Vacation should never be stressful, but unexpected things do happen—this year, of course, the coronavirus pandemic has impacted everything, and summer plans are no exception. There’s risk to traveling anywhere, even close to home, but if you do decide to go somewhere local and rent a place, on top of additional safety measures, you’ll still be dealing with one of the most reliably unpredictable aspects: just what your rental house kitchen will be like. If you want to cook on vacation, there are some things you can do to make it as pleasurable as possible, no matter what you encounter upon arrival. And we’ve updated with COVID-19 precautions too.
How to Cook on Vacation
For some people, of course, the whole point of vacation is not to do anything, and even those who enjoy more active holidays may choose to have their meals made for them. But some of us love cooking, and look forward to doing it while we’re away. Whether we’re making our favorite dishes or trying out new ones we don’t have time for in our daily lives, cooking on vacation isn’t a chore, but a pleasure—or at least, it should be.
Vacation rental kitchens can be very different from our own, though, and not always in a good way. They’re often missing equipment, or stocked with sub-par tools, and they may or may not have basic items like salt and pepper. In order to keep your vacation as enjoyable as possible, here are some tips on cooking in a rental kitchen:
- 1. Make a meal plan (but stay flexible).
- 2. Make packing and shopping lists.
- 3. Research local markets and stores beforehand.
- 4. Bring staple ingredients and tools along if you can.
- 5. Head for the bulk bins.
- 6. Pre-measure ingredients for baking.
- 7. Take inventory and be inspired by what you find (or don’t find).
- 8. Adapt to your circumstances.
- 9. Make a plan to deal with leftovers.
- 10. Let someone else do it.
- 11. Keep it clean.
Make a Meal Plan, but Don’t Marry It
If you’re cooking on vacation, step one is to figure out what you’ll make. This can be as simple or as complicated as you like, but either way, try to plan meals where any leftovers can be turned into the next day’s lunch, or even another dinner (if you make fajitas one night, you can mix leftover grilled veggies into another day’s frittata—but that dish won’t depend on the leftovers either). And choose dishes that utilize some of the same ingredients. If you buy a bunch of basil for one night’s pasta, for instance, but it only calls for a tablespoon of the herb, think of another meal that will use the rest of it so you’re not wasting anything. It could be something as easy as a simple herb butter to melt over roasted or grilled salmon, or a slightly more complex pesto or chimichurri sauce (which you could then use on a sandwich the next day).
Don’t get overly attached to your plan, though, because you never know if you’ll find everything you need at the store—so think of it as more of a rough sketch than a final blueprint. The avocados you want for your first night’s guac may all be rock-hard and there will be nothing you can do but shift your plans, or ditch them completely. Other setbacks can be worked around. If you can’t find that basil, be willing to replace it with another herb (or have a backup meal in mind)—or, if you’re less into planning ahead anyway, let yourself be inspired by whatever you do find; however, it’s still helpful to write down exactly what you need for each dish as you envision it on the fly, so you don’t leave the store without something important.
And don’t count on special equipment, either; it’s standard for rental sites to list the major appliances and amenities each house has, but even if they definitely have a grill, that’s not an iron-clad guarantee it’ll be working when you get there. So you can plan to char some steaks, but if that ends up not being a possibility, be ready to broil them instead.
Related Reading: Easy Meals You Can Cook in Any Vacation Rental Kitchen
Make a List (or Two): For Packing & Shopping
I always make two food-related lists when renting a vacation house: one for the things I’ll pack (more on that a bit below), and one for the things I’ll buy once we get where we’re going. I’m addicted to Google Keep—in part because sharing lists with the other people in the group so they can edit and check items off if we split up the shopping duties is so easy—but good old-fashioned paper works as well, or use your favorite note-taking app.
Refillable Leather Pocket Travelers Notebook, $11.95 from Amazon
There's no reason your travel journal can't include your shopping lists (it's also great for jotting down new recipes you come up with).
If you’re not obsessed with lists and this seems like a total drag, well, I can’t really sympathize (I made lists just for fun even as a kid), but I do suggest taking a mere ten minutes to do it anyway, since it really minimizes the chances of kicking yourself down the road…when you realize you left the lemongrass you wanted to use for simple syrup at home, for instance, and there’s none to be found at your destination. Or you discover you forgot to pack your favorite fancy coffee beans, or didn’t bring cumin and the store ends up charging $9 for it. Planning ahead can help mitigate many minor disasters.
Right now, of course, grocery shopping is not exactly normal—so see our tips for safely shopping during the pandemic, whether you decide to go in person or opt for delivery.
Prepared to be even more flexible than usual.
Scope Out Local Stores and Markets Beforehand
Thanks to the internet, you can usually get a good sense of what grocery stores, specialty shops, and farmers markets there are near your destination before you actually get there, which can help you better prepare your meal plan.
For instance, there’s an amazing supermarket in Poulsbo, Wa. (what up, Central Market!) that has a great Asian food section I didn’t expect to be there (not to mention a superb prepared foods department)—so now I know I can make a mean pad Thai while vacationing on that part of the Puget Sound if I want to, which wouldn’t always be the case in other small town locations.
If there’s a dock where you can buy fresh seafood directly from fishermen, consider stopping there one night for your main ingredient, or visit the Saturday market to stock up on fresh produce and other local gems. Just be sure to wear your mask!
Take Staple Ingredients & Tools with You
This is obviously a lot easier if you’re driving to your destination, but it’s doable on a smaller scale even if you’re flying (particularly if you’re checking a bag).
Think about what you absolutely need—like salt and pepper—and just bring it with you if you’d rather not have to buy it once you arrive, especially if it’s likely to be pricier, as with olive oil and specific spice blends. This also ensures you’ll have the exact brands and types you like (Diamond Crystal kosher salt and your perfect pepper mill, for instance).
8-Pack Reusable Squeeze Bottle Containers, $11.99 from Amazon
These are petite (though not TSA-approved) and perfect for bringing small amounts of your favorite oils, vinegars, sauces, and condiments along.
You can decant things into smaller containers if need be—place a pinch of saffron in a snack-size bag, or use one of those seven-day pill organizers to pack a couple teaspoons of multiple spices, because even if the rental kitchen has a full spice rack, the seasonings are likely to be past their prime.
Auvon Weekly Pill Organizer, $7.98 from Amazon
Perfect portions of all the spices you'll need, and you'll know they're fresh.
Bring along your essential equipment too, if you can. A good, sturdy, sharp knife is something even gourmet kitchens in rental units are often missing. But think about what else you regularly use in your cooking. If you always grate your garlic on a Microplane, or use a citrus press to make fresh orange juice every morning, be sure to take those smaller items too. Vegetable peelers are another little tool that are often dull and disappointing in strange kitchens.
8-Piece Kitchen Utensil Travel Set, $28.99 from Amazon
Designed for camping, but just as handy for other forms of travel. Swap in whatever tools you'll want or need for each trip.
It may seem silly to pack multiple pieces of equipment, but it’ll be better than making do with inferior versions (and better than buying all new ones, although if you want to be generous you can always leave them behind for the next people). If you have the trunk space and you can no longer live without your Instant Pot, then don’t! If you’re hellbent on frozen margaritas and are at all worried there might not be a blender, bring yours! Or, recall the importance of being flexible and try the freeze-in-a-bag method for slushy drinks.
Related Reading: 8 Ways to Make Ice Cream Without an Ice Cream Machine
Buy from the Bulk Section
This is good practice in general, but especially on vacation. If there is a bulk bin section at the store where you end up shopping, buy things like rice, nuts, and even spices from there, since you can measure out only as much as you’ll need during your stay, and it’ll usually be much cheaper than purchasing full-size bags and boxes.
Pre-Measure Components if You Want to Bake
This is the same idea as bringing small amounts of seasonings, but a bit more elaborate and precise. Since I sometimes like to make blondies, brownies, or bar cookies on the first morning of vacation and I never know if the pantry will be stocked with flour and baking soda, I pre-measure all the dry ingredients for a specific recipe and bring them along in baggies (everything that gets sifted together goes in one, with sugar in a separate bag if it’s supposed to be creamed with butter before the dry mixture is folded in).
Related Reading: This One-Bowl Apple Snacking Cake Is a Life-Saver
I often bring a disposable aluminum pan to bake them in too, and usually print out the recipe and tape it to the bottom so I don’t forget that. This not only ensures you have everything you need, but makes it super fast to whip up breakfast (hey, it is vacation) or dessert, since most of the tedious prep work is already done.
If you have the space, ability, and inclination, you can do the same thing for other meals—measure out panko breadcrumbs and cheese for an easy baked chicken dish, for instance, or bring just enough shredded coconut for a batch of tropical shrimp. It cuts down on how much you’ll spend at the store, and how much you’ll have to tote home (or leave behind).
Stasher Silicone Storage Bags, $9.99-$19.99 from The Container Store
These extra-thick, freezer-safe storage bags are a great eco-friendly way to take ingredients with you and bring leftovers home.
Take Inventory Once You Get There & Be Inspired
If you’re not shopping for the bulk of your groceries until after you check into the house—or if you’ve inevitably forgotten something and need to run back to the nearest store within the first day or two—you’ll want to take note of exactly what the kitchen does have and allow it to inform your next moves.
Maybe there’s a slow cooker that’ll inspire you to make pulled pork, which you can then stretch into two or three different meals (like sandwiches, tacos, and rice bowls). Or maybe there’s a bottle of really nice champagne vinegar you never would have splurged on yourself, but that screams for a fresh salad to be put together. Or an unexpected bottle of ouzo might urge you to get some cantaloupe to make our Melon Dip cocktail. You get the idea.
It could also be that the coffee filters were never restocked, so you might need to grab some of those. Use the intel you gather to refine your meal plan and shopping list, and be sure to check for other things like plastic wrap, paper towels, and aluminum foil before you hit the store.
Or, Get Creative & Adapt to Your Circumstances
If you’ve already gotten all of your ingredients and are settled in but you find something else is wrong, just roll with it. If there’s no gas or charcoal for the grill and you can’t immediately replenish it, turn on the broiler instead. If your rental house is missing a baking pan but has a cast iron skillet, use that to bake in. If there’s only a tiny convenience store near your place and the sole pasta they stock is cheap macaroni, it will still taste (almost) as good as the artisanal rigatoni you may have had your heart set on. Or if the dishwasher’s malfunctioning and you don’t want to hand-wash a bunch of pans on vacay, foil packets work just as well in a beach house or mountain cabin as they do at a campsite in the woods.
And if you find the oven broken, you can even make pasta on a charcoal grill! Where there’s a will…
Try not to stress, and know that you can laugh about these things later, even if they make you want to cry when they occur. (Or maybe you’re a normal person who doesn’t get that worked up over diverted dinner plans, but those of who do will still survive such setbacks.)
Don’t Forget to Plan for the Leftovers You’re Not Supposed to Have
Because even if you devise a meal plan that minimizes the potential for leftovers, chances are you’ll still have some edible odds and ends at the close of your trip. To account for this, be sure to bring zip-top baggies of various sizes and/or reusable storage containers with you, as well as bag clips, twist ties, and a cooler so you can pack any perishables home (plus ice packs if you won’t be near a source of bagged ice). Or try to find more creative ways to deal with them if there’s no possibility of refrigeration. On one trip, rather than force down a bunch of blueberries I couldn’t finish or lose them all to a warm three-hour drive home, I cooked them into a syrup with sugar and lemon juice, then strained that into a bottle of vodka—an impromptu souvenir much nicer than anything I’d had in mind from the get-go.
Let Someone Else Do (Most of) the Work
Of course, if all this sounds like way too much work for what’s supposed to be a relaxing getaway, ignore it and order delivery—but know that your options may be limited right now, and be sure to tip extra generously. If local restaurants are open again, be sure to wear your mask. And consider the middle ground of having meal kits delivered to your rental for the week.
If you’re in a spot that doesn’t support those options or they’re otherwise out of reach, sophisticated (but easy) sandwiches always work, as do various no-cook meals, including the ever-popular and highly grazeable cheese plate, plus a little wine or a fruity vacation cocktail. The important thing is that you enjoy yourself, wherever you are. And now more than ever, stay safe.
Keep It Clean
To that end, since the coronavirus pandemic is still ongoing, it’s wise to take extra precautions. Wearing a mask in public and washing your hands frequently are key to helping stop the spread. But when you arrive at your rental, you may also want to clean the kitchen just in case, as well as other high-touch surfaces. Bring hand sanitizer too, and if you need to, see how to safely make your own disinfectant.
Header image courtesy of VRBO.