Dining on the Road – Budget ideas
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Cost: $ to $$
One of the great things about traveling today is the number of travel-friendly phone APPS like “Around Me” that allow you to find businesses within your current area. This allows the passenger to browse as you drive down the road. I use the APP to easily find ways to eat well, but on a budget.
I think one of the most fun parts of travel is finding the “Mom & Pop” eateries... like the “HomeFront Cafe” in Altamont, New York (just outside Albany), a charming country diner with patriotic and war memorabilia, including photos and memorials of locals who served our country. It was one of those places you could picture becoming your regular place, and it had an vintage “soda shop and ice cream bar” that is open in the warmer seasons.
One of the pleasures of locally owned, rather than chain, restaurants is that you often find the food to be unusually good, less expensive, and you get to experience the “flavor” of the local area, rather than a homogeneous “cookie cutter” ambiance that doesn't change with geography. Eating in a local place is a great way to get a feel for the community. Why not sit at the bar so you can chat with the locals?
I love meeting locals when traveling... and some are just a delight. In Kentucky my boyfriend and I sat next to an African American gentleman who was a regular at the diner. His name was Clay and he worked at a local non-profit helping men with drug and alcohol problems get back on their feet. He recommended we try the “Hot Brown” which is a Kentucky favorite consisting of Turkey and Bacon, sometimes with Ham as well, and served as an open faced sandwich with either a Mornay sauce or Cheddar Cheese. We did, and their version was a little different than my Mom used to make but very, very good. This diner had drinks, my boyfriend had a beer and I had a couple of cocktails. When we went to pay our bill however, we found that Clay had already picked up our check. So, not only did we have a delightful dinner companion to chat with, but we had that as a pleasant surprise!
Now “Diners” can vary in quality from state to state. In New Jersey and Michigan, a diner is often like a 4 or 5 star restaurant but with a more casual atmosphere and much lower prices. In fact New Jersey is famous for it's highly rated diners... like the Americana Diner in East Windsor, a delightful treat that made getting a bit lost totally worth it. The Americana serves cuisine best described as “international' in it's range, including curry flavors, Mexican, Italian, Asian, french, Greek and, of course, American!
In other states “Diners” might be slightly grimy places with little more than hamburgers and chicken soup on the menu. Frankly, I don't care which type of place it is, I still prefer being able to relax and get waited on (while enjoying the local ambiance) rather than grabbing a predictable (and generally unhealthy) meal in a fast food joint that looks the same as the one around the corner from our house. Often, you spend the same amount of money, so why not do something different and enjoy one of the pleasures of travel?
Ever been traveling and wanted a meal late at night but there were no options other than the normal fast food joints off the highway? Now here is something you might not even think of... Check the internet for local hospitals! This is something I picked up on while caring for sick relatives over the years... hospital cafeterias are often open very late, and some even have a limited selection 24/7. They generally have some “home cooking style” hot meals like meatloaf, chicken, fish and pasta, salad bars, a wide beverage selection and even desserts. Another plus... pricing! Hospital cafeterias are designed to service both employees and visitors of patients, so generally speaking, they are a low budget option for dining. Most of the time hospitals are located within a few miles of the major highways as well... so just look on your phone APP, then check the website for the hospital to see what their cafeteria hours are. Once I had a great meal at a hospital that served full meals till 1:30 AM.
Most of the time when we are traveling by road we take a couple of coolers with us. This saves us a bunch of money and allows us to snack healthier while driving. Before leaving I make up a bunch of hard boiled eggs, a few sandwiches, sometimes some cold chicken and salads. Throw in a half gallon of milk or tea, some yogurt, blocks of cheese, fig or fruit spreads and crackers and you're good to go, Finding a scenic spot for a picnic is usually pretty easy.
Now that's at the beginning of the trip. On the return, we often don't have much of a kitchen for preparing, but we can restock the cooler from a local grocery store. Additionally having a cooler allows us, when we eat in a restaurant, to have a place to put leftovers. Sometimes, if we are driving through more remote areas, I'll even order another meal to-go, something I know will keep in the cooler well that we can have up the road or the next day.
When we go on trips where we will be in the same spot for a week or two, we try to find places to stay that have somewhat of a kitchen in the room. This cuts down on the number of (more expensive) restaurant meals. You'd be surprised what you can do even in a room with only a microwave and mini fridge. I don't use microwaves for cooking though (only for heating water), so we also bring our trusty CrockPot (slow cooker). I've made delicious lasagna, pot roast and other hot meals right in the room. Like pasta? Cook the sauce in the CrockPot and heat water to boiling in the microwave, pull it out and drop in Angel Hair. It's thin enough it only has to sit in the hot water for a few minutes to be ready.
You can easily bake potatoes in a CrockPot and, if you get an elevated rack for your slow cooker you can bake chicken or meatloaf as well. Just use Google to find great recipes perfect for hotel room “dinner and movie” nights!
For packing, I throw our condiments, salt, pepper and spices, in the CrockPot, along with some of our own silverware and knives for prep. Into a tote goes a couple of plates and bowls, a larger serving bowl for prep, a roll of paper towels, crackers, nuts and other snack items. You can take along a complete kitchen “outfit” in no more than two tote bags.
My final “Road Tip” is this... don't pass up the chance to stop at those roadside stands.. in the Southern USA the boiled peanuts are a delightful snack and, all across the country, you can find some amazing BBQ, crabs, boiled shrimp, jerk chicken, empanadas, tacos and more. If you're not hungry when you come across them... stop anyway and throw something in that cooler!
Author: Sue Copening