by: LiLing Pang
During our trip to Paris with our 2 and 4 year old boys last winter, we were eager to enjoy some wonderful French cuisine, but needed to keep within a tight budget. Instead of splurging on 3-hour dinners with kids in tow, we decided to visit local farmer’s markets and specialty food stores to purchase fresh produce and local delicacies to whip up some deliciously French flavored meals in our little vacation rental. It worked out beautifully! The children were able to try some local cuisine without mom and dad stressing out about offending sophisticated Parisians with our sometimes rowdy brood. Best of all, we were able to cater to the culinary quirks of our boys, get those much needed veggies into their diet, and experience new foods at a fraction of the cost of eating at restaurants.
Many families are catching on that renting a vacation home is one of the best ways to house a group with young children. Our family loves to eat, and staying at a vacation rental is our top choice for lodging. But, how do you plan a menu that minimizes your time in the kitchen and maximizes fun for everyone? Here are some of our best tips for planning and packing vacation meals. The key: keep the menu simple and partially prepare meals before embarking on your journey.
Step 1: In or Out – Decide How Many Meals You’ll Be Cooking
After you've figured out a rough itinerary for your trip, decide which meals you'll want to eat out, which you want to have delivered and which ones you’d like to “cook”. With young kids, consider eating out for lunch instead of dinner. Lunch meals are less expensive and the kids aren't as tired so they'll be better able to handle sitting in a restaurant.
Step 2: Do an Inventory Check on Your Vacation Rental
Before planning your menu, it’s very helpful to know what kind of kitchen equipment is available at your vacation rental. You don’t want to plan a menu with BBQ ribs and arrive only to discover that there is no outdoor grill. Here are some questions to start off with.
Step 3: Plan the menu
After many hours of traveling, arriving at your vacation rental is a moment of great excitement for everyone. Our kids usually run all over the house like frantic bunnies. Everyone is busy unpacking and settling in. Once the excitement dies down, you can be sure that your family will be looking to fill their tummies. To avoid starting off your vacation with hunger-induced meltdowns (yes, yourself included), plan a quick and easy first meal. My favorite arrival meals are grilled salmon or mac & cheese with salad. If prepared ahead of time, these meals can be ready in a snap.
Familiar recipes make for happy cooks and kids: Children are notoriously conservative with their food when they are experiencing disruptions in other routines. Use recipes that are familiar to you and your kids. You’ll also be able to whiz through the recipes. If you need to cook from a recipe, don’t forget to pack a copy along with your groceries.
Start out the day right: Vacations are times when you can afford the luxury of a leisurely breakfast. A well-rounded breakfast allows you to feel more relaxed if lunch on the go isn’t as complete. However, a well-rounded breakfast doesn’t mean you need to do anything complicated. A few boxes of wholegrain cereal, bagels, and even frozen waffles with a nice selection of fresh fruit are easy to prepare. Add some protein with eggs, baked sausages, or yoghurt. Oatmeal with some maple syrup is perfect for warming the kids up before a day of snow play.
Lunches on the go: Lunch is a great meal to dine out since you’re already out sightseeing. But you can definitely save some money and time by bringing along a picnic lunch. Sandwiches and finger foods with some baby carrots, cucumber slices, and cherry tomatoes are easy to pack and serve. Our family loves to pack picnic lunches especially when we are heading to a place with scenic views.
Coming home to a quick but satisfying dinner: Gas grills and slow cookers are your best friends. Grilling is flavorful, quick to clean up, and easy to cook in large quantities. Grilling meats in small chunks like kabobs, fish and veggies in aluminum foil are some good options for fast and tasty meals. Slow cookers allow you to prepare hearty meals that require minimal prep time and are magically ready when you return from a fun day of sightseeing. If you've got a little one to cater to, most slow cooked meals are really easy to mash up for baby. In the winter, chili and soups can be started in the morning in a slow cooker or prepared the night before and heated up quickly after returning from a long day on the slopes. It'll warm everyone down to their toes.
Catering for babies and toddlers: Lisa Barnes, the author of the popular Petit Appetit Cookbook says, “My philosophy is to use whole foods and cook for the whole family - without having to make an entireley separate meal and menu for each age. By using the same ingredients (but changes to cooking methods or prep) you can feed everyone."
Other foods that travel well for babies and toddlers are bananas, sweet potato, squash, yoghurt, and spilt peas. Barnes suggests bringing along homemade purees that can also be used to make soups for everyone.
Touring with your palette: If you're passing local farms along the way, or traveling to a place that has interesting local specialties, you might want to consider leaving space in the menu for fresh local produce or interesting treats you find along the way.
See a sample 4-Day Winter Vacation Menu. Perfect for your next trip to the snow.
Setup 4: Shopping and Preparing Ahead of Time.
Partially preparing your meals at home before heading out is the secret to minimizing your time in the kitchen while on vacation. There are the added benefits of being able to shop in a familiar grocery store, and you'll minimize the number of spices and seasonings you need to pack. If you plan on shopping at your destination, it is always helpful to have done some research on what kind of grocery stores are available. In Google maps, you can type in the address of the house, then search for nearby grocery stores. Property managers can usually let you know where the nearest stores are. Esther Lee of Palo Alto orders groceries along with other essentials like diapers and baby wipes to be delivered a few hours after you arrive. Safeway.com and even some small local grocery stores still provide home delivery for a small service fee.
"If you're looking for ski food items I would suggest chili, spaghetti, macaroni and cheese, lasagna. These are all hearty, usually will have left-overs, can be prepared or prepped (cut veggies, grate cheese) at home (if traveling with cooler) or made easily with few pots and pans." suggests Barnes. Her Petit Appetite Cookbook has easy and healthy recipes that would be a sure hit with your kids.
Driving: If you're driving to your destination, cutting, marinating and freezing the meat before putting them in the cooler for your road trip make your vacation meals a breeze.
Flying or driving with limited trunk space: If you must delay shopping for when you arrive at your destination, the most valuable things to pack ahead of time are your spice rubs and dressings. This will save you from buying all those random spices at your destination or having to adapt recipes on the fly.
Step 5: Packing the Car
Now you're all set to go. Don't forget a bag of healthy snacks for the journey that's easy to access. "It's easier and healthier than stopping for fast food along the road." says Barnes. She recommends packing items like "water, cheese sticks, yogurt sticks, steamed veggies and hummus in a cooler along with staples like whole wheat crackers, bread, fresh and dried fruit and granola bars."
A great way to keep baby’s food warm for the trip is by packing it in a thermos. Just heat the food up before heading out the door and 3 hours later, the food is still warm and ready to eat.
If you’ve got some great tips for cutting costs on food while on vacation or tricks for making meal preparation easy, please share and add a comment. We are always looking for ways to minimize time in the kitchen, maximize the dollars in our wallets and increase the happy level of our vacationing families. Have you got a quick scrumptious meal that’s great for vacation homes? Add them to our sample 4 day winter vacation menu.
Boy voyage and Bon appétit!
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