Easy Meals to Cook on Vacation
Let’s talk about easy meals to cook on vacation! As I’ve been gearing up to take my entire little Krewe to France for a month (still in shock!), I’ve been plotting what meals I can make quickly and easily in our AirBnbs. Cooking in saves so much money, not to mention that at the end of the day with tired toddlers, eating dinner in your lodgings is almost always more enjoyable for all concerned! I think this is true no matter where I’m traveling, or how big or small the trip.
However, this mama’s idea of vacation is not to spend a ton of time grocery shopping and cooking. (I suspect I am hardly alone in this.) If we’re taking a road trip I’m happy to prepare some meals ahead of time to bring with us, but if we fly somewhere that’s not really an option. In that case I have to get creative and work with small, minimally-equipped kitchens. So in order for a recipe to quality as an “easy recipe to make on vacation”, it has to meet five criteria:
Easy Vacation Meal Criteria:
1) It must not require a lot of cooking and/or clean-up time. Nothing too involved, not a lot of dishes to wash. No long lead time (usually) after a day of sight-seeing.
2) It must not need any fancy kitchen gadgets or special tools. Vacation kitchens usually only house the basics. Hence, I could make any of these meals in every AirBnb we’ve stayed in.
3) It must not need a lot of ingredients, or ingredients that are hard to find. I don’t want to wind up throwing food away at the end of our trip, and I don’t want to not be able to find something I need to cook with. (You’ll see below that I’ve given suggestions for how to use up extra ingredients, or use them in two meals. Also, I’ve given a sample grocery list at the end.)
4) Generally, I lean towards meals that are methods rather than exact recipes. You’ll find a couple of exceptions in my list, but generally I find it much easier to just get in the kitchen and start prepping rather than needing to look at a recipe. It makes the process of getting dinner done faster.
5) But most of all, it must be tasty and enjoyable!! This is, after all, a vacation, and meals should feel a little celebratory! (But not gonna lie, easy helps in this regard.)
Here are fourteen easy meals to cook on vacation that meet ALL of those criteria!
1. Baked Potatoes
Throw them in the oven, load them up with your heart’s desires: sour cream, cheese, broccoli, chopped ham, bacon, cottage cheese, butter, chives. . . you know the drill! Plus they’re super cheap. It does take an hour in the oven, so perhaps it’s not the fastest, but it made the list for its ease of cooking. Just plan accordingly.
Cook up some spaghetti noodles/ravioli/whatever other noodle you love, and top them with jarred marinara/pesto/olive oil and cheese. Mac’n’cheese for the kids would also fall into this category. (Or hey, here’s an easy delicious grown-up version, too!) If you run across fresh pasta at a market, bring that home for a meal that’s as fancy as it is easy. Or take an extra couple minutes and make this amazing dish. A little side salad goes with it beautifully.
3. Rotisserie Chicken/Veggies/Salad
So this made it on the easy-meal-to-make-on-vacation-list, because I make this all the time at home and have tested how easy it is! Grab a rotisserie chicken from the store, salad fixings (or a prepackaged salad if you want it to be even easier), and throw some frozen broccoli and/or frozen french fries on to a cookie sheet in the oven to roast them up. BOOM. Only work required is putting a cookie sheet with food on it into the oven. If you don’t want to even fool with putting anything in the oven, add a side of hearty bread or raw cut vegetables with a dip.
4. Loaded Salad
A loaded salad is perfect for using up those rotisserie chicken leftovers; put them on top of salad greens with a bunch of veggies and a bit of cheese. If you want a little inspiration, one of our favorite dinner salads is my copycat Newk’s Favorite Salad . Or go Greek (feta/goat cheese, bell pepper, tomatoes, cucumber, olives, maybe chopped ham). Add a baguette or other crusty bread to round it out elegantly.
This meal would be a great way to use up both baked potato and loaded salad leftovers; fill the omelettes with whatever cheese and veggies are laying around, and maybe make a little side salad too. It feels like a step up from scrambled eggs, but is hardly any more work. You just need a skillet and a bowl! Bonus: those leftover baked potatoes make excellent home fries for a tasty side. Slice the cold potatoes and saute them in butter until golden brown and crispy.
6. Fancy Grilled Cheese
All it takes for next-level grilled cheese (aka for grownups) is good bread and quality cheese. Spread some toothsome, crusty bread with butter, and fill it with whatever quality cheese and veggies strike your fancy before you toast in in a skillet. Cheddar is a classic, but I love smoked gouda for its flavor and how well it melts. Maybe I’ll discover a new favorite cheese in the land of cheese! Caramelized onions, sliced tomatoes, and bacon or ham are all next-level additions that make for a grilled cheese that tastes like anything but a shortcut dinner. (You may also notice that all of these ingredients would also work really deliciously in an omelette. . . no ingredients left behind!)
7. Brats with sauerkraut and mustard
Think of this as the German version of fancy grilled cheese; hot dogs get elevated to a proper meal by quality brats and rolls, as well as whatever fancy mustard tickles your taste buds. Serve it with sauerkraut and maybe a side of sliced fruit. All you’re doing is warming up ingredients; what steps it up is the quality of the ingredients you buy! (Hat tip to Michelle for this idea.)
8. Charcuterie Board
Charcuterie boards (aka antipasta) is having something of a moment on social media, it seems, but if you’re not worried about fancy presentation you couldn’t get an easier meal to cook on vacation (it also makes an excellent picnic). Cold cuts, fruit (we like melon), olives (marinated is best!), a block or two of cheese, some nuts, crusty baguette, sliced sweet peppers, cucumbers, and carrots, and you’re done! It’s not “authentic” but my kids love dipping their veggies in ranch dressing; those veggies get eaten up! Everyone can serve themselves. Plus it’s a really fun excuse to explore local markets and sample local foods.
9. Fish/Fish en Papillote
“Fish en papillote” is French for “fish in paper” — fish and veggies encased in parchment paper, then baked in the oven. It’s almost impossible to overcook the fish this way, so it’s virtually foolproof. The folks at “Dinner: A Love Story” whimsically call these “fish presents”; you can also think of it as a present to yourself to have a nice meal that takes little work. Layer fish of your choice with some veggies and pop into the oven (you can read the full recipe/technique over here.) We usually do tilapia, lemon slices, and green beans,then season. Any of the previous meals’ leftovers (salad, home fries, veggies, pasta) complement the fish well. There are no dishes to do because the meal cooks inside the parchment paper, which gets thrown away!
10. Quesadillas (in the States)
I qualify quesadillas as a state-side meal, because I don’t really know if tortillas are common in France or the rest of Europe! (I’ll let you know. But I’d be willing to bet you could find them in Latin American countries. . . hehe.) My favorite way of making this easy vacation meal grownup-approved is by using raw tortillas from the refrigerated section. They’re SO much tastier than the precooked ones! Cook the tortillas according to the package directions (it takes just a minute), then fill with shredded Mexican cheese, and maybe also sliced apples (surprisingly tasty, and a nice variation), ham or rotisserie chicken, or some of those leftover sauteed veggies from omelette night. Serve with sour cream (leftover from baked potatoes!) and whatever veggies and fruit you’d like. (Are you sensing a pattern here? I’m all about overlapping ingredients for both budget and sanity!)
In a similar vein, taco night is quick and easy to achieve in a small kitchen! I’d suggest you buy good-quality guacamole already-made for easiest preparation. If your AirBnb has spices available, I season my canned refried beans with cumin and a little chili. You could also season leftover rotisserie chicken to make chicken tacos.
12. French Onion Soup
Has she lost her mind? French onion soup?? Hear me out– all you need to make this luxurious dish is a pot, a cutting board, some (hands-free!) time on the stove, and a few basic ingredients! Really! It’s the perfect dish for a tiny kitchen, and what could be better to make on a rainy day than hot soup, when you’re at home doing laundry anyway, or are hunkered in for a cozy evening? (Close your eyes and imagine a chilly, drizzly evening outside, while inside everyone’s reading next to a fire, or laughing and telling stories, all while being warmed by soup topped in gooey cheese. Tell me that wouldn’t be a heavenly way to spend an evening or what??) Even better if you have slightly stale bread from earlier meals that needs to be used up — the bread’s being put in the soup anyway! I love Smitten Kitchen’s recipe for French Onion Soup. (Yes, I’ve linked a lot to her site. . . what can I say? We’ve gathered a lot of favorite recipes from her in 13+ years of reading her blog!!) If it’s readily available I think adding beef Better Than Bouillon to the recipe is the perfect touch to deepen the flavor. It’s a great meal as-is.
13. Ham/Cheese/Egg Crêpes
Tender crêpes are wrapped around oozy cheese and savoury ham; there’s a reason that this is another easy dinner staple at our house. The kids love them too, and they’re something a little different that the usual. I’ll grant you that this is a variation of the eggs and cheese theme, but what better way to make ingredients do double-duty? You can read the full recipe and technique over here. (Though note: I find it much easier to put the egg on the crêpe already slightly beaten.) This is another meal that’s nice with a salad, too. Bonus: extra crêpe batter may or may not be amazing with Nutella and bananas. . .dinner AND dessert from one dish!
14. Bodacious Sandwiches/BLTs
Am I the only one who “cheats” and makes a really great sandwich for dinner, only to ask myself why we don’t make them more often?? Make a classic BLT, or load up a long loaf of bread with lots of meats (ham/turkey/chicken/bacon), greens (sprouts, crispy lettuce, thin-sliced cucumbers), tomatoes, cheese, special mayo/mustard, avocado, olive spread for an easy low-prep dinner. . . your imagination is the limit, and we find such sandwiches so satisfying to eat. Also great for picnic dinners/lunches on the go!
Sample Grocery List(s)
So you’re about to get a glimpse of my love of lists. Here’s how I make sure these meals are actually easy to make once I’m on vacation. Pick say, three of these meals, and list all the ingredients you need to make them. You can make this list in the car/plane ride over, or the week before, so all you have to do is walk into a grocery store and follow your list. Lists are good when you’re jet-lagged and/or hangry. If ingredients overlap, I put a “x2” next to it so I know I need enough for two meals. (I didn’t put quantities on these lists, because that depends on how many of you there are.) Here are two examples:
European Café Vibe: Omelettes/Onion Soup/Antipasta: eggs, charcuterie meat, onions (an extra one to cook for omelettes), bell pepper, olives, crusty bread x2, cheese x3 (two to four varieties, your call–soup, omelette, antipasta), fruit/melon, beef broth, white wine (to cook with, you lushes), butter, side salad if desired.
Kid Favorites: Grilled Cheese/Baked Potatoes/Quesadillas: good sandwich bread, potatoes, cheese x3 (cheddar/gouda), sour cream x2, onions (saute), chives, bacon x2, tortillas, butter, apples (inside quesadillas and/or grilled cheese sides), broccoli (ok, maybe not a kid favorite but we can try ;). Optional: Ranch and veggies for dipping.
You’ll notice that these grocery lists wind up being pretty short — easy for shopping and storing, and everything should mostly get used up! As I’ve tried to note above, most of these meals repeat ingredients, so you can mix and match a week’s worth of menus easily.
So those are my fourteen easy meals to cook on vacation that I’ll be making on repeat on my trip! (Or, um, at home. . .) What easy meals do YOU make on vacation?