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This simple travel hack can save you money on vacation meals | CNN



This simple travel hack can save you money on vacation meals | CNN

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You know what I love doing in the summer? I’ll give you three things:

• Taking road trip vacations
• Eating well on my road trips
• Not going over my food budget while on a road trip

That last one is a little tricky to pull off because — and I admit this might be an obvious statement — the cost of eating adds up over the course of a vacation.

Even if you’re not the kind of person who loves to fill up on a big, leisurely brunch, finding affordable but memorable options for every meal during a long trip can be challenging.

I used to make do with deli sandwiches and brought-from-home snacks, but now I have a secret weapon for quick but satisfying road trip lunches: my Coleman camp stove.

Despite my outdoorsy hippie reputation among friends, this was the first time I dove into cooking on an outdoor propane stove before renting a camper van for a cross-country trip with my husband on Route 66. But once we were on the road and figured out the logistics of our travel routine, I realized the stove’s versatility and utility, not to mention the genuine fun of being able to cook lunch on the go.

With a two-burner stove and pump sink in the back of our camper van, we could pull over and cook lunch pretty much anywhere during each day’s adventures. I made pesto rotini in the parking lot of Ulysses S. Grant’s historic home in Missouri, flipped grilled cheese sandwiches in a local park in Baxter Springs, Kansas, and slurped up cheesy zoodles outside the Painted Desert Inn in Petrified Forest National Park.

Now I’m a seasoned outdoor cook and have invested in a full mini kitchen setup for my camping excursions. I’ve fallen in love with camp stove cooking so much that I now bring it with us on most of our summer road trips — whether we’re camping or not. Coupled with my trusty 10-inch cast-iron skillet, the camp stove gives me a way to save a few bucks and eat well during the day so we can have a big dinner out.

I might get a few stares in hotel parking lots and patio areas, but it’s worth it for the convenience and reassurance of a good meal while sticking to my frugal budget. Hey, I own all these items already — why not use them?

Along with my stove and skillet, I also bring a few basic tools for cooking and cleaning. I keep a crate packed with the following:

• Metal tongs
• Fish spatula (slotted spatula)
• Silicone spoonula
• Silicone trivet
• Olive oil (in a small squeeze bottle)
• Kosher salt
• Bar towels
• Washcloth
• Laundry tub
• Castile soap

Because I’m using a propane stove, I only cook in well-ventilated outdoor areas and bring a foldable metal table to make sure there is a safe cooking surface no matter where I’ll be.

Simplicity is the key to easy camp stove lunches. When I’m planning these meals, I don’t want to complicate my prep with anything that requires chopping on-site. Remember, all equipment needs to be washed in your hotel bathroom, so this is no time to get fancy.

To accomplish this, I turn to pre-prepped ingredients, a departure from my usual higher-maintenance home cooking. However, these items are easy to find in many US grocery stores, so they don’t need to be packed in advance. With these versatile building blocks, I can make a variety of meals.

I start with a base of shelf-stable carbs, such as bagged, ready-to-eat pasta, rice or grain blends. Protein comes in the form of beans, whether canned or bagged, frozen mini meatballs or seasoned tofu or seitan from the refrigerated section.

The frozen and refrigerated produce sections offer a cornucopia of quick-cooking vegetable choices, including zoodles, cauliflower rice and stir-fry blends, pre-chopped onions and peppers, green beans, snap peas, baby spinach, and broccoli florets.

Sauces can be as varied as pesto, marinara, salsa, salad dressings, or simply a bit of butter and salt. I’ve also been known to bring some cheese powder from my pantry to make a macaroni and cheese meal as well.

Don’t forget that a one-skillet meal can also be as easy as a quesadilla, nachos, flatbreads or a homemade grilled cheese that beats the pants off a basic cold deli sandwich.

Mix and match these ingredients and find the fun in cooking outdoors on your camp stove for your next road trip.

Casey Barber is a storyteller, artist, creative strategist and editor of the website Good Food Stories.

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