Vacationing with six stomachs can be a distraction. I’m on the road with the family, seeing the country. And eating out, and eating through a car payment every day. While everyone is oooing and ahing at the waterfall, I’m seeing the gushing hole in my wallet. And trying to come up with ways to plug it.
Yeah, it’s the end of summer. For three weeks the family has been straining like olympic runners at the starting blocks to bolt the house and have a real trip. Maps drawn, reservations made. Special clothes, with colors and cuts that insure they will never be worn again, have been bought. Neighbors have promised one last time to keep plants and pets alive. And finally one fine bright sun-filled early morning all bags are packed, and we’re loaded and off, an excited, happy crew.
To the drive-through for breakfast. It’s the first stop on our vacation.
And we’re not the only ones. The place is packed with families like ours. Scampering kids doing laps around a long line of WalMart shorts sorting out who-wants-what?, while the happy meal crew behind the counter efficiently relieve us of some excess cash before we hit the road. Something starts nagging at the back of my mind.
And by about a third of the way through our trip, I’ve figured it out. The natural and man-made wonders of America have become bait in a spiders-web of eateries of every imaginable variety. Freeway exits are clogged with them, and they’re lined up miles deep before you actually get to see your destination. And small wonder. All that fresh air and vacation spirit makes for some big and frequent appetites. And expensive tabs by the end of the day.
Now, I’m all for the pleasures of eating out on vacation. Which is part of the problem, of course. So, it took some doing to come up with ways to still make food fun without breaking the bank or waistline. Here’s some ideas I tested that worked just fine, and with a little effort and looking, made for a good time as well.
1. Farm Fresh It’s easy to forget that food doesn’t come from a semi truck or fluorescent lit shelf. All across America there are folks who actually grow and raise food. And many are more than happy to share some bounty directly with us. Farm stands, farm stores, and tours are not only great stops, but you can often load up on delicious and inexpensive eats you won’t find anywhere else. Some communities have farm trail maps, showing dairy, fruit, vegetable and other specialty growers. Otherwise, consult local papers or the internet. You’ll be shocked how many you’ll find, from cheese makers to fruit pies. You’ll never again think what you got in the supermarket was the way food should taste.
2. Farmer’s Markets These days even cities often have excellent farmers markets, one or more days a week. Discover one and you’ll find aisles of local fresh food, as well as a variety of cooking or prepared foods to take with you. It’s fun to wander, eat and shop, and discover tasty and unusual treats to munch or carry away. Stock up on things like local jams, fruits, baked goods, snack type foods, and other items that will carry well, and make a great between meal feast or picnic.
3. U Pick If you’ve never helped your kids pull ripe berries or apples off a laden branch, or rake new potatoes out of the ground with their fingers, you’re depriving them of a lifelong memory. It may take a little scouting to find, but u-pick – for pick-it-yourself – farms are worth the hunt. There’s the field or orchard, here’s a bucket or basket, and you’re in charge of harvest. What you’ll find varies by season and farm, so it’s worth calling ahead to see what’s ripe and ready. Be prepared to have to pull the kids away. You can load up to take home, or just pick enough for an afternoon. Prices are usually market or much better. And the best part is, you can select the ripest, freshest, best fruit or veggies yourself.
4. Mom and Pops Before the plastic arches, every town and crossroads had at least one or more cafes or small restaurants serving food the local folks liked to eat, and many still do. It’s hard to compete with two dollar value meals these days, but some local eateries still serve working man portions, and good food for the value, with pride and a local twist or recipe. Again, the internet can be your friend to find one, but look for the places that are busy at meal time, and smell good when you walk through the door. Avoid the temptation to order what you always do. Instead, ask the waitress what’s popular.
5. Ethnic Eats American towns and metropolises are populated with people with ancestors from around the globe, and many still prepare all the good and wonderful menus they enjoyed in their native countries. You can explore for authentic wursts and sausages, dim sum, or tapas with the family and not only expand some horizons, but eat well and often inexpensively to boot. And why would you want to drive a hundred miles to eat the same thing you can get a mile from home anyway? Here’s a tip on how to pick a good one: eat at a place filled with people of the same nationality or ethnicity as the food.
6. Ice Chest You’ve probably got one, but are you using it? If you’ve stopped at any or all of the above suggestions, you could probably fill one or more with all kinds of goodies or leftovers, and skip having to make a restaurant stop every few hours. Bring condiments or such things from home, pick up food from the store to make meals and snacks, and you’ll save a bundle. Plus, you’ll avoid a lot of whining and driving around looking for someplace everybody wants to eat.
7. BBQue If you don’t want to haul your Weber or hibachi, nearly every park has a pit or grill you can use, and besides the fun of eating outdoors, you keep the tip. If you’re equipped for tailgates already, bring the gear. Otherwise, travel light, just pick up a stainless grill and some charcoal, and use rocks, or park cookouts. Just don’t torch the forest.
Near the end of our vacation, we were having as much fun looking for new and interesting places for food experiences as we were our planned attractions, and not only saved some money, but ate better than we’d ever imagined. And, personally, it felt like a small victory, to sail by the chain joints, with nobody missing them a bit, and share a bit of what regular American folk do for food.