09/02/2012 09:51 am ET Updated Oct 31, 2012

9 Ways to Save on Food for Labor Day Travelers

Don't let gas prices put the brakes on your holiday plans. Use these easy tips to scrimp painlessly on food. You'll enjoy a healthier, less stressful weekend. Use your savings to fill your gas tank or to splurge on rides, shows, and other memory-making activities. Even though I’m an ardent foodie, I have more clear memories of visiting Seattle’s Science Fiction Museum and the North Carolina Aquarium than I do of most meals. They were so much more fun than standing in line for forty-five minutes at Jake’s Fish Shack.

The modest estimated savings below assume a three-day weekend and a family of four. They could be much greater in tourist towns or if you frequent more expensive restaurants.

  • Save $15: pick up a Mediterranean meal at the grocery store. Buy hummus, pitas, olives, and salad toppings. Splurge a little by adding apricot nectar and fig cookies. That covers the average gas inflation of 17 cents a gallon since last year for 87 gallons.
  • Save $25: have PB&J one meal a day instead of eating from the dollar menu at a fast-food joint. Bring peanut butter, bread, a knife, plates, and napkins. If you travel with a cooler, bring jelly. If you’ll have access to a refrigerator, swing by a store for jelly once you arrive. If you can’t keep the jelly cold, use sliced bananas instead to make PB&B.
  • Save $29: indulge in chips and dip for dinner one night if you have a place with a microwave. It feels naughty, just right for vacation, but you’ll get plenty of protein, fiber, and folate with not much fat. Bring a can of refried beans, a bottle of salsa, a bag of corn chips, a microwave safe bowl, a sheet of waxed paper, a spoon, and plates. Pick up salad fixing, plus fruit for dessert (maybe juicy peaches from a farm stand?). To make dinner in minutes, mix beans and salsa in the bowl, top with waxed paper or a plate to avoid splatters, microwave on high in two-minute bursts until hot, stirring in between. Serve everyone a mound of hot bean dip, a few handfuls of chips, and some veggie sticks.
  • Save $35: pack lunch the first day. Make it extra easy by packing leftovers from the night before, perhaps a bean, corn, and tomato salad. Round out your meal with grapes and oatmeal cookies.
  • Save $56: drink water instead of sodas three times a day. Bring a water bottle for each family member, even if you buy bottled water at your first stop to get the bottle. If you can plan ahead, bring a thermos of iced tea or coffee and reusable cups.
  • Save $93: bag up raisins, walnuts, or whole-grain cookies for daily snacks and skip the $8 sundae at ice-cream parlor.
  • Save $96: share a bottle of wine each day in your room instead of at a steak house. You can get similar savings by splashing tonic into gin yourself. You’ll still come out way ahead if you buy wine glasses and a corkscrew at your destination and leave them behind when you go.

  • Save $101: make breakfast three times. Pack cereal, bananas, plant milk (try coconut or almond), bowls, and spoons. Unlike cow’s milk, the plant milk doesn’t need to be refrigerated until after you open it.
  • Save $160: cook three meals in a rice cooker. You don't need to pay for a kitchenette to cook in your hotel room. Pack a rice cooker, cans of organic beans and chopped tomatoes (try the ones that come with spices and vegetables), pre-measured bags of rice, salt, and spices for each day, hot sauce, can opener, rice paddle or spoon, plates, forks. When you arrive, stop by a salad bar for a handful of chopped bell pepper and onion. You’ll save so much with this option that it even makes sense if you fly. Buy an inexpensive rice cooker (I travel with an Aroma rice cooker) and leave it for the housekeeper.

Travel with a food bag to make cooking on the road easy

If you’re driving, go green and save more with reusable plates, cups, cutlery, and cloth napkins. Bring a small bottle of detergent, a sponge in a plastic bag, and a towel to clean up. Consider bringing a can opener, bottle opener, well-wrapped sharp knife, and a small cutting board. If you’re flying, pick up paper towels, paper plates, and plastic ware after you arrive. In either case, include hand wipes to clean up before and after eating.

Yelp it up to make eating out easy when you travel

When you do eat out, use Yelp to find the prices, menu, quality, and atmosphere you want. This free app and website can transform your travels by leading you to local gems and helping you bypass tourist traps and worse. You can go thrifty by asking for Yelp to find cheap dinner near your location. Better yet, satisfy a specific craving: Indian, Thai, or pizza. Add local or farm to fork to get a real taste of where you are. Yelp is essential if you have special dietary needs, such as gluten free or vegan.

How do you save money on food when you travel?
Do you even want to? Do you ever cook on the road? Share your tips and comments below.

Sources: Cook for Good price research, Harris Teeter current grocery prices, menus from Jaxson’s Ice Cream Parlour, Jimmy’s on First, McDonald’s, Neomonde, Sadler’s, and Vinnie’s Steak House.

Learn more about Linda Watson and healthy, affordable food at

Get more scrimp and splurge tips in Linda's book Wildly Affordable Organic: Eat Fabulous Food, Get Healthy, and Save the Planet--All on $5 a Day or Less