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Need travel food for road warriors w/kids: cooler yes, mini-fridge & microwave sometimes.

Hi all - we road-trip quite a bit along with my husband for work. Kids are 8 & 5. One will eat anything, one is moderately picky but is a fruit, dairy, and pasta freak so she makes it.

We often find ourselves in a hotel room in the evening or even for lunch & dinner while Dad is out working (baseball scout). The goal is for us to avoid room service or the walk across the parking lot to whatever "restaurant" fortune has gifted us with. Otherwise, it just gets a bit costly at this point for us to tag along. Secondary goal is to enjoy a really good meal that just happens to be in a hotel room.

I have run out of ideas for food to take along. What I normally take suffices well for snacks but doesn't satisfy as a meal. We usually take a mid-sized cooler (the size that isn't embarrassing to lug into the hotel room). It won't work as a refrigerator but we most often stay in the types of places that have a dorm fridge and small microwave. Here's the parameters for what I need:

1. *very* portable (I'm open to ziplocs, throwaway plastic, or "lug back home" containers). Individually portioned dishes would probably work really well if we are talking about a main, side, or "wet" dessert. For those I could use disposable cups and seal really well with plastic wrap.
2. either doesn't need refrigeration at all, or can fit into the cooler in a ziploc bag or such. I'm a food poisoning freak because of the kids so I can't hang with letting meat or egg dishes ride outside the cooler. Cooler space will basically be at a premium, but I don't mind allocating other bags for food.
3. can be mains, sides, salady things, desserts, or snacks. No fish/shellfish please.
4. economics are an issue. I really have to crack down on the grocery budget. I try to stretch the expensive stuff far, but still buy things that are very flavorful to make us feel that we aren't missing out (goat cheese, sundried tomatoes, capers, etc). So I need to limit the pricey stuff.

I would love a couple of harmonized meal ideas and I particularly think I need some hearty savory snacky things (thinking like cheese straws, sausage cheese balls, etc). FWIW, we have a freezer full of venison in pan sausage, smoked link, and Italian sausage format. Would be good to mow through some of that since hunting season is upon us again.

I love to bake and make homemade versions of commercial stuff (currently addicted to homemade yogurt courtesy of the mega-thread on Chow) so make ahead and freeze ideas might be nice too - something that could thaw in the cooler on the way, but would reheat in the microwave ok.

Of very particular interest would be some sort of bars or snacky things that would fit in my purse for outings outside the hotel to avoid visiting snack bars, fast food stops, etc.

Thanks all! I know it seems like I should be able to figure this out myself but I'm already just.so.very.tired of planning weekly meals at home and kid school lunches, etc. The thought of having to come up with extra creative energy to do this is too much. If I work up a couple of road food menus and rotate them, I'll be sailing.

MFP

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  1. It sounds like you are already doing great things in the kitchen. One easy way to have great meals is to prepare a double batch of whatever is on the menu for the regular, not traveling night. Then freeze the extra portion in whatever cooler friendly container you want.

    Continue to build up a repertoire of fresh, homemade meals. Then when travel time arrives, pull them out and stock your cooler! Not only will they keep everything else cold, but you'll have familiar, comfort food out on the road.

    1. You might be interested in this thread:

      http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/6434...

      about one-pot meals for the rice cooker. I got a tiny one (like this: http://www.amazon.com/Panasonic-SRG06... -- have seen an even cheaper one at Walgreen's). An obvious thing I did was steam rice with salmon in foil on top; you can make a surprising number of simple boxed type meals in it. I now take it with me all the time when I have to travel for work.

      I also packed a lot of the spices I use a lot in teeny ziplocs (you could use snack sized ones if you are not insane like I am --minimum order of the tiny ones was a thousand; I have been giving them away to friends and relatives for things like packing meds).

      A more grown-up version of this would be an electric skillet, which you can get for under $30; let's face it, there's not a lot you can do with meat in the microwave. And breakfast is a snap.

      1. Since you already have some venison meat in the freezer, I suggest cooking some of the Italian sausage links then freezing. You could pair with some pasta cooked in the microwave and a salad. If you have access to a food dehydrator, you could make jerkey out of any number of meats for snacking and also use to dehydrate veggies for travel...last winter, I dehydrated sweet potatoes, onions, garlic, etc. Later, I used them in a stew. You could also make dehydrated fruit to eat as a snack or add to granola (I made a bunch as gifts at Christmas)

        I know you don't want eggs to go unrefrigerated BUT they can be kept out for a certain amount of time without refrigeration and it won't kill you. If you're traveling for a day or so, you could put the eggs in the fridge once you got to the hotel. I recently bought 4 dozen of eggs but had no room for them (they were on sale so I couldn't pass it up) so I kept them on a shelf in my laundry room for three days before I had enough room to put in the fridge. I'm still here to type about it so obviously it didn't kill me.

        I agree with bringing an electric skillet & rice cooker as well as a slowcooker; I'd consider a waffle maker and or a griddle also. There's just so much you can do with a microwave. Also, since you're only using a medium cooler for 4 people, it limits what you can take. I'd take the biggest one I could transport, if you load it with re-usable containers, you'll take up the majority of space. I'd suggest zip top bags. I ran across a bunch of savory cereal treats when googling a few days ago that you may be interested in for snacks. Bake up some quick breads that you could pair with cheese and/or fruit for a quick snack. If you buy bottled water, milk or other drinks that come in plastic bottles, save those bottles and re-use with making your own tea or other beverages. These don't need to be refrigerated right away so are good for travel.

        1. What great family memories you guys must be building doing this! We have made a number of road trips with our now 9- and 6-year-old kids -- longest trip was 2600 miles, 10 days, 7 states. While I don't usually cook along the way, we do try to pack good snacks to keep unhealthiness to a dull roar. One of my favorite accessories is my Trader Joe's insulated grocery bag -- I can fit nearly as much in there as my cooler when I use those ice packs you put in kids' lunches and you don't look nearly as odd walking into a hotel. They also mush into the trunk much more effectively.

          I also agree with others that buying a couple of useful appliances would really open up the possibilities. Have fun out there!

          1. What about quick-breads, like banana bread, that freeze beautifully? Slice, freeze, wrap, thaw in the cooler. Great snack.

            My other thought is, why not check the zillion or so bento websites out there? Lots of creative, interesting, travel-friendly recipes.

            Ooh, what about bringing a tiny rice cooker or slow cooker as another poster suggested and making little venison meatballs in marinara (frozen in cubes in a ziplock)? Then some crusty bread and you're in business.