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Traveling with Clean Food, Part 2: Planning

This part has really stressed me out! It is pretty much why I haven’t posted in over a week. This, and the holiday weekend, a little extra work stuff going on, and generally trying to prepare for this vacation. Preparing for a road trip is more stressful than I thought! It isn’t like a “stationary” vacation where you’re in the same place for several days/nights and can be kind of flexible with what you do. No, we’ll be on the road every day and in a new place each night, so I have to think about where we’re going to stay each day, the route we’ll take, what we want to see and how much time we want to spend on the road, making sure we’re traveling at the right time of day, making sure everyone gets showers and clothes washed consistently, and, of course, the food.

Oh, the food! It is hard enough to plan a weekly menu for the family and we aren’t on the road every day! I hardly feel I’m qualified to give any advice whatsoever on this subject, but this blog isn’t advice it’s documentation, so here we go…

I started with pre-planning: knowing we’ll have opportunity to cook food while we’re at a camping spot or even hanging out at a friend’s house, wanting to bring lots of snacks to keep us from stopping for junk food, knowing I need to look for spots along the way to replenish supplies and looking out for good restaurants.

Cooking Our Own Food

The biggest challenge with this one came when I realized that I cannot take 9 days’ worth of meat with me in a cooler and expect it to stay “good” the whole time. Apparently this is an unrealistic expectation. So, I have planned on fresh, home-brought food lasting about three days, meat included. Of course that is stopping for fresh ice every day and being careful about how we pack the cooler, so longer-term storage is separate from short-term stuff like snacks (and we must keep meats separate from fresh veggies and dairy!).

As far as what we’ll cook, we have a few camping favorites: hot dogs and sausages cooked over campfire, bacon and eggs in the cast iron, s’mores, beef stew in the cast iron, etc. I’m making our bacon ahead of time, and the stew – advanced prep saves many a headache at the campsite! I don’t want to be slaving over a meal on vacation – I either want to  be actively participating in cooking with everyone (such as roasting dogs over the fire) or have food cooking while we’re setting up camp or playing a game.

When we aren’t camping, we’re probably staying with friends. We only have two hotel stays in eight nights! So when we’re with friends we’ll either be going out or they’ll be cooking for us. I’m really excited to see what they’ll cook… and to see if we’ll all try it (yes, myself included). I plan on bringing some food gifts for each of our hosts; I’d feel like I’m totally mooching otherwise. I thought about bringing some meat for our hosts from our freezer, but then I thought that might be weird… I’m settling for wine/beer, fresh herbs (that I’ll pick up at markets along the way) and any other cool things we find along the way (we’re making lots of interesting stops).

Storing Food

Cold stuff – coolers. We have three coolers and we’ll for sure use them all. One will be our all-purpose: condiments (kept in a small box that can be quickly removed at meals), cold snack storage, eggs, dairy, veggies. The second is for meat. We aren’t bringing any raw meat but I don’t want to take risks. Plus the meat has to be stored long-term so this way the number of times we need to open it will be really limited. The third cooler is for the day’s snacks and probably lunch. The purpose of the third cooler is to, again, limit the opening of the coolers that need to store cold food longer. We’ve never camped more than two nights, so I have no idea how this will work, but we’re giving it a shot!

Dry stuff – I’m using a Rubbermaid tub for dry storage. I am bringing some snack items that should last the trip (if we don’t eat them first) like granola, homemade kale chips, dehydrated banana chips, raisins, peanuts (Mr. Handsome loves them), and these blue corn tortillas we’ve been enjoying lately.

Not edible but food-related are supplies, like spatulas, tongs, utensils, etc. I’m storing just about everything, except for the cast iron dutch oven, in one of those 3-drawer plastic containers. We’re also going to try to store our clothes this way.

Getting More Food

After three days, we’re going to need to replenish supplies! It has taken us awhile to find all the places around our home that we can buy farm-fresh products, so how are we supposed to find good food on the go? This thought has stressed me out, too! But, I found some cool tools. My favorite is a website called Local Harvest (www.localharvest.org). It lists places near a location you specify such as farms with CSAs and produce stands, local farmers markets and even (sometimes) local grocery stores. I found a store in Jackson, WY that I am excited to try (it’s Jackson Whole Grocer).

I’ve taken the presence of even Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods for granted because almost all the cities we’re traveling to on our route do not have these stores. I thought these were going to be my back-ups, but they aren’t. Instead, I’m just planning carefully. Tomorrow (Monday) I’ll call the three farms I’d like to visit to make sure the hours listed on Local Harvest are still valid. I have also visited the websites for a couple farmers markets to make sure they’re still going on. I know going to a farmers market is still a gamble – there could be little selection both in terms or variety and quantity, but it’s a risk I’m willing to take. In a couple towns I have found a “back up” natural grocery so I think we’ll be okay.

If farms and local grocers fail me, there’s always a normal supermarket. We may not find everything I want us to (and a whole bunch of stuff I don’t want!) but we won’t starve. And THAT is what I need to keep in mind when I inevitably freak out about something with food. My goal for this trip is to stay calm and enjoy my family! Anyway, I’m getting side-tracked. Moving on.

Good Restaurants

Because nobody wants to cook everything or force others to cook for them against their will (I won’t make my friends cook if they’d rather go out!), there are restaurants. We are eating at some. On Day 2 we’ll be stopping for lunch in Coeur d’ Alene, Idaho, hopefully at a spot called Dockside which I read has an amazing view of the beautiful lake. I would like to think that even though I am asking for relatively strict diet changes, I can be flexible when it comes to things like eating out. I have a couple meals out planned, but if we’re hosted by a family I don’t make plans, I just follow their lead! Again, super excited to see what that brings, especially with friends we haven’t seen in awhile!

Okay, so coming back to plans on paper. I meal plan every week and this trip has been no exception. I have made my menu template just like I always do. This time I made two weeks worth of sheets since we’ll be gone for 9 days and they spread over two weeks (I mean, I still need to plan for what we’re eating before we leave and after we get back!*). I have added a couple things, like equipment needed for camping meals and notes about when to pack the cooler, stop for ice, stop for supplies, etc. But overall it is exactly the same!

I have the pages all ready and they are helping me figure out what to pack and what to prepare tomorrow, which is my great pre-cooking day. I’m making a bunch of bacon, the beef stew, lunch for our first day on the road and some snacks. Want the full list?

Snacks – dry

  • Kale chips (I bought a couple bunches at the farmers market and harvested just about everything I could from the garden. I have about three gallons of mason jars full of chips!)
  • Dehydrated banana chips (small batch though)
  • Peanuts and almonds (not paleo, but we aren’t strict)
  • Granola (Bob’s Red Mill Apple Blueberry)
  • Granola Bars (We still use Quaker Chewy which I know are totally processed and sugar but we haven’t had time to get comfy with a diy recipe yet so here we are)
  • Peanut butter
  • Bananas (first day only I think)

Snacks – cold

  • Cheese
  • Carrots
  • Apples
  • Pitas and Tortillas (also for meals)
  • Jam
  • Grapes
  • Muffins and Cookies – frozen, will transfer to dry storage after a few days (if not gone by then, of course)

Breakfast foods (camping breakfast needed on days two, day five, and day eight)

  • Of course I’m bringing lemons and my tea kettle for morning lemon water, and tea
  • Pre-made bacon (day two only)
  • Eggs (day two only unless we can find some at the market on day four)
  • Fruit – bananas, apples, grapes, melon
  • Granola
  • Oatmeal (we’ve got boiling water and bowls!)
  • No toast this time around!

Lunch foods (road lunch on days one, three, four, five, seven, eight, nine – so, like, almost every day; otherwise, we’ll eat out) – lunch seems to be the hardest meal for me to break out of the “grain” mold!

  • Wraps: ham lunch meat or leftover meat from dinner, lettuce, cheese, maybe a salad dressing if you’re Mr. Handsome. (I’ll make these in advance for a picnic on day 1, maybe even with some pre-cooked bacon that I didn’t need!)
  • Pita PB&J: Kiddo1 loves these, thank goodness. He’d probably eat them five times a day, though.
  • Leftovers: we’ll have leftover beef stew for lunch in Yellowstone on day five.
  • Hopefully farm fresh foods on day seven in Idaho. Lunch always goes best with something fresh! Carrots, apples, salad, sweet peas, etc.

Dinner foods (camping days one, four, seven; friends days two, three, six; out/hotel/clean out cooler days five and eight)

  • Sausages and hot dogs over campfire on day one (Kiddo1 loves this interactive camping meal), with salad still fresh from our garden.
  • Beef stew in cast iron Dutch Oven over propane grill at campsite on day four.
  • OMG totally winging it on day seven because I have no idea what food we’ll find by then (holy food gods let us find some decent meat!)
  • Friends: leaving it up to them (if all else fails we’ll find a place on Yelp!)
  • The clean out cooler days are self-explanatory, right? It’s a day to use leftovers and, if there aren’t any, indulge in local cuisine.

I think that just about covers it! I’d love to write about packing tomorrow, assuming I’m not too tired I will do it! Otherwise I’m off for vacation starting now!

* A note for when we get back: I don’t want to come home on the night of day 9 and have to run to the store to get food. I also don’t want to succumb to eating out. I’m thinking of making a freezer meal, but then I’d have to defrost it for awhile when we get home – we can’t really eat right away. I haven’t found the perfect solution to this yet… but I keep looking!

Traveling with Clean Food, Part 1: Pre-Planning

It’s quite a food-centered week for the little blog! That’s no different than real life, though: food is on my mind ALL the time. I started cooking breakfast, lunch, and dinner for the fam a couple months ago, and when you spend a couple hours a day preparing, cooking, and serving food, it’s hard to get it off your mind.

My work up to this point has been fairly easy compared to what I’m tasked with right now, though. Normally I just plan meals for a week and figure out where to get what from all my new food sources. But now I’m preparing for some uncharted territory: traveling without sacrificing our good diet.

That’s because this summer we’re going on a vacation! A real, normal vacation that isn’t a obligatory visit – we actually chose to take this vacation! We’re going on a 10-day road trip across the Northwestern states: we start in Washington with a visit to Mt. St. Helens, drive through Northern Idaho, then the SW corner of Montana and into Yellowstone, Western Wyoming, Southern Idaho, up through Southeastern Oregon and back home. We’ll be on the move almost the whole time and we’ll see so much! I’m very excited to get off the beaten path for awhile and disconnect from modern life.

With that disconnect, though, comes concerns about food. Where will we eat? What will we eat? Will the food conform to my new standards of organic, non-GMO, local, pastured, etc? That has been on my mind a lot now that I’ve planned out where we’re going, what we’re seeing, and where we’re staying.

Never fear, though, we can make a plan! I’ve starting thinking up strategies and here’s what I’ve got so far.

  • First, since we’re camping most of the way, we have a location and equipment to make a lot of our own food. We always make our food when we’re camping, we will just have better ingredients this time!
  • Second, we can bring a lot of foods with us. I plan on making batches of muffins, cookies, and dehydrated snacks (fruit chips, fruit leather, kale chips, etc). I’ll freeze baked goods and pull them out periodically, or when they start to thaw. I’ll also have the cooler and dry storage bags packed with fresh things we can eat on the go like carrots, apples, and granola. I’m going to make some freezer meals, like camp fire stew, that I can hopefully just thaw and stick in my cast iron dutch oven to cook while we set up camp.
  • Third, since we can’t bring ALL our food (not if we want to have room for our tent and clothes too!) I’m finding local grocery stores, farmers markets, even farms along our route. Just about every town we’re visiting has a farmers market, but only one of the markets will be going on the day we’re in town (really excited to see the Coeur d’Alene, Idaho market though!).
  • Finally, I’m looking up restaurants. I don’t want to eat a lot of meals “out,” but we are meeting friends along our route and there will be times that we should treat ourselves. We are on vacation after all! If there’s a spot with a cool restaurant then we’re not going to deprive ourselves.

Hopefully these ideas will help keep us on track with healthy eating. Next on my list to do is the actual planning – what are we going to eat and when, where is it going to come from, all those questions need to have concrete answers before we can leave. We have two weeks to get everything together. I’ll post more when I have a meal plan!

Meal Planning

This weekend was packed! I had no time or energy to post. We went to the beach Saturday after Kiddo1’s comic book drawing class, Mr. Handsome picked up a backyard play structure that he disassembled from one backyard and reassembled in our backyard, Baby2 discovered the joys of backyard water play, and we even fit in some productive tasks too! So today I thought I might write all about one of my weekly tasks that makes me feel productive, which is weekly meal planning.

Meal planning really isn’t all that fun for me. Is it fun for anyone? I’d love to meet the person who has a real passion for carefully planning out all the foods for 21 meals at once. I admit I do like meal planning a little more now that I’ve found a system that works for me, but it still isn’t something I look forward to at the end of the week!

My system has evolved a bit. I started off at the beginning of the year with a calendar book I got for free at work. It’s one of those calendars with a two-page spread for each month that a lawyer’s office gives away for free. Anyway, I started writing the dinner plan in there every week. You can see it in this picture – it is open to the month of May, which is the last month I entered in the calendar.

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Getting inspired by cookbooks and previously planned menus

Things were going pretty well with the calendar book. At least I was putting more thought into the week’s meals! I found that we definitely ate much better and MUCH more variety if we just planned ahead. I hate that time around five or six o’clock in the evening when you’re thinking – what do I pull together for dinner today? And then we would end up going out or ordering food because we’re starving and the kids are getting cranky (not the adults, oh no, never) and we all just want to eat Right. Now. There has been less of that now that we’re thinking ahead about what we’re going to eat.

Evenings improved with the calendar book. But, I found my method still left me scrambling sometimes at dinner time because I would find out last-minute that I’m out of some critical ingredient.

Now I have a new system that gives me more room to write and integrates my meal plan with my shopping list. I can tell it isn’t quite perfect – I’d like to get snacks on this somehow so that literally all the food we consume is somehow captured in the plan – but, we’re getting there!

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This week’s menu – still in progress when I took a picture of it last night

There are three columns and seven rows. The first column is for the day of the week and I can list any events going on that day that might impact our dinner plans. That has helped me prepare for a quick dinner or one that I should make in the crock pot because we won’t be home until later. I have also taken to using this space to write items I want to prepare that day that aren’t a meal, like baking a loaf of bread or hard boiling some eggs for the week.

The second column on the sheet is for listing what we’ll eat for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. I find that breakfast and lunch don’t change too much, but sometimes they do and when they do I need my shopping list to change, too. So the third column is for writing down ALL the ingredients I need to make each item for the day. I write down everything, even salt and pepper. This helps me deconstruct the recipe so I can use an ingredient a few times during the week. That way I don’t have half a spaghetti squash sitting in the fridge for two weeks or something.

Then I look at the ingredients and go through my kitchen to see what I already have. If I don’t have something, I put a square around the ingredient so I know I need to buy it. I try to buy things a couple days in advance, unless it’s meat which I’m trying to buy in bulk more. For some reason, if I have meat in the freezer it’s so much easier for me to come up with meals to eat! If something needs to be prepared ahead of time, like pulling meat out of the freezer, I put a cloud around that ingredient on my sheet.

This method has helped me cut down on last-minute runs to the store a lot. I have been able to buy a lot more bulk stuff, even produce, from our food buying club (more on my grocery shopping methods later) because I can plan to use it all pretty quickly. And the template is easy – every week I just take out a blank sheet of paper and trace the lines that make up the columns and rows from the previous week’s sheet. I fill in the first column with entries from our calendar and then I’m off!

Coming up with meals is now the hardest part. I want a lot of variety but finding inspiration is tough sometimes! I look to Pinterest a lot – you can follow me if you want! MotherMary9 is my screen name. I also rely heavily on the cookbooks I’ve rediscovered in my collection, plus a new one I bought that I’ll review tomorrow (Long Way on a Little by Shannon Hayes). They are great for skimming through to find ideas. Sometimes it isn’t a specific recipe but an ingredient or cooking style that sparks my cooking creativity!

Also, some days of the week are reserved for a theme. I’ve found that too many theme days is over-whelming and constrains variety, but having a few per week is nice. The whole family knows a certain day is coming so they get excited about what we’re going to eat. That helps get everyone to eat the food, too! I’ve moved some theme days around, but the ones that have stuck are Meatless Mondays (not everyone is excited about that one, but the food budget says it has to stick), Slow Cooker Wednesdays and Mac N’ Cheese Fridays (Friday is kind of our cheat day I guess). Kiddo1 would like to see Taco Tuesdays too I think. Slow Cooker Wednesdays moves around sometimes, depending on if we have something going on in the evening or not – those are great days to have dinner already cooked when we get home! I like these theme days because there is still a lot of room for variety. We could have any crazy vegetable on Monday, but everyone knows ahead of time that there will be no meat on their plate that day!

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Meal planning board and the kids’ messy chalk/magnet board that I sometimes use for a meal prep to-do list

My final menu planning thing is my chalk board. I made this board a couple months ago. I list all the meals for the week and it hangs in the kitchen so everyone can see it. It is supposed to act as a quick reference so I can remind myself what we’re eating that day, or later that week, without having to open the cupboard and look at the clip board on which I store my weekly sheet. Sometimes I think it might be more work than benefit, but I think it is cute so I keep up with it… mostly. I am supposed to update it on Saturday but that has been creeping into Sunday and Monday lately. If I don’t keep it up, though, I haven’t wasted much. I made it from a leftover scrap of wood and leftover chalkboard paint from making Baby2 a chalk/magnet board (which is just a piece of metal sheeting from Home Depot, spray-painted with chalkboard paint. I recently added a washi tape boarder to hide/protect from the rough metal edge). It needs a little improvement – the soup/salad/dessert sections at the bottom don’t get used much. They’re supposed to be things we are eating all week – I think I’ll change them to snack/muffins/dessert. And I keep meaning to add a wine cork boarder, too, I just need a few more corks! I better go work on that! Wink, wink!