20 Smart Food Tips to Help You Actually Relax on Vacation

updated May 27, 2019
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You know the feeling: You’ve ached for vacation for weeks, imagining cocktails on the deck of that great beach rental you scored by being on the ball eight months ago. You and some friends all got the time off and arranged to meet for, say, a week of summery bliss.

But when the big break comes, you find yourself exhausted — because it turns out cooking for eight on the coast is the same amount of work as cooking for eight in your own house. The view might be great, but effort is effort. You’ve fallen into the classic vacation trap (which The Onion most famously chronicled in this piece), where your escape just means doing dishes with a different view.

You’re not the first person to notice that vacation is often more work for the cook. But hear us: There’s a way out. It doesn’t mean that you don’t enter the kitchen, or that you and your family don’t eat. It means that with a little strategic thinking, you’ll spend less time cooking, do dishes fewer times a day, and maybe even feel like you’re on vacation. Here are 20 tips (from both pros and home cooks) to get you started.

20 Smart Food Tips to Help You Relax on Vacation

1. Make sauces ahead of time.

Often the most time-consuming part of meal prep can be whatever sauces you choose to season your food. Salad dressings, marinades, and last-minute drizzles are hard to give up, though. Try making vinaigrettes, an herbed yogurt sauce, or pesto ahead of time to toss into the cooler, so you have less to do once your feet hit the beach.

–Megan Gordon, food blogger, cookbook author, and #1 fan of assembly cooking on vacation

(Image credit: Yelena Bryksenkova)

2. Make a meal out of snacks.

Snack boards and cheese plates are always a part of our vacation meal strategy. They’re an awesome excuse to visit the local farmers market or co-op and load up on cheeses, dips, bread, and crackers. Plus they require minimal prep if we stay in a hotel and don’t have kitchen space.

Meghan Splawn, Associate Food Editor at Kitchn and mother of two

3. Kit up.

Bring meal kits! Or have them delivered to your vacation rental. It makes life easier. I always bring extra vegetables in case I end up cooking for more.

–Tracy, dishwasher-free mom of two

4. Plan easy things ahead.

Much of our meal-prep time is spent planning and shopping for meals. If you arrive with most of the things you need for a vacation, you’ll have more time for general lounging.

–Sarah, mom of one, eats out on vacation

5. Buy dessert.

Dessert is always pie. I love to bake pie, but not when I’m on vacation. I buy a pie from the same café on day one of our trip and we enjoy it for a few days.

—Susan, cookbook editor, buys tiny cereal boxes for easy vacation mornings

(Image credit: suzanne clements/Stocksy)

6. Keep it simple.

If the entire idea of having to prep for vacation makes your head spin, remember that you can do a lot with good olive oil, vinegar, salt and pepper. K.I.S.S.: Keep It Simple, Stupid.

–Steve, college professor and grandfather, hater of crowded fridge doors

7. Wash and cut ahead.

Washing vegetables when you get home from the grocery store saves time and storage space, and often prevents the vegetables from spoilage. In my house, because they’re easier to cook when they’re already all prepped, it also means we eat them faster — and less goes to waste.

Jess, cookbook author, obsessive-compulsive meal planner

8. Embrace teamwork.

If we’re traveling with other families, we’ll usually assign nights for each couple to cook.

–Angela Stowell, of Ethan Stowell Restaurants in Seattle, mom of two

9. Pick your battles.

Ask yourself what meals are most important to you on vacation, and focus your time there. If breakfast isn’t a thing in your family, don’t spend time making overnight French toast. If your kids love Dutch babies, go all out on breakfast and let people graze at lunchtime. If you love making great cocktails with real juice, spend your time there.

–Anne, mother of two, once flew a grapefruit press to Florida

10. Learn to walk away.

It’s a lot easier not to cook too much if you’re not in the kitchen. Someone will find the cereal. Seriously.

–Jim, father of one, devoted dishwasher

11. Make a salad bar.

Salad is nutritious and all that, but it’s also a great way to satisfy a crowd. Make a spread with pre-chopped ingredients, grab a few baguettes and some dressing, and don’t worry about the rest. Unless you want to get fancy.

–Tami, mother of two, salad bar aficionado

12. Cook once, eat twice.

When our family of five goes away to a vacation house, I usually cook four or five big-batch recipes that will freeze and travel well, and meal plan around them. I’ll cook a basic brisket and we’ll have brisket tacos with slaw and fixins one night, then brisket sandwiches with a big salad another.

–Tara Mataraza Desmond, cookbook author, proponent of quality vacation time

13. Pick up a rotisserie chicken.

If turning on the oven in a hot vacation rental makes you want to head home, just don’t! Our go-to is rotisserie chicken, which we can shred and turn into salads, sandwiches, or tacos super fast.

–Maggie, mother of two, would rather be on the beach

14. Cook more, not less.

If your typical dinner plan doesn’t include a crowd in the kitchen, but your co-vacationers are game for a project, try a cooking something that’s more labor-intensive, not less (think: homemade dumplings, fresh pasta or gnocchi, all of which are best made with many hands). Inviting others into the kitchen often makes the meal process more fun, and means more hands are available for cleanup help.

–Allison Howe, noodle fanatic, host of the podcast Simmer

15. Make one-pot meals.

Although I love to cook on vacation, meals that require just one pot are great ways to cut down on prep time and dishes. At the beach, I like to do a big seafood chowder, or grill fish and just cook a pot of rice.

Rachel Yang, Seattle restaurateur and cookbook author

16. Eat like a kid.

Easy, low-prep foods like hot dogs, mac and cheese, and grilled cheese sandwiches (with canned tomato soup, obviously) can be totally satisfying. For years, our family vacation dinners consisted of hot dogs roasted over a fire at the beach. Don’t judge.

–Hilary, mother of three, fan of fire-pit cooking

17. Set up a soup swap.

Remember when you meant to have a soup swap to make dinners easier over the winter? Round up pals who are also going on vacation, focus on summer soups, and leave with, say, a good vichyssoise, a cool parsnip-cauliflower soup, and a spicy gazpacho. Just add crusty bread or a salad.

Kathy Gunst, author of Soup Swap: Comforting Recipes to Make and Share.

18. Find someone who loves to cook.

You might not want to cook during your vacation, but someone else might. My mom, who lives alone and doesn’t have much opportunity to cook for a crowd, loves sending us off on vacation with a big pan of her signature lasagna. It’s a total crowd-pleaser, and I’m not about to argue with a dinner (and often lunch the next day) that’s done ahead of time.

–Kate, mom of two, cooks as little as possible

19. Lean on friends.

We actually love to cook on vacation. But as with a lot of other things, cooking is easier when you go on vacation with friends and trade off. We always go the same week as one or two groups of friends. We usually rent separate houses, walking distance from each other, so that the kids can run back and forth at will. Dinners are usually a casual “Want to come to our house tonight?” or “How about we do our house this time?”

Rebekah Denn, food writer, brings her stand mixer on vacation

20. Take it outside.

Summer is the time to eat drippy things outdoors, with food falling on the ground as you lean out over your feet. Embrace it, and you’ll do fewer dishes.

–Sara, mom of 2, deck devotee