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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.


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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:


      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.

            1. MFP - We do a lot of road food but without children since it's just the two of us. Your children might like something like popcorn and Chex Mix for snacks -- cheap, easy & portable. If you have the room, a plastic bin with staples makes travel food a lot easier. Condiments and flavorings stay in there along with plates, cups, silverware, serving spoon, knife, bouillon cubes and a Corning Ware casserole for microwave re-heating. I always take canned artichoke hearts, white beans, tomatoes, salsa and orzo because I've found they can be used many different ways - artichoke hearts & white beans mashed together for a happy hour dip OR used along with the tomatoes for a soup-y stew with or without added Italian sausage (use your venison).

              We bought a Coleman car fridge which has been a boon! If we're on a long trip, I put several meals already frozen in it so they add additional cooling power not to mention ready-to-eat meals after a long day. Also, I like to take some pre-cooked meat so I have sandwich makings for lunch as well as a head start on dinner. Think flank steak, whole chicken or pork roast.

              I have a gas casette (it's often used for brunch omlette station cooking) that I use for in-room cooking. It either replaces or supplements the microwave. I like it because when I find something wonderful locally, I have more versatility in cooking. An electric skillet could do a similar job but is not so handy on picnics, she says remembering some fabulous chantrelles I got in Oregon.

              A small jar of apricot preserves, some Dijon mustard and chicken thighs braise together either in the micro or skillet for a simple supper. If this is on the right track, I'll send more.

              1. I like the idea of homemade granola and chex mix. One thing that also occurred is that you can pre-roast and slice your own lunchmeats and lose the nitrate/salt/fake food factor, and keep them cold for at least a few days. You could pre-make tuna and potato salads and cut veggie sticks and buy little sealed tubs of lowfat dip. Salsa and baked chips would work; also bringing potatoes to bake in a microwave, and a thermos of chile and some shredded cheese to layer over them. Don't see what problem there would be in a vegetarian lasagna that you freeze ahead and let thaw and then re-heat; also some soups would work well. I'd pre-cook some chicken breasts and pre-cut some veggies and bring a bottle of teriyaki and some soba or ramen noodles for a microwaveable stir-fry; if you bring a small self-contained griddle you can make grilled cheeses and soups in the microwave. Bags of salad mix, w/ packets of dressing, plenty of crackers and cheese cubes. Hardboiled eggs; flour tortillas to make wraps out of refried beans, avocado, cheese and salsa, which would work for breakfast and snacks too. you could make a meatloaf ahead and scallop some potatoes for a dinner, or prefreeze any number of stews. Of course the main issue is your cooler capacity. I think the rice steamer or/and a small crockpot would be helpful equipment.Have the time of your lives, I think it's GREAT.

                1. stop by truck stops and check their 12 volt appliances, stock and supplies vary by truck stop, but there are coolers, crock pots, hotpots "ovens" and other stuff that plug into the cigarette lighter socket There is even a microwave --teeny - and large for what you get. Have driven many a mile with the stew simmering in the crock pot and filling the truck with that fine aroma. There is a certain pleasure in lifting the lid and stirring and sampling the soup at the stop light or toll booth.. Be warned, this is the peak of cheeep and things don't last, so keep receips and such for warranty...enjoy the journey

                  1. What about bringing containers of frozen soup? You can make large batches of soup and freeze them in individual or larger containers and defrost them in the hotel microwave. They'll also keep anything else extra cold.

                    Roasted veggies also travel well (not wet or mushy or leaky). Bring roasted or grilled slabs of eggplant, zucchini, onions, beets, peppers, or whatever you like in a container and make sandwiches with a ball of fresh mozarella. If you bring along a small grilled cheese maker or panini press, you could even serve the sandwiches hot.

                    Just a thought- breakfast for dinner. If you have a plug in waffle iron, mix up the batter beforehand and bring it along in a container in the cooler- maybe even frozen. Bananas travel pretty well, so use those as a topping for your hotel room waffles.

                    1. Thermal cookers are great for road trips. They're like a cross between a slow cooker and a giant thermos. You start the cooking going on the stove before you leave, then put the pot in the insulated carrier and it keeps cooking while you travel. Then that night, dinner is ready to be served - no need to fuss about with cooking at the end of a long day of travelling, it's excellent :)

                      I was dubious about the heat retaining properties of thermal cookers but to test it out, I made a pot of soup one cold winter evening and let it sit overnight. In the morning when I opened it, there was still steam rising from the food. So I'm a total convert!

                      There are a few rules for success - for example, you need to have the pot close to full to minimize heat loss, and you need to make sure the food is in small enough pieces for the heat to be able to penetrate through (i.e. no big roasts). Soups and stews are ideal. I've even seen cakes made in these but I've never tried it.

                      They are used a lot in Asian cultures and also quite popular in RV camping circles. I think everyone should have one because they are so environmentally friendly and convenient.

                      The unit also doubles as a cooler when you haven't got something hot cooking in it... maybe useful for storing cold drinks in on the trip home.

                      There's a topic here on thermal cookers that I started ages ago, if you're interested I could dig it out.