cook non-casserole meals for the freezer, and my vacation freezer meals are much of the same. Read that if you want some idea of what I might cook for the freezer. Of course, I don’t take a deep freezer along with me, so here’s how I bring freezer meals on vacation:
→ Buy a big, gigantic cooler.
Last year, I was trying to figure out how many meals I could get in our average-sized cooler and realized that we could bring a whole lot more food if I spent $50-60 on a really big cooler. I went to Walmart and found one – I don’t know what size it is but it was hunting-themed so maybe it’s big enough to fit a deer? :) I don’t know, but it’s big, and took up most of the bottom of our van’s storage compartment.
I don’t know exactly how much we saved on food by being able to bring twice the amount of food, but it was well over the $50-60 I spent on the cooler, and we’ll of course be using it much more in the future, too!
→ Pack it tight and don’t open it!
Depending on where we travel, we sometimes stay a night at a hotel before we get to the timeshare resort. So, food that’s in the freezer has to stay frozen for a couple of days before we have arrived at our destination with the kitchen and freezer.
I just pack it tight, putting the frozen stuff on bottom and non-frozen stuff (like yogurt or condiments) on top, then we cover it with ice. We have never had an issue with anything being less than frozen after two days. I’ve never used dry ice, but I hear that can be even better.
Do not open it until you are ready to put the stuff in the freezer, though!
→ Freeze anything that can be frozen.
Last year, I brought a long a bunch of deli meat for lunches. While the deli meat didn’t need to be frozen, I did it anyway so that it would help keep the freezer cold. Doing this will just make it easier to pack the cooler with mostly food and not have to add a bunch of ice to keep it cold.
Don’t try to bring anything that’s frozen that you wouldn’t normally thaw before consuming, such as ice cream or frozen pizza. And don’t put anything in the cooler – even on the top, where it’s not as cold – that you wouldn’t want to freeze, like lettuce.
→ Bring new bottles of condiments.
By bringing unopened bottles of condiments, you can just throw them wherever as you pack – they don’t have to be refrigerated until open, so this can save a lot of space in the cooler.
→ Double-bag stuff.
When your homemade enchilada sauce has just started to thaw and your cooler has a bunch of water in it and the bag of enchilada sauce leaked slightly, you’ll be left with a nasty-looking sludge. Just double bag everything so you don’t have to clean up such a mess. (You can even use cheap plastic grocery bags as the double-bag layer, provided it doesn’t have holes.)
→ Stock up on good deals at home.
A few months before we plan to leave on vacation, I try to stock up when I see a good deal on something we don’t normally eat, but are nice to have on vacation – things like cold cereal, granola bars, etc. Those are the types of things that I can get super-cheap at home, but could be double or triple or quadruple the price if I bought them at the grocery store after we arrive at our destination.
To go along with that, pack the stuff that’s most expensive and don’t take up room in your cooler for cheaper stuff unless you have room for it. For me, this has meant packing deli meat and cheeses, but waiting to buy milk (we don’t use much) and eggs until we get there.
→ Buy the perishables on vacation.
Even if it’s a lot cheaper at home, I’ve found it’s usually much better to buy anything perishable at our destination, rather than trying to pack it ahead of time. It’s too much trouble to try to keep sandwich bread from getting squashed or apples from getting bruised as you drive.
→ Make a grocery list for when you arrive.
As you are planning your freezer meals for vacation, make sure to make a list of items you need to purchase when you arrive. Last year was the first time I’d done that, and it helped a lot to be able to just grab the list and go rather than have to think through what exactly I’d brought and what I still needed to buy to complete meals.
→ Bring your own tools & disposable cookware.
You might be a geek if…
You bring your own pepper grinder on vacation. OK, I don’t think that’s terribly geeky – but can I still claim that title when I admit that I sometimes bring along my immersion blender?! Yes, bringing along just a few of my tools (minimum of a good knife, and a pepper grinder) makes getting meals done quickly that much easier.
I don’t bring along my own cookware anymore – though I admit I have once or twice. I use whatever’s in the resort unit, and then bring along some disposable foil pans for meals that need to be baked. I don’t want to do any more dishes than necessary!
→ Be willing to buy not-homemade stuff.
Listen, I am all about cooking from scratch, but if there is one time to buy a box of macaroni and cheese (make it organic if you must) or pancake mix, vacation is the time to do it. Last year, I mixed up my own pancake mix, and then bought buttermilk and butter and eggs to mix it up, but really, I am now questioning why I didn’t buy just-add-water mix. (Honestly, it didn’t even enter my mind – I forgot it existed! But it’s really not that bad!)
→ You can bring hot meals on the road!
Two of the meals that I freeze and bring on vacation are breakfast burritos and bean/meat/cheese burritos. Naturally, you will want to be out and about on vacation, not stuck in the kitchen trying to heat up meals – but, sandwiches do get old after awhile.
I’ve had good success with heating up burritos before we leave, and then putting them in their own “cooler” (which we are really just using to hold the temperature) and eating them for lunch. They probably won’t stay warm all day, but it works for probably four or so hours. Last time, I heated burritos up at home just before we left in mid-afternoon, and then we had a hot supper on the road in the early evening.
Soup would be another thing that you could do similarly with, using a thermos, though that might be kind of messy to eat on the road.
→ Bring lots of snacks for the road.
This doesn’t have much to do with freezer cooking for vacation, but it was a huge source of savings for us on our last trip: bring snacks for the road and about 30 minutes before you stop for a meal, start stuffing the kids with high-protein snacks like nuts or granola bars. My kids ate way less at fast-food stops when we did this!
→ If you don’t have a kitchen, improvise.
As I mentioned, we usually stay at a timeshare resort when we travel, which means there is always a full kitchen. But, it’s possible to cook even if you don’t have a full kitchen – check out how much friend Jen cooked in a hotel room at Disney! I’ve actually brought along an electric griddle on a trip once myself, though I didn’t end up using it. I’m totally going to do that next time we travel, though!
Do any of you freezer cook for vacation?
That’s how we eat well and spend less on vacation. How about you? Click here to share your vacation food tips and tricks!
And, look for more posts from these Eat Well, Spend Less bloggers this week: