Keeping It Real On The Road

If you’ve been hanging around here for very long, you know that my husband, whom I affectionately (and sometimes sarcastically) refer to as “Beloved” and known to my readers at large as “BE”, travels a great deal for business.  Before we changed our diet nearly three years ago, he pretty much ate out wherever it was convenient.  That’s not so easy now; even if he weren’t so mindful of what is in his food, where it came from and how it was prepared, his tastes have changed – it’s hard to find good quality, well-prepared food in restaurants – and when you can, it’s apt to cost an arm and a leg.

Over the last year, he’s found a somewhat workable solution for this dilemma.  Here’s what he has to say about it.

Anyone trying to eat real food, let alone those with food allergies, knows how difficult it is to navigate the waters of eating out, even occasionally.  But as a frequent traveler, I can attest that it gets old in a hurry. So I changed the way I travel so I can eat real food and save a lot of money.

Sure, you can eat reasonably healthy at restaurants, even fast food joints, if you are careful of what you order.   Short trips necessitate eating out as time is dear. For bun-less burgers I suggest one of the better burger chains like Wendy’s, Whataburger or Culvers, and if you can still tolerate MSG, add bacon.  But why is it that you need to remind the clerks that when you don’t want a bun, you still want the veggies?  Salads are always a good choice, but dressings (on the side) are always suspect; oil and vinegar is my choice if the oil doesn’t look like it’s been sitting on the counter since 1970.  Worst case breakfast at a diner any time of day can be worked around. But if you have to eat out all the time, invariably you end up at the higher end places, and you can find some gems out there specializing in local and clean foods.  Of course, the high end places are much more accommodating than the “have it your way” Burger Kings of the world.

But it’s expensive and it still gets old.

Frankly, when travelling alone on business, the last thing I want to do is to go out to dinner. I want to get back to a desk, catch up on the emails of the day’s regular business, and talk to the loved ones.  Sure, you can join the minions of lonely business travelers sitting in bars and cafés talking on their cell phones, but I’d rather enjoy my meal.

A couple of years ago I cracked this nut and learned how to travel and eat real.  I book rooms that have kitchens, although you have to be careful to avoid rooms with “kitchenettes”   that only provide a mini fridge and a microwave.  Sadly, as far as I know, none of the on-line hotel search sites include a decent amenity search for a kitchen (let me know if you found one), but there are several chains that specialize in these kinds of rooms.  Beyond a doubt, my favorite is Staybridge Suites.  They are invariably the nicest with the best equipped kitchens.   I also recommend  Homestead Suites by Hilton, SpringHill Suites and TownePlace Suites by Marriot (the SpringHill Suite in Gaithersburg, PA is my favorite place when visiting D.C.)

There are other, usually cheaper, chains like, Homewood Suites, Extended Stay America, and Candlewood Suites (which I frequent because they, along with Staybridge, are affiliates of the Holiday Inn Priority club).   However, you need to be prepared for the possibility of needing to buy cookware if it is lacking – and the cheaper the place the more lacking.  Can you believe I was at one of these (a Holiday Inn) where they had all kinds of great amenities but didn’t issue any skillets to any of the rooms.  I’m supposed to make eggs in a sauce pan?  I have donated more than a few cast iron skillets to extended-stay hotels in strange towns. Darling Daughter is going to have a whole set if I keep going to Vegas (by the way, home to my absolute all-time favorite hotel suite with a kitchen – not only is it highly equipped, including an oven, it has a salt water pool and cabanas).

Honestly, I am convinced that most of these chains really don’t like you cooking in and messing up their kitchens, to say nothing of the billows of smoke in the hallways and the goat sacrifices you know are going on down the hall (and I have yet to be invited to the barbecue.  Bastards.).  Sadly, I suspect a large percentage of the guests cook nothing more complicated in their rooms than coffee and Pop Tarts – which are conveniently sold in the lobby pantry and billed to your room.  Ewwwww.

That brings me to the next point. Hotel eating requires some careful planning. Just like booking flights, cars and hotels, I scope out the healthier food stores in an area. Whenever possible I keep it local, but often do have to endure Whole Paycheck, which continues to disappoint me by carrying industrially processed and GMO products (of all companies, right?).

Of course you need to remember that even the better hotels have limited utensils. Always try to stop at the suite before shopping.  You need to know what you have to work with. Check out the utensils, knives, cleaning supplies and storage containers. Does the hotel have a grill? Does it work? Do they have utensils (you usually have to clean)?  It appalls me that every flea-bag hotel doesn’t have at least one grill.  Again it’s hard to search for and if you ask the front desk you may not get a truthful answer.   If you know there is a functional grill, even discount hotels can be made to work – at least in the summer.

With rare exceptions even full kitchens don’t have ovens, so cooking is primarily on the stove top.  Besides, I am only cooking for one. I want it to be quick, convenient, and not too complicated. With my gourmet at home, I am flying without a net.   So what do I shop for?

Eggs, greens, onions, mushrooms, tomatoes, some salad, some nuts and a little fruit and cheese, if you can handle it, are good staples for the week.  While you can often find salt and pepper packets, I usually buy some each week (at least they can be packed and taken home).   Depending upon the proteins I pick up a spice medley or Adobo chili powder can be used in several meals.

I usually grab a bottle of spring water and can often raid the hotel’s breakfast pantry for tea to brew.  As for coffee, you need to check the room. There will probably be a pot, but often only one self-serve pouch unless you go down to the buffet.  At times, coffee needs to be on the list – don’t forget appropriate filters.

Always buy a scrubby pad for the cheap hotel cookware.   This may require a trip to a regular grocery store because if Whole Paycheck has one it is made out of recycled vegetarian raised ocean sponges that won’t work any better than the white face cloth provided by the hotel. And be prepared:  They never have appropriate cleaning supplies.

Breakfast is somewhat easier.  Even with a “free” buffet of powdered scrambled eggs or (at best) hard boiled battery eggs with processed meats, it’s far easier to throw on some bacon and eggs while getting ready in the morning.  Bacon is one of the first things I cook when I get to the hotel because bacon fat is so useful with all range top cooking, but even more important when using cheap stainless steel.

Whenever possible, I eat lunch in my room; I often make up a handful of burgers the first day to have for the rest of the week.   Like cooking for one, portions have to be balanced and reused when possible. I usually have onions, tomatoes, mushrooms, lettuce or an avocado for a nice quick burger meal  and they can be used to compliment  other meals.

Dinners are primarily based on whatever good quality protein I can gather at the store: steak, ground beef, chicken, fish or pork chops.   I no longer enjoy grain-fed beef so sourcing meat is the primary mission when arriving in town.  Even Whole Paycheck has good bison and usually grass fed beef. However, I have noticed that some locations, especially in crunchy (read: vegetarian) areas, the selection can be very limited and grass fed beef is almost always imported from New Zealand.

I almost always rely on leafy greens like spinach, collards, etc. as they are easy to sauté with some mushrooms and onions (and also easily repurposed for  a nice omelet) and taste great.   One of my favorite snacks, especially if there is a grill, is prosciutto wrapped asparagus with a sliver of pear in the middle – drizzled with balsamic vinaigrette if you want to be fancy, but those bottles of olive oil and balsamic vinegar will stay behind unless you check your bags.

This week is a bit of a treat because I can drive to my destination and will be able to take staples with me. I will have decent utensils and take a cast iron skillet.  More importantly, I was able to shop locally for my food: Whitefeather Meats (for bratwurst, sausage, ground beef and a nice 6 week dry-aged rib eye) and Mustard Seed for $20 worth of veggies (collards, spinach, zucchini, mushrooms, an onion, some green beans, and a few cashews).   Sounds horrid, huh? My total bill for four days is under $75 – about a day and a half if eating out.

Is my road diet a bit humdrum? Maybe, but it works for me with my limited resources and culinary abilities.  I do confess that I tend to lose weight when I travel, but that is the opposite experience of most travelers and, as far as I can tell, a good thing. I welcome suggestions and hearing how others cope in such situations.

The truth of the matter is that travel has become much more enjoyable since I started cooking for myself in the room.  I can come “home,” relax, check my emails, talk with my loved ones, iron my shirts all while preparing what I know will  a good meal, knowing what’s in it. I don’t have to go out and explain my diet to servers when I really need to get back to the room to finish my day and prepare for the next one.   As Jan and I enter the new phase in our lives as empty-nesters, I am hoping she will accompany me on more trips. I will be anxious to see what she does with this “mystery basket” of limited ingredients and even more limited equipment.  In a couple of weeks we are driving a cooler full of real food to New York City for a few days.

If we can make it there, we can make it anywhere!


12 thoughts on “Keeping It Real On The Road”

  1. I use to travel a lot and as a “crunchy” vegetarian found it difficult to find food. I too like to stay at places that have kitchens. I save money and don’t need to worry about what the restaurant has put into the food that they aren’t telling me.

    1. I wholeheartedly agree with my favorite “crunchy” vegetarian. It’s real food too, and it’s just as hard to find! I bet you’d hate traveling Montana!

    2. Actually, I should be begging you for good, simple, easy stove top veggie ideas. I’m not going to make a caponata or anything complicated, but I seem to struggle with vegetables beyond my stand by of green vegetables.

  2. Be, I totally agree – eating out all the time is for the birds! I can’t stand it. Your brother learned a long time ago if he wanted me to go on vacation for more than 3 days I’d better have a kitchen! Day 1 of eating out is so-so, Day 2 is eeeewww!, and well day 3 is take me home cause I’m not eating the crap these restaurants call food! That’s my story and I’m sticking to it 🙂

  3. Very admirable. Briefcase hyperventilates if he gets near a kitchen. (His mom didn’t know how to cook and neither does he.) He travels 90% of his life, but never ever attempts to cook.

  4. Yeah, I found it difficult last year when I was doing so much traveling. When I go to conventions I’m rooming with other people who don’t really care as much about food quality, so I can’t really pick out more expensive hotels with kitchens since we’re splitting the bill in the end. Mostly I play my foodie card and seek out higher end restaurants in the towns we land in, and make due otherwise. I always pack my lunch to eat on the drive there since eating on the road is impossible without preparation. I almost got fined $300 at the border because I was smuggling avocados and I lied about it. Mike will never let me live that one down!

  5. Great stuff, Be. I think this translates well to eating on vacation. We do quite a bit of home cooking when we go someplace like Greece, and it is rather annoying to have to make do with really cheap or non-existent cookware, but you end up eating healthier for less money.

  6. This is a very good post. I’m blessed (in a way) that health difficulties preclude me from travelling by air, and as a photographer, hello, it’s my job to stay earthbound anyhow. 😉 I can always bring my skillet and a few small kitchen supplies with me; even in the remotest spots, there’s a store with eggs, cheese, bacon, and aromatics like garlic & onions, from which I can whip up a couple of different dishes. It is the trips where I will be on the road for 6-8 straight hours (always driving through lunch!) that I’ve issues—ever try to eat a salad on the interstate? —but I’m slowly figuring it out.

    I definitely appreciate your list of easily-found places that have kitchenettes. Don’t overlook the small Mom & Pop places, though; many of them are quite nice (though more cozy and homey than chic), you can get all sorts of information from the owner, who is often the one manning the desk, and they also often have, if not a kitchen, a grill or two.

    1. Jen, you are right, especially on the toll roads with limited choices. Ohio has Panera’s in their service stations but when I stopped once and got their “ingredients list” they has no information about the salad dressings. It’s a sad state of affairs. I wish I could drive more often and I have found that my driving radius has increased from about 4 hours to 8 hours since 9/11.

      I agree about the local companies but an advantage of the bigger chains is reasonable consistency no matter where you go and the ease of finding and booking a room. Again, I think if the search engines expand to include “kitchens” it might open up a lot of options; after all, how many calls can I make to book a new trip every week? I’ve looked into weekly rentals (of condos, apartments, etc.), but they tend to be price prohibitive.

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