How to Bulk Cook Healthy Meals for Vacation

Bulk cooking for vacation

A mother’s job never ends and nowhere is this more true than on vacation! I’ve always thought it was ironic that when we finally get time to go “relax” it only takes packing bags for the whole family, planning healthy meals, packing gear, planning the trip, (and so much more!) just to get there.

In fact, usually when we get home, I feel like I need a vacation from vacation!

Don’t get me wrong… I absolutely love the time our family spends together. From something as simple as camping in the woods to a week long stay at the beach, those moments away from regular work and routine and just spending time together are some of my favorite times, but sometimes it is more work than being home!

I once read a satire article called “Mom Spends Beach Vacation Assuming All Household Duties In Closer Proximity To Ocean” and while it was meant to be satire, it also rings somewhat true!

Vacation- you mean cooking and cleaning in closer proximity to the ocean

For those of us who chose not to eat at a restaurant for every meal on vacation (both for budget and health reasons), vacation can seem like more work with cooking and cleaning in a new kitchen.

This is what I did for years and I always dreaded it! The hectic trip to a grocery store when we arrived, having to buy all supplies and foods and having to find a way to cook in a new kitchen. This year, I finally did what I should have done years ago and applied my normal meal planning and bulk cooking to vacation time and for the first time in forever (cue Frozen song) I actually felt like I got some time off too!

Bulk Cooking Healthy Meals for Vacation?

I really can’t believe it took me so long to start pre-planning healthy meals for vacation. At home, I meal plan all the time (using Real Plans– check it out if you haven’t… it saves me sooooo much time!).

Most weeks at home, I also batch cook to save time and simplify a few meals.

By applying these same techniques to vacation I got a week off from cooking (and we even had extra family members on the trip so I was cooking for more people).

I pre-made all of the dinners from the trip, planned easy lunches that didn’t really require prep, and we had leftovers or other no-prep foods for breakfast.

I also did something I almost never do:

I used foil pans so that I could pre-make and freeze the meals in my deep freezer. I lined the pans with natural parchment paper when I could to reduce aluminum exposure. Even though I’m not a fan of using foil at all and don’t use it at home, I realized that if we had to eat out, we’d likely be eating non-organic food cooked in a non-stick skillet, so this was still less exposure than eating out (and cheaper too).

The other option (that I might try in the future) would be to use half size stainless steel table pans for making and freezing since they stack compactly when empty and would be easy to bring home.

How to Pack Healthy Meals for Vacation

As we were driving to the beach, we had about a nine hour drive. This method would probably only work with drives about this long or shorter.

What I did:

I pre-made all the food (scroll down to see my meal plan) and froze them in my deep freezer. On the morning we left for vacation, I used a large laundry basket and some beach towels to create a makeshift cooler. Of course, a regular ice chest would also work, but I needed to fit a lot of meals in a small space and was brining a laundry basket anyway.

I put a couple of towels on the bottom of the laundry basket and started stacking the frozen meals after wrapping each one in another beach towel. I topped with some ice packs and more towels and put the whole thing into the back of our vehicle surrounded by suitcases for more insulation.

I made sure that the meals we were planning to use the first two days were on the top and bottom since I figured these would defrost first.

When we arrived, the top and bottom meals had started to defrost a little but were still mostly frozen and very cold. These went into the refrigerator at our rental so we could use them and the rest of the meals went into the freezer.

I simply took out the meals I would need for the next day every night to defrost in the refrigerator and put them in the oven when we needed them.

This resulted in minimal dishes and cleanup and really easy meals for the whole trip. I purposefully made enough of each meal that we could eat the leftovers for breakfast most days and we wrapped leftovers in wraps and lettuce leaves (or gluten free bread) for lunches.

It wasn’t as clean as we would have eaten at home, but it was definitely much better than eating out for every meal.

The best part?

I didn’t cook on vacation, we didn’t have to take all the kids to crowded restaurants, and we saved money while eating delicious food all week!

Bulk Cooking Healthy Meals for Vacation: Meal Plan

These are the meals I made for our trip. Really any meals would work, but these were ones that were easy to make and freeze.

Day 1: (Arrival Day)

Slowcooker Chicken Fajitas (double batch) with pre-made guacamole and salad.

Day 2:

Breakfast– Leftover fajita chicken with eggs
Lunch– Nitrate free lunch meat wrapped in seaweed sheets with cucumber, carrots and guacamole
Dinner– Beef stroganoff over cauliflower

Day 3:

Breakfast– Leftover stroganoff
Lunch– Tuna sandwiches on gluten free bread with fruit and cold veggies
Dinner– Zucchini Lasagna (made a double batch)

Day 4:

Breakfast– leftover Lasagna
Lunch– Reuben salads made with nitrate free pastrami, sauerkraut, lettuce and homemade thousand island dressing
Dinner– Beef and Cabbage Stir Fry (pre-made double batch)

Day 5:

Breakfast– Quiche made with leftover beef and cabbage stir fry
Lunch– PF chang imitation lettuce wraps made with ground beef, water chestnuts and homemade hoison sauce
Dinner– Pre-made taco meat on lettuce tacos with all the toppings

Day 6:

Breakfast– Leftover taco scramble
Lunch– Salads with leftovers from the week
Dinner– All the leftovers (it was my plan to go out to eat this night if we needed to but we ended up having enough leftovers!)

This meal plan is just a sample and the one I used, but this system would be easy to customize with your favorite recipes. I’d also really recommend using Real Plans for this! It already has all of my recipes pre-loaded and it creates a really easy to use shopping list. You can also customize any meal plan, eliminate foods you can’t or don’t eat and adjust for family size. It is seriously one of my best time-saving tips! Check it out here.

Do you ever feel like vacation is more work than staying home? Ever tried pre-making food?

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Reader Comments

  1. It’s a great idea not having to keep cooking on vacation but I wouldn’t be happy taking meals I had frozen at home on a long drive. You’ve got no idea without a proper thermometer what temperature it had got up to. What I have done is to take decent cooking equipment, non perishable food, and a menu plan and order groceries for delivery on the morning after I arrive then do a bit of cooking.

    • If the items were still frozen, then the food was safe, even the mostly frozen food. Also, if the towel/laundry basket idea doesn’t feel right, you could always use an actual cooler and surround everything with ice. There are also plug in coolers that can plug into the car (majorly expensive, but if somebody travels frequently and has health issues requiring home made food, might be worth it).

      • I have used your method and it does work. I made sure our “dishes of food” were frozen solid then wrapped them in their own towels put them into the basket wrapped a sleeping bag around then surrounded with the suitcases. The food was just a bit thawed so we still had to wait but it all worked out just fine. Thank you for giving such a good detail of how to do this, many young homemakers might not think of this and stress over it a lot.

    • I put mine in coolers with dry ice. Everything is still perfectly frozen when we arrive, even after an 11 hour drive.

    • You can get camping fridges that connect to the 12 volt socket in the car. It chills to around 18°C cooler than ambient (which in an air-conditioned car is around 20°C), so stuff that goes in there frozen and surrounded with a few cool blocks comes our still frozen 13 hours later. We’ve tested it on a few occasions. And the fridge itself costs less than €40 at Aldi (I’m in Germany). Maybe there are similar things available elsewhere?

  2. I love this post and the thought behind this post so much. My first holiday after having a baby was spent cooking and pureeing our own baby food lol and doing laundry. It was a real shock to the system. Thank you for sharing this!

  3. It makes me feel good that you “cheated” and used aluminum pans. But stainless steel is a good idea for the future. We will use the parchment paper idea for this year and pack everything in coolers with plenty of ice. How do you handle drinks and water? Didn’t you say in another post you have a portable water filter? We’ve always bought bottled spring water vs “purified” water once we arrived but we don have a portable water filter and only a few stainless steel bottles. Will start cooking this week!!

    • I pack water bottles for the car ride, and we have a portable Berky filter that we take with us when we travel…

  4. What a great idea! We struggle with dinners when we’re on vacation by the ocean 🙂 every year. I will be following your suggestions this year and save ourselves the stress and money.
    Love your blog and podcast! Keep up the amazing work.

  5. I can SO relate to everything about needing a vacation from the vacation! Even just for a weekend camping trip, I spend hours preparing food, packing, etc for just our little family of three. I can’t imagine how much work it would be for larger families!

    And I can’t help but grumble a bit that I always feel like I am doing so much “pre-work” for vacations when everyone else is just, you know, not worrying about anything 🙂

    • yup, dad just throws a few things in a bag for him. kids argue about what they cant bring.
      mom does EVERYthing that remains. pre, during and post vaca.
      and dad complains how he’s gotta go back to work at the end.
      mom never got to leave work.
      i eat out as much financially possible but always get a rm with a fridge for milk, hardboiled eggs, sausage patties and bread, etc We can use the toaster at brkfst bar n nuker in rm. i nuke oatmeal for them too.
      horrifying to the purists, Im sure, but we are very low income. —> and mom needs a vaca too

    • I hear you! My 10 year old goes to a summer day camp and the extra work required for just that is tremendous. There are days where they serve “otter pops” (the really processed popsicles that push up out of clear plastic). I make a bunch of popsicles in advance and have arranged with the camp to store them in their freezer. But then my daughter was wishing she could have the kind you eat out of the plastic. I found the plastics online and made our own. While I try to minimize disposables, plastics, etc, there is also a time and place for that versus constantly feeling alienated from peers. In the past I have made our own juices/purees to make popsicles. But I’ve been worn out the past few years and having more and more health issues (in spite of GAPS). So, I also capitulated and have bought organic juice, and when I can find it I buy the non-pasteurized, freshly squeezed juice. And then there are the s’mores days too, which I found a GAPS friendly graham cracker recipe (thankfully posted by a mom whose kid was going on a camp out and also needed s’mores). Along with the home made gelatin marshmallows and chocolate. And that’s just for starters. My husband takes our daughter to visit his parents a couple times a year for a long weekend. It is a distance where they have to fly. We spend a lot of extra money shipping frozen food ahead. Although because it is a direct flight, I think we are going to chance them taking the food and checking it in. Will be less money than shipping it overnight with priority delivery with enough time that if something happens to the package we can figure out a backup plan. Way too much to think about!

  6. What about camping? Do you have any suggestions? No fridge or freezerbor oven. 🙁

    • I also camp and have a similar issue as you, Sarah. I usually have an eight to ten hour drive and camp for a week in the mountains so I hope my experiences will be helpful to you. What I do is pre-make one-pot meals such as stew and pack them in jars. The jars seal pretty well if the food is hot when put inside so it can withstand the temperature fluctuations of the icebox without spoiling. While I don’t care for disposable plastic food-storage bags, such as Ziplok, they do make transporting batter or freezing batches of food for the trip easy and can be rinsed out afterwords for another use. I do bring raw eggs and bacon to cook for breakfast, but even the bacon can be made at home and packed away to reheat in a skillet. I keep lunch simple by taking ingredients for sandwiches; in my experience, real sourdough bread keeps un-refridgerated for several days and lunch meat or canned fish don’t take up much room. I’ve always found fruits and vegetables the most tricky to pack, I’m sure you are familiar with the challenge, so I usually pack durable fruits like citrus and apples (or watermelon) and try to prepare the vegetables ahead of time. I have been known to stash apples in my duffle bag with my clothes to protect them from bruises. While these methods don’t completely keep me out of the “kitchen” while camping they sure do reduce the time spent bending over the firepit or camp stove substantially.

      There are lots of ways to pack real food for a camping trip and if you like to camp where there are plenty of wild foods available take advantage if allowed to do so! Kids love helping to pick blackberries to put in that morning’s pancakes and they also like catching fish that can be cooked up for dinner (I’ve even cooked trout for breakfast so I don’t have to store it). Get creative! I wish you all the best on your camping adventures and I hope this has helped you.

  7. I did this the last two times we went on vacation, and it was great! All I had to get at the local store was fruit, veggies, and fresh bread. I made chicken cacciatore, a big pot of sauce and meatballs, and I also made breakfast and froze that ahead of time. I made coconut flour crepes, GF pancakes, and french toast and kept them frozen in a big cooler for our 7 hour drive. My kids all helped with the prep because they were so excited to get ready for vacation. It made the time away much more relaxing for me. Now if we could just find a way to reduce the laundry 🙂

    • For laundry cutback: my kids each take 3 play outfits (inc. unders & socks), 1 dress up outfit, 1 pjs, 1 swim suit(usually), 1 opposite weather outfit(if we are going someplace hot: bring a jacket & pants, if we are going someplace cool: bring shorts & short sleeved top-it’s come in handy more than once!), sometimes: 1 blanket, 1 pillow, no towels (they are provided every place we to). The baby I pack double for with extra pjs. Systemizing this has really helped with cutting back on laundry while we are there, unpacking when we are there, packing to go home & unpacking at home! I am so excited to do this meal plan systemizing because the last vacation the kids and I spent a whole day cooking (for the 8 of us plus we had plans to have guests over) and a lot of time re-portioning, organizing, cooking more, etc! Next time we will be close to expecting our 7th blessing, so this looks heavenly, manageable & awesome! My kids are excited about it too because they want a vacation from cooking & cleaning, too!

  8. Lots of great ideas! Thanks you! For the first time in my life, I took a two week beach vacation and decided for health and financial reasons, I would need to do the cooking. We had a two day drive so I didn’t have the option of taking pre-made meals. I was overwhelmed by the thought of preparing so many meals and made a few choices that eased the burden. I made a menu and then prepared spice bags associated with each meal so that I could quickly make taco meats, sausage, a marinade, spaghetti sauce etc. I also brought my crock pot which allowed me to spend time on the beach instead of in the kitchen. I also pre-ordered meat so I could just do a quick pick up at the store. We are planning to go again this year and I am hoping to find ways to make it even easier. Thanks again for all the great posts!

  9. Did you bring all of the eggs and salad you needed as well? Were those part of your laundry basket or did you bring a cooler, or grabbed a few groceries when you arrived? Amazing idea and thank you for the detailed list Katie! PS im loving your revived podcast!

    • There were still a few groceries I had to pick up when we arrived…

  10. This is wonderful ! Have run into this issue for years and it always left me feeling a little cheated while everyone else was out playing .
    I will use many of your recipes , love cauliflower as a substitute . I broil it to cook it before hand and love the flavor this adds .
    My biggest issue with all this planning is how do I get hubby on board with all the ” hassle ” of healthy water , food , etc . ? He would prefer to eat out and is happy to pay for the luxury of eating out every chance he gets . Any hints to encourage a cheerful willingness here ? Its so much effort without his support on this .

  11. Every year we go on a 10 – 12 day camping trip far, far away from stores, etc. Our toy hauler camper has a tiny freezer, so some of this works. Still, I struggle to put together 12 days of healthy eating, feeling like I’m not on vacation. The worst part, it’s not really appreciated…

    • When we camp, I try to keep meals really simple. I also focus on things that can be grilled or cook well on cast iron. Eggs will travel with some care and are generally safe for a few days even out of the cold. Put as many in the cooler or fridge as is realistic and use the ones at room temp first. Bacon is flat and doesn’t take a lot of space. I make up pancake mix and take canned almond or coconut milk. Oatmeal is another good one. Dried fruits and veggies are available and can be cooked into stews and such in the Dutch oven while you play. I take onions, potatoes, and cuts of meat for the grill. Lunch is pretty flexible. Gluten free or sprouted grain bread and lunch meat. And some fresh fruit. That’s about it! And you can always catch some fish and cook them up!

      • With the exception of fishing (our trip is to a desert location) you’ve described most of what I’ve learned to do. I would love to figure out some more pre-made dishes so I can enjoy the day and not have to spend 1-2 hours on meals, though. Honestly, some of the people we camp with eat nuts, dried fruits, and munchies all week, they think I’m a bit crazy.
        Veggies can be a challenge, the dry air and heat are very destructive. Bacon is a must in the desert – I take lots of bacon!

    • Kudos for you camping. That, to me, is not a vaca if you have to cook every meal and wash dishes lol I lnow on wkend trips I get a pizza on the way the first nite and we do yummy campfire treats, like s’mores or camp pies. Then we grill hambs the next nite. We leave just before lunch on the next day and get subs on the way home. Its the only way I feel like it was break. We do cereal n yogurt for brkfsts (rarely have cereal at home) with hardboiled eggs that I bring. Then premade tunafish for sandwiches both days. Precut up veggies and fruits round out meals and are snacks. The 2nd nite we just roast hotdogs at the campfire.
      Boring, but theyre happy to just be camping!

      • I’m with you, it’s really not a vacation for me LOL. If I can figure out how to manage the tiny freezer, small fridge and cupboard better, maybe I can cut down the meal work time. A two or three day camping trip really does sound like a vacation!

        • I should add Ive never had a camper while camping. We only tent camp, even when I was a kid. So everything is a freakin chore, lug the water, heat the water, dry the dishes after rinsed as theres no where to leave up a drainer even if I could bring one lol
          Maybe with a van or camper it would be more feasible. We only ever had a car to put everrrrrrything in.

          • With my state of health, tent camping isn’t an option LOL. I truly, truly appreciate having my own toilet, fridge, sink/water and storage! A toy hauler is very basic, even so I can’t imagine tent camping for 12 days, although I see others doing it. They spend a lot of time in our camper 🙂

            Last time I tent camped – about 12 years ago – it took 3 hours to unload and load back up. Our tent was huge, though. First time I had seen the multiple room style. Loved that.

  12. GREAT ideas!! Thanks!

  13. I love the stainless steel pan you linked to. If you were to use that to freeze a meal, would you cover it with foil? If so, about how long would that last in the freezer since it really wouldn’t be air tight? Thanks for your input!!

  14. I don’t know if I missed this in the post but how long was this initial car ride? We have a ten hour drive to our destination this year. Thank you.

  15. I have always brought some pre-made meals for vacation, it’s so great to know all I have to do is heat & eat! We normally will go to a restaurant once or twice as well. Love your meal ideas, except there’s no way my family would go for dinner leftovers for breakfast! Any ideas about pre-cooked breakfasts? Thanks!

    • Amy, I usually make a big batch of pancakes and freeze them, and also french toast. Another idea is overnight crockpot oatmeal, if you have a crockpot with you. Just throw everything in the night before, and it’s hot and ready in the morning when you wake up. Everyone can help themselves when they wake up, whether they are early birds or sleepy heads 🙂 Or you could make a big batch of your favorite granola and bring it along to eat as a cold cereal.

      • Terrific ideas, thanks Jen!

  16. I’m super health conscious but I find this ridiculous and super OCD. I’d like to know where you went on your vacation?We just got back from a 10 trip to Disney World and I just enjoyed my time even though I knew we were eating unhealthy food and my kids were also ecstatic to eat things they normally don’t like a Mickey shaped ice cream bar (yes, I know it was probably full of GMO, made with milk laced with rBGH, corn syrup and other nasty ingredients I avoid at at cost at home) BUT we were on vacation and they wanted one. We’re also going to Punta Cana in August where I’ll be waited on 24/7. I think you need to experience a real vacation, camping hardly qualifies and experiencing new food is part of what makes a vacation.

    • There are those of us to need to make our own food for health reasons, and ideas like this are great! If I just “let go” while on vacation, I’d end up very ill for several months, with possibly some irreversible damage to my body. I’m happy for you that you don’t need to consider those things.

      • Sarah, I appreciate your reply. Myself as well as my children would suffer for months on seemingly simple indulgences, like dairy. These sensitivities are not fun or easy to live with especially watching other children, and adults! Consume them with seemingly no trouble. For me it’s so much more than avoiding ” bad food”, an indulgence can land me in bed for days. Not worth it. In this vein, and the bigger picture all the careful eating has changed our focus onto other enjoyment of nature, fun with others, more doing activities. Also as time has gone on, removing several foods that were once a centerpiece of an event has made our family focus on other meaningful aspects of it. And that’s been good! We all desire and need to eat good tasting food, but food has taken a different role in our family and I work at helping everyone have good attitudes about it, and it is work! I have seen it pay off though and it’s worth it. Hopefully as they grow up they carry that with them, especially into special events like camping! Many helpful ideas here!

  17. Thanks for posting this. I am a mom to a child with many food allergies, common and uncommon, and the kitchen is definitely a place I need a break from on vacation. Restaurants aren’t usually an option because of the allergies, so the meals are all on me. Camping is by far the hardest because of the nut allergy, but breakfast is seriously the easiest. Homemade mini muffins packed full of veggies are the best way to start the day. 🙂 I am definitely going to be implementing your awesome towel insulation technique.