A stunningly obvious solution to a persistent problem (vacation edition)

vacation meals

As you may have gathered if you follow me on Instagram (@annebogel) my family and I just got back from round one of summer vacation.

I’ll tell you more about how that all came about on Wednesday, but for now I want to share how we successfully problem solved a major vacation hassle.

I’ve been a gluten-free eater for a few years now. My daughters also have a smattering of food allergies. I’ve learned to navigate my own sensitivities pretty well, but have found that eating out in America with my daughter’s soy allergy (plus gluten, plus dairy, plus seed oils, etc.) is darn near impossible.

Feeding this child well while we’re on the road has been a struggle, to say the least. Too many restaurants don’t have a single thing on the menu she can eat.

I bought my friend Jessica Fisher’s freezer cooking ebook when it came out last fall. I don’t do a lot of freezer cooking, but her book had a section about taking freezer meals on the road. I had never thought to do that. She advocated prepping food in advance to save money, while pointing out that this was a genius way to accommodate those with food sensitivities.

In hindsight, this seems like a stunningly obvious solution to our problem. But I’d never considered it, and knew we had to try it the next time we went on vacation.

Last week was the test. My family was splitting a week between two cities, and we were staying in two different places with decent kitchens.

I didn’t do much in the way of planning. I quizzed the kids on what they wanted to eat on vacation, and bought ingredients for the recipes they suggested that were easy to prepare–and easy to clean up. I prepped a few meals (or parts of meals) before we left: salsa verde beef, barbecued chicken, marinated chicken breasts. Two kinds of soups: lentil and black bean. I bought a few main dishes that were a breeze to cook–flat iron steaks, frozen shrimp, a side of salmon–and easy sides. We packed it all in a giant cooler and hit the road.

It worked.

No one experienced any allergy symptoms the whole week. That’s incredible for us. We didn’t spend much time on food prep–much less time than we would have spent eating out. We enjoyed hanging out at the condo eating dinner together, instead of cross-examining the chefs on how they cooked their meat, or what kind of oil was in the salad. And we definitely saved a ton of money (parties of six are expensive to feed, no matter where you’re dining).

We’ll definitely do this again, though we’ll do a few things differently next time: like no sweet potato fries–so much cleanup!–and we’ll take more meals that Will is comfortable cooking, because I did feel like I was doing a lot of meal prep some days. But all in all it worked great.

I can’t believe I didn’t think of this solution years ago.

On our last night, we stumbled upon a pizza place that did a gluten-free, soy-free, dairy-free, canola oil-free pizza. We paid $24 for a smallish pizza, and it was delicious, and our kids declared eating in that night–with pizza and veggies and a view of Lake Michigan–a vacation highlight.

This confirmed a few things for me.

Food matters, and it’s worth the trouble to get it right. We don’t eat pizza much, and that was a really special dinner for my kids.

Doing the legwork on allergy-free dining is exhausting, and after spending half an hour (on the pizza place’s website, and then on the phone) researching ingredients, I was so grateful I didn’t have to do that for every meal we ate on vacation.

$24 on a smallish pizza is a little crazy, and I’m so thankful we ate well for so much less than that the rest of the week.

Forgive me if this is incredibly obvious to you. For me, it was a breakthrough–and it made a world of difference to my family last week.

Have you ever been delighted to find a stunningly obvious solution to a persistent problem? Share it in comments so I don’t feel so silly.

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Comments

  1. says

    Yes! Food on vacation is so important! I love the idea of so many freezer meals. My husband and I follow a paleo diet, and we end up traveling with a lot of canned salmon, hard boiled eggs, and jerky. We also rely on Chipotle a lot. Last month we flew in Bozeman Montana, at 10 pm, after traveling all day and discovered that Chipotle has not made it’s way to Bozeman. We were meeting friends of friends and ended up just stopping at a grocery store and bought bacon and eggs. We arrived at their house, introduced ourselves, and then used their kitchen cooked up at to make breakfast for dinner. They were very kind, and we had a long conversation about why bacon is actually pretty good for you!

    • Karlyne says

      Amy, I’m sure you read the labels; a lot of bacon has wheat and/or corn in it. Can you believe it?!? Makes me cry…

  2. says

    Most of the time when we go on a vacation, we look for cabins or condos that have kitchens so we can spend less money on food. We don’t do it so much for the allergy issues, as none of us have food allergies…but I can only imagine how difficult dining out must be for you guys! Taking freezer meals had never occurred to me, either…but it’s a good idea :)

  3. says

    I’ll admit the basic idea is appealing since my son as food allergies and cooking yourself can save a great deal of money. But I’ve discovered, at least for me, that if I have to cook on vacation, then it’s not a vacation for me. (This is the reason why I tell my husband I won’t do camping). Some kind of compromise in between might be possible. But I’m glad you found a system that worked for you.

    • says

      I’m definitely learning that it’s all about what meals we choose–or it doesn’t feel like vacation to me, either! I’ll definitely do some tweaking for the next go-round.

  4. says

    Anne, I’m so excited for you! My family doesn’t deal with major food sensitivities, but I have dear friends who do, so I’ve seen firsthand how exhausting it can be to eat out–let alone go on vacation.
    That being said, I will tuck this idea away for frugality’s sake :).

  5. Tina B says

    I’m so happy for you that this worked out so well for you and your family. I fly most of the time, so I have learned what I can pack in my suitcase and in my carry-on, but I’m just being frugal, not fighting allergies. I must admit that I was surprised that you took chicken, much less, two meals. You must have packed them in a lot of ice. I think I’d be too afraid that they would spoil from not being cold enough. Clearly no one got sick. It sounds like you all thrived instead and that’s wonderful!

    • Tracy S. says

      Tina,

      The meals are frozen solid when they go in the cooler so it is easy to keep them cold. This whole plan only works well if you are staying in a condo with a kitchen, so they can go in a refrigerator when you arrive.

  6. Karlyne says

    “Food matters and it’s worth the time to get it right” is something that we all need to remember! I think Americans treat food as some kind of fast privilege. We pull in to a restaurant and chow down without ever thinking about what it is, where it comes from, and what has been put into it. But when you start getting sick from it, a good perspective starts to percolate in those little brains of ours!
    Good article, Anne; I’ve found that most of the time it’s way easier to steer clear of restaurants in general than to worry about what’s in their food.

  7. Tracy S. says

    I have done this on vacations, since I have a child with IBS and because I find that I am just too frugal to enjoy a week of restaurant meals. We would eat out for lunch and then have dinner at the condo. Lunch is usually much cheaper–yay!–and we were out running around so it was convenient. I have, however, also bought sandwich stuff for picnic lunches, too.

  8. says

    Ha, that’s every childhood vacation I ever took right there! We didn’t have much money, and I’m the oldest of 5 kids, so we always stayed in condo type places with kitchens, and my mom packed all the food. We usually never ate out at all on vacations. And on the way to our destination all 5 of us had to sit crosslegged because in our foot space was a cooler with frozen food in it. But the way home was roomier once the food was gone. :)

    • says

      I think my kids would resonate with your cooler space-hogging comment. Although it did make a nice tray to prop up the DVD player on. :)

  9. says

    Oh, I love hearing things like this! It IS hard to eat well when you leave the house…esp with food allergies, sensitivities, etc. I will be tucking this little trick into my back pocket as well :) So glad your vacation went well!

  10. says

    We always packed most of our food for trips when I was a kid because it saved money, but then my brother developed a soybean and peanut allergy (he grew out of both, and let me tell you we partied!), so traveling was usually a nightmare; as a kid I never realized how much work it was for my mom. Plus family was really unhelpful and unwilling to accommodate, which only made things worse.

    And while I’ve yet to take a vacation as a parent (my littles are almost 3 and six months and our bank account’s about the same size), I can’t imagine how stressful it would be to constantly worry about food…while trying to relax. So glad you found something that works for you and yours!

  11. says

    I hadn’t thought of that, but what a good idea! As someone who has to eat gluten free, dairy free, and soy free road trips are very frustrating. Plus I feel bad asking those we’re staying with to accommodate my allergies. If I brought food to help prep dinners for everyone, that could be a good solution, thanks!

    • says

      If you have any tips for eating soy free on the road, I’d love to hear them. I didn’t realize how hard soy was to avoid until we needed to avoid it.

      • says

        Yes it’s very tricky. Sometimes I just have to be ok with eating a little and getting back on track when I’m home. But typically I pack a whole lot of Lara Bars, apples, bananas etc. to eat as snacks. For breakfasts I will sometimes bring my own gluten free oats to make topped with fruit. For lunch I stick to salad with olive oil and vinegar on the side for dressing. Dinner is harder because you never what’s in sauces etc. so if you find the secret to enjoying a flavorful meal out, I know I’d love a blog post on that :)

  12. says

    This is how I grew up on vacation! Mom would pack lots of food and I remember the ‘fun’ food, stuff we didn’t get everyday at home. We always felt good and could enjoy the full days of fun rather then getting sick or a cold from an overloaded immune system.

    I’m so glad it all worked out for you, sounds like you guys ate well! =)

  13. Heather says

    I used to do this all the time for road trips and overall I loved it. However, nowadays my food sensitivities (migraines from wheat) are for whatever reason, real or imagined, much less severe than they used to be, and the work and planning was just too much to be worth it for every single meal. But if my migraines get worse or my kids develop allergies, I’ll be more than happy to do it again.

    I do still love VRBOs and camping, and I don’t mind cooking because I try to view it not as work, but as a fun chance to be a little crazy and make things I don’t normally have the time/energy/patience to do at home. It’s a great time to bring out the Julia Child books!

    • says

      Heather, I sooo hope that’s what our future looks like. I’d love it if she grew out of some of these sensitivities. We’re crossing our fingers. :)

      Also, I love your perspective on vacation cooking.

  14. says

    We packed freezer meals for the first time on our recent vacation and it was a huge light bulb moment. I don’t know why it never occurred to me before, and better yet, all those freezer meals kept the rest of the food in the cooler cold without having to invest in bags of ice.

  15. says

    “Have you ever been delighted to find a stunningly obvious solution to a persistent problem?”

    Anne — I thought of you on this quiet morning as I sat down to fill out medical forms for ALL my kids! We are going to a new dentist today and thankfully my husband thought to stop by the dentist’s office last week and pick up copies of everything I need to fill out so I don’t have to do it there on the day of the appointment with all my little ones in tow!

  16. says

    I don’t think we’d have room in our car for this, but I love the idea. We stayed in a condo for the first time this year, and it was wonderful to be able to make simple baked chicken or spaghetti type meals.

    I love Jessica’s book. I make freezer meals all the time in my day to day life and hers is quickly becoming my favorite. I actually just made her lawnmower tacos and sloppy joes last night.

  17. says

    What a great idea. I love this. I just cut grains, sugar and dairy from my diet and it is really hard to find places to eat on the go.

    We are going to a wedding this summer where we will be in a hotel for 5 days. This is a good reminder that I need to do my homework on grocery stores and restaurants!

  18. Kim says

    Anne – a very timely post. We just got back from vacation as well, and I was disappointed by how hard it is to travel with two kids with food allergies. This is the first time we have traveled with both kids, and they have different allergies, so it is even harder than it was when we traveled with just the older one. I did pack snacks and some breakfast items, but we did not have a kitchen and ate out for lunches and dinners. I, too, feel like it’s not really vacation if I”m cooking every meal, but maybe if I’d cooked most of them in advance and was just heating them up I’d feel differently. Thanks for the ideas and for the empathy!

    • says

      I think I did cook a little too much on our trip. I’m thinking through how to do better next time. We’ll have another go at it later this summer. :)

  19. Melissa says

    I have done this for camping. I took a crock pot as well. What is best is if you can freeze as many complete supper meals as possible that can just be dumped into a crock pot in the morning. If you use paper, your only real cleanup is the slow cooker and your ladle. :)

    For breakfasts, we do eggs, and allergy friendly cereal, or stay in a motel with boiled eggs on the breakfast bar. :) For lunch we splurge and eat gluten free bread with lunch meat and raw veggies.

  20. Dani says

    I have mild and not-so-mild food allergies myself depending on the ingredients. I usually just compromise as best I can on vacations when it comes to the juggling of being fed by family, eating out, etc. all while trying to save money. We try to take food with us for weekend trips but I hadn’t considered doing freezer meals for our upcoming cross-country trip. Thank you!

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