Just how much does it cost to eat out? How to travel hack food costs

This article is mostly travel related, but it can apply to regular life as a meal planner. In doing the cost breakdown for our Vegas trip, I was shocked to see what we spent for groceries compared with what we spent dining out. We have written previously about why we like timeshare or apartment vacations (including house rentals from Airbnb, etc.). One big reason is the ability to defray food costs. Another reason is that I’ve come to love the creativity that goes into cooking. Anything from preparing a couple of meals at your homebase to storing and eating leftovers to having a drink or two at bulk prices can trim your travel spending significantly. 

After several years of condo vacationing, we mastered the art of vacation rental cooking and meal planning when flying to a destination. If you’re driving, you can bring almost anything from home and pretty easily tote extras back, which makes meal planning more forgiving. Here, we’re sharing our secrets to big savings and less food waste. 

But first, let’s talk about why. We’ll use our Vegas trip as an example. We spent $270 dining out vs. $160 on groceries. What did we get for the money?

$270 included:

  • Five meals, mostly for two people unless otherwise stated, which where:
    • Dinner with beer at a mid-priced, chain restaurant off-strip for 3
    • Dinner with wine for 2 at Gordon Ramsay Steak (high end)
    • Our share of food at a pool cabana, plus 1 cocktail in a souvenir cup
    • Late lunch at Gordon Ramsay Pub (mid-priced)
    • Dinner at Shake Shack (quick casual)
  • All three of our dinners out included a significant comp or credit, which is accounted for in our total. For example, our pre-credit bill at Steak was well over $270. Even with these deals, it’s easy to see how expensive dining out is relative to grocery shopping.

$160* included:

  • Alcohol for 6 days (for a group of 8 people)
    • Beer (a 20 pack, 2-12 packs, and a 15 pack)
    • Box of wine (equivalent to 4+ bottles)
  • Beef taco dinner for 6 people, with Spanish rice, chips and guacamole
  • 3 breakfasts for 3 people with eggs, bacon, and hash browns
  • Baby carrots and cucumbers with ranch dip
  • Apples, oranges, and bananas
  • Greek yogurt
  • Ground coffee 
  • 24 pack of bottled water

*Approximately $80 of this was spent on alcohol. 

We overbought groceries. It’s hard to estimate when traveling with others and the schedule can change unexpectedly. Sometimes it’s difficult to estimate food needs for a week and only a week. When overbuying, I always feel worse about the food waste than the money. We bought a few items in larger quantities than we needed, even though our plan for when and what we would eat at the condo was accurate. Appetites vary and I always prefer to have too much when hosting. From a financial standpoint, the taco dinner alone put us ahead. Dinner for 6 with drinks would have cost more than $160. Some of the groceries lasted through the entire six day trip–like the fruit and bottled water. By contrast, the restaurant meals were almost entirely consumed at the time of ordering. Our grocery spending paid for items (especially the booze) enjoyed by the full group of eight. One round of pool cocktails for the group was equal to our entire grocery spend!

This illustrates how powerful even a little bit of restaurant or bar avoidance can be. So how do you cook in a vacation rental without feeling like you’re working away in a kitchen the whole time? Make smart purchases. 

Choose convenience (and convenient) foods

At home, I never buy baby carrots. I will gladly exchange the extra work involved in cutting carrot sticks for tastier snacks. In a vacation rental, I’ll splurge on pre-chopped items to save time and because the knives aren’t the same quality I use at home. There are plenty of similar options like pre-cooked rotisserie chicken, pre-shaped burger patties, or packaged hash browns. On vacation, pick up some of those convenience foods (even if you would otherwise prepare from scratch).

We almost always cook breakfast for ourselves when staying at condos. It’s true that breakfast is an inexpensive meal to eat out, but it’s even cheaper to cook it. Breakfast is one of the easiest meals to make and a hearty one means that you might skip lunch altogether. Breakfast foods can also be used in other meals, which is an excellent hack. For example, bread can be used on a sandwich at lunch and toast with breakfast, try bacon on a BLT sandwich, eggs in a brownie or cake mix, or fried rice. 

Snack Time

Buy foods that are good for snacking. Fruit, deli cheese, crackers, chips and salsa, are all good examples. Snack foods require almost zero prep work, little to no cooking, and are easy to clean up. Sometimes we don’t feel like having an entire sit-down meal, or want foods we can take to the beach or pool. Combining snacks with a sandwich or having a few snacks can add up to an entire meal. Snackable foods provide flexibility, which is so important. 

Versatility is your friend

Versatility is a key consideration. Because it will be difficult or impossible to bring excess food home when flying, try to buy items that you can use up completely. Choosing meals with common ingredients is a great way to do this. Also avoid too many items packaged in large portions. Condiments, butter, and cooking oil are common examples (and these items violate the liquids and gels rule, so you can’t bring them home in a carry on). This isn’t a prohibition, but it is a caution sign. Butter can be used for cooking and on toast. Oil can be used as a salad dressing or for cooking. Peanut butter can be used on toast or sandwich spread with banana or as a snack with an apple or celery, and could even be used to make a sauce for a stir fry or noodle dish. The size and tastes of your group, along with the length of the trip will guide you. We use hummus for snacking and also as a sandwich spread instead of mayo or mustard. Our rule of thumb for condiments is to choose the one item we have the best chance of fully using and skip the rest. Often this means planning meals that won’t require cooking oil or butter. Convenience foods like heat and serve skillet meals are useful to avoid ingredients you’d typically have on hand like spices.

Versatility is also an important consideration for cornerstones of a meal, too. Figure out how many portions of an item come in a package and then plan for enough meals to use it all. A package of shredded cheese (another item, like baby carrots, that I never buy at home) has lots of servings and can top tacos, mix into scrambled eggs, turn a sandwich into a melt or tortilla chips into nachos. When planning meals in advance, think about how you can stretch one ingredient across several meals. 

Eat your veggies, especially the portable ones

Produce is a great choice. Many produce items are sold individually or by weight. It’s easy to pick up one tomato, two sweet potatoes, three apples, or four bananas. Lemons, limes, avocados, onions, garlic and fresh herbs are great ways to add flavor to dishes that can be purchased in small quantities at a low price. 

Don’t forget about foods that travel well. Especially when flying budget airlines, we’ll often pack along snacks like trail mix and fruit. If you have something at home that you can easily pack, bring it. On the Vegas trip, I’d intended to make taco seasoning and bring it along. I ran out of time and instead bought the grocery store spice packet. You can make a single meal sized dry spice blend and carry it in a ziploc bag or small jar. I brought a packet of ranch dip mix to stir into greek yogurt for veggie dip. When grocery shopping at your destination, try to opt for the most portable foods. I don’t mind buying a whole bag of mandarin oranges because those travel easily. Portable food can also be tossed into a bag for a snack when out exploring for the day. Using fruit as an example, we often choose apples, bananas and oranges over less portable choices like strawberries and pineapple. 

Simplicity is king

Keep it simple. As someone who loves cooking from scratch, I can’t stress this one enough. Vacation is not the time to try out a new technique or complicated dish. One reason is that you’re keeping a lean grocery list. Another is that your equipment probably isn’t the best. On our Vegas trip I made guacamole fresh from scratch and it was a show stopper. I chopped fresh cilantro, diced a roma tomato and jalapeno, chopped and mashed three small avocados, and squeezed the juice of one lime. What sounded quick and easy at home maxed out my prep capacity on vacation. I’m glad I made it, but in practice it felt like more work than it does at home. You should plan for less prep than you’re capable of doing at home. 

It’s fine to have these fresh, “showstopper” type items on your meal plan. Keep in mind that you don’t want to have to make them at every meal. What feels quick and easy at home might feel less so on vacation. And make sure the more prep-intensive dishes are tried and true for you. This goes back to the idea that vacation isn’t the time to try out something new or complicated.

Know your tools and keep your meal plan flexible

Understand your equipment. We recommend checking into your vacation condo before buying your groceries. There are lots of practical reasons for this, like having your keys and being able to keep your refrigerated and frozen items at the appropriate temperatures. It also helps to understand the supplies available in your condo. Will you have an oven? Does the coffee pot need paper filters? Will you have access to a grill? Does the rental have salt & pepper? Although it’s possible to call or find out some of these details in advance, there’s no substitute for seeing things with your own eyes. Some Airbnb or other owner-managed rentals might have even more kitchen amenities. Examples include bottles or wine or cans of beer left behind by prior guests (or included by the hosts as a welcome gift). We once stayed in a rental with a fully stocked fridge.  

Plan ahead but remain flexible. After years of staying in vacation condos, we now have a running list of the types of groceries we plan to buy (many of which are mentioned here). On arrival day, we’ll check into the condo, evaluate the equipment, and reconsider our list in light of any last minute adjustments to our itinerary. At the grocery store, we might also make adjustments on the fly based on what’s on sale. Speaking of sales, many grocery stores use membership club cards to offer sale prices. Tell the cashier you’re in town on vacation and ask if you can use the store’s card. Usually they won’t make you sign up, but if they do, it’s probably worth the few minutes to do so. 

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