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You don't have to do the math to know that feeding the family in restaurants three times a day when you're on vacation is a big expense. Consider staying at accommodations that have a kitchenette. Then, make a plan to make the most of your ability to cook in.
The key to getting the best use out of a kitchenette is creative preparation. That can be as easy as checking in with your hotel/condo, coming up with a menu (or two or three), scanning your pantry at home to supply extra items, and heading for the grocery store once you get to your destination.
Call the management of your accommodations. Before you can come up with a workable plan for vacation meals, you have to know how the kitchen is equipped. Ask about major appliances, cooking utensils, pantry and refrigerator space, and food-prep items like mixing bowls. Here's a Q&A checklist that will come in handy:
____Is there a full-size stove? ____Is there a full-size oven? ____Is there a microwave? ____Is there a blender? ____Is there a dishwasher? ____Do I need to bring dishwasher and dish soap? ____Are there kitchen towels, paper towels, and trash bags, or do I need to bring my own? ____Is there a good array of pots and pans? ____Is there a good array of mixing bowls? ____How big is the refrigerator? ____How big is the freezer? ____Does the fridge have an ice maker? Is there an ice machine on the premises? ____How much pantry/cabinet space is there? ____Are mixing spoons, spatulas, etc. available? ____Is there an outdoor grill? Is it a private grill or elsewhere on the premises for all guests to use? ____How is the kitchen set for place settings of dishes and flatware? ____Does the management have a cooler they loan to picnicking guests?
In your zeal to economize, don't forget that part of the memorable fun of vacation is eating out -- but doing so without breaking your budget. Plan to have a few meals out. Just because you have a kitchen, or kitchenette, at your disposal doesn't mean you have to cook every meal. The trick is to balance economy and effort. You're on vacation, too -- slaving over a hot stove isn't on the itinerary. Decide ahead of time how many meals out you can afford. Sketch out your trip's itinerary and see when it would make sense to catch brunch, lunch, or dinner out so that your days don't have to revolve around being near the kitchen. Once you know how many meals you're planning for, write out your menu, leaving room to improvise around inspiration that hits you at your destination. When you're thinking about your food plan, consider some of these ideas.
1) Use your fridge, pantry, and cabinets to good advantage. Having a kitchen in your accommodations doesn't mean you necessarily have to eat there. It does mean you have a base of operations that gives you flexibility to eat in or to prepare food and take it with you. But if you don't shop and have food on hand, you're not going to be able to make the most of your kitchenette. Bring from home only what you can comfortably carry -- being especially mindful that a few teaspoons of spices and herbs in marked baggies will save you the expense of buying entire bottles when you get there.
Soon after you arrive at your destination, head to a full-service grocery store. Maybe you want to take the family along on the excursion for their input and for the excitement of doing something seemingly mundane, like grocery shopping, in a new place. Buy what you need for the meals you've planned, get the staples you usually have on hand (don't forget plenty to drink, including more bottled water than you usually go through), and fill things out with handy snack food. Pick up fun items that will be special to your family -- maybe dried cherries, healthy snack mixes, yogurt-covered raisins. Don't forget when you're at the store to buy paper plates and baggies -- they always come in handy. And save your grocery bags for wet bathing suits, trash, etc.
2) The freezer case is your friend. Plan to spend some quality time in the freezer aisles. Part of vacation fun is about new and different experiences, and eating new things can add to your family's sense of adventure and discovery. A big frozen lasagna might be nothing new, but a veggie variety with garlic bread and simple salad might be. It's easy and festive, and leftovers can be lunch fare. Ditto with a quiche; you can buy them ready-made and just bake, or buy some frozen crusts and add anything to your base mixture of egg, milk, and cheese. The point is that the freezer case is full of interesting food if you look beyond microwave pocket sandwiches and pizzas. Veggie entrees have gotten especially exciting -- consider mixing in a few non-meat meals for healthy variety. Even if you never "cook frozen" normally, vacations offer the perfect respite to try frozen entrees.
3) No-cook meals can be easy and delicious. The prepared-foods and deli cases are allies, as well. Having sliced turkey, roast beef, ham, and cheese on hand means good sandwiches for lunch. You can pack them up for a picnic, take them poolside, or just put them in the fridge in baggies for casual grazing to keep the demands on Mom to a minimum. A selection of prepared salads in clear deli tubs in the fridge will allow you to round out a meal and lets the family fend well for themselves between meals. Remember backpacking around Europe and budget vacations in college? A baguette, cheese, and a few apples or grapes went a long way. Even now, a loaf of good bread and crackers, some fresh fruit, a few yummy cheeses, and salami or cold cuts make for simple good eating for lunch or dinner.
4) Build-it-as-a-family meals are fun and simple. Why not have a build-your-own sub night? Put loaves of French bread and sandwich fixings on plates on the table, set out the condiments, and let the family have at it. A bowl of fruit salad, some gourmet chips and salsa, and ice cream for dessert are all the finishing touches you need. For another easy family food effort, build your own pizzas. Buy prepared pizza crusts, grated mozzarella, bottled or canned pizza sauce, and whatever toppings sound good. Let the kids pick out theirs -- maybe you'll convince them to try more than the package of turkey pepperoni you picked up at the store. Adult palates will appreciate more exotic fare like slightly steamed veggies and the leftovers of last night's roasted chicken.
5) Find out what's fresh and improvise. If it's fresh, it can become a low-effort centerpiece of a meal. You can take your chances and be spontaneous. Or, call your accommodations or the destination's chamber of commerce to find out about local farmers markets, produce stands, fish markets, and area specialty food stores. Stopping at a local market or roadside stand is not just a means to a meal -- it's an experience to be enjoyed and even photographed. A watermelon bought off the back of a farm truck on your way to and from vacation outings can become an unforgettable dessert or the piece de resistance for a picnic -- not to mention a family memory. The catch of the day bought from a harbor stand might become the meal everyone remembers. A basket of fresh tomatoes and whatever else is in season becomes a delicacy: Just cut into bite-size pieces and chill for a few hours in good olive oil and vinegar -- then add chunks of stale crusty bread to cucumbers, and green pepper, and you've got an Italian summer staple. You can hardly go wrong when the ingredients are fresh. Keep it simple and the taste will do the rest.
6) Grill out one night. If there's a grill at your place or on the premises, plan for a barbecue. Burgers and hot dogs become special when you grill them on vacation. Buy good buns, dress up some baked beans with a tasty bottle of barbecue sauce, pull out the tub of potato salad you got at the deli counter, and call it a meal. Whittle down some sticks for marshmallow roasting. When was the last time you and your family watched the night sky get silly with stars while you treated yourself to s'mores?
7) Wrap it, stuff it, take it to go. One of the best things about having a kitchenette is that you can make food "at home" and take it with you for cheap eating while you're out enjoying your destination. Even peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches take on a certain appeal when paired with interesting chips, fruit, and juice boxes and served on a picnic table in a state or city park -- or even on a quilt on a scenic roadside stretch. More on the portable theme: What would we do without tortillas and pita bread? With a stash of these in your kitchenette fridge, the most boring leftovers can become inspired lunches and snacks. Your marinated veggies from the other day become a filling. Top them with some cheese -- feta makes things exotic, cheddar and Monterey jack please the kids' palates -- on tortillas or in pita pockets. Top with sprouts and lunch is ready.
8) Make more than you need for low-key, high-taste leftovers. Making more than you need for one meal might at first seem wasteful, but think about low-effort leftovers. If you're roasting a chicken, roast an extra -- maybe even two. With the leftovers, you can fix chicken salad or make chicken sandwiches for a picnic. Made ahead of time in large quantities, chicken and tuna salads can easily become sandwiches or the topping for green salads that are meals unto themselves. For a Nicoise salad, just top Romaine lettuce with a scoop of tuna salad; add boiled eggs, boiled chilled new potatoes, black olives, capers, cherry tomatoes, steamed and chilled French green beans, and dress with a red-wine vinaigrette. (With proper planning, the new potatoes, green beans, and boiled eggs might already be on hand from a previous meal.) That fresh fish you bought practically off the boat (or caught yourself) has plenty of life in leftovers: Cut it up for fish tacos for lunch -- just add salsa, a squeeze of lime, some cilantro and sprouts, and wrap in warmed tortillas. Leftovers can also become casserole creations or quiches. Meat, fish, and veggies mixed with canned cream-of-almost-anything, grated cheese, noodles, and low-fat sour cream, then topped with breadcrumbs and baked, can become an inspired improvisation. If you make up two dozen hard-boiled eggs the day you arrive, you've got a big head start on deviled eggs for your barbecue night and egg-salad sandwiches for a picnic lunch.