Spaghetti or Escargot? Food For the Journey

by Anne Clay Cernyar


It was late. We were tired and still had a long way to drive before pitching our tent for the night. And we were hungry. Along the road, neon signs beckoned temptingly. Should we stop for a buffet? A Chinese dinner? A burger and fries? Or should we eat bread and cheese again?

For the "hard-core" traveler who plans to spend weeks on the road, few things can break a budget like restaurant stops. But those ready-to-go meals can be hard to resist. Here are a few tips that helped us keep our food costs down as we traveled across North America last summer. It takes a little planning and self-restraint, but you can eat well without draining your savings!

Lesson 1: Save high cost dinners for special experiences. - If you have a limited food budget, plan to eat out only when the experience will do more than fill your stomach. For example, we tried escargot (snails) in Quebec, fresh lobster along the rugged coast of Maine, and homemade biscuits at a quaint restaurant at a historic lighthouse in New Brunswick. Those meals were memorable because of the location, as well as the food.

Lesson 2: Pack as many non-perishable items as you can. - It's sometimes difficult, not to mention time-consuming, to find inexpensive grocery stores in a strange city. So, we stocked up at our local Save-a-Lot before leaving home. My husband built a storage compartment in the trunk of the car, and we tucked away cans of vegetables and other non-perishable foods.

Lesson 3: Never Buy Food at a Convenience Store - If you want to drain your food budget, buy soft drinks and snacks every time you fill up for gas. Seriously--plan ahead and take the stuff with you or you'll find yourself tempted by the convenience store foodstuffs which are outrageously priced. Compare the cost of cold can of Coke (often 75 cents) and a two-liter bottle of the same stuff from your cheap, local grocery (I often pay 79 cents).

Lesson 4: Pack Ice - If you purchase perishable foods (such as hot-dogs) as you need them, this will cut down on the food that must be kept cold. But, no matter what you eat or drink, you probably will need ice for your cooler at some point. We froze plastic soft drink bottles full of water or Kool-Aid before leaving home. Tucked in the cooler, they kept other food chilled. As they thawed, we drank the cold beverages. We re-filled and froze the bottles again at any opportunity (e.g., in a freezer at a friend's house or "naturally" when nighttime temperatures dropped below freezing).

Bagged ice is easily purchased en route. But if your needs are modest (say, just to chill the soda you're about to drink), ask for a glassful after you've filled up your gas tank. (Take your own mug inside. When you pay for the gas, ask to fill your cup with ice.) If gas stations charge you for the ice, though, it's probably not cost-effective in the long run.

Lesson 5: Cooking Those Travel Meals - Plan to eat low-preparation meals as often as possible. If you can fix lunch while your partner is driving, so much the better! For more complicated meals, we took along two items for cooking--a gas campstove and an electric hotpot. With the campstove, we could cook anywhere. For the hotpot, we used outlets in campgrounds or even laundromats. Occasionally we also cooked over a campfire. If you'll do this often, take a small grill and fire-building supplies. Don't forget cooking tools such as a spatula and frying pan.

Lesson 6: Packing Up the Food - Evaluate your favorite recipes with an eye toward easy preparation and storage. Pick items that don't need to be kept cold. Carry foodstuffs in containers that can be disposed of when empty--cardboard boxes, plastic bags, margarine tubs, etc. Put foodstuffs that may melt (chocolate, margarine) in leak-proof containers. If you will soon be using the cold food, a temporary "cooler" of layered paper bags and boxes will provide sufficient insulation for a day or so. When empty, discard the wrappings to save space.

Lesson 7: Suggested Traveling Food - Some things to drink include non-perishable drinks in powdered form such as tea bags, hot cocoa, instant coffee, Kool-Aid pre-mixed with sugar, powdered milk, Tang, soup cubes, etc. Some cool drinks are good hot, too. A personal favorite is hot lemonade. Pack soft drinks to chill in the cooler. Heat water for hot beverages in your hotpot.

Pack things to cook in a hotpot or over a campstove or fire. Pack instant foods to mix with hot water, such as one-minute rice, quick potatoes, Ramen noodles, etc. (Insulated mugs with snap-on lids also work well for cooking rice. Put rice in the mug, add hot water, snap on the lid, and let it steam until done. Meals that take a little longer to cook include macaroni and cheese, spaghetti, and canned soup. Of course, don't forget the marshmallows for S'Mores!

Also, pack plenty of no-preparation foods like fruit, cheese, bagels, cold cereal, peanut butter, and cookies.

Restaurant meals are hard to resist, but it can be done. An organized traveler can plan and prepare good meals that won't monopolize your time or decimate your budget. Happy camping!


Anne Clay Cernyar writes from Alabama where she enjoys planning budget trips with her husband. Comments? Drop Anne a note at UpWrite@juno.com.

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