One thing is consistent for (almost) all military members: moving. And moving often means a few days, or months, living in a hotel or other temporary accommodation. Very few people want to eat out every meal, every day. And who can afford it?
Fortunately, it is possible to prepare and eat decent meals in a hotel or apartment. It just requires a little imagination, preparation, and flexibility.
Plan AheadWhen you can, try to choose hotels or other accommodation that have some sort of kitchen facilities. An actual kitchen is perfect but not essential. Once you know where you're staying, call and find out what the offer and what they permit. You may be able to request a fridge or a microwave even if they aren't always in the room.
It's also important to know if other appliances are permitted, such as a small slow cooker. I'm not yet on to the electric pressure cooker craze, but I've had some meals cooked in them, and I see why they would be awesome for hotel cooking. And they probably aren't prohibited as often as slow cookers. Other useful items include air fryers and electric skillets, if permitted.
Consider making a meal plan. This doesn't work if you're going somewhere that you can't predict the availability of different products. But if you'll have access to a commissary or a Walmart, you have a pretty good idea what you'll be able to buy. If possible, consider pre-packing spices or other small ingredients for certain recipes. (A plastic drinking straw can be melted closed at one end, filled with a spice, melted closed at the other end, and labelled with a permanent marker.)
Pack at least a small cutting board and a sharp knife with a cover. If you won't have a kitchen, a small stack of paper plates, napkins, and reusable plastic silverware will fit in a gallon ziptop bag. Throw a few smaller ziptop bags in there to use for leftovers. (Ziptop bags are such a lifesaver during a move!) Couple of squares of aluminum foil can come in handy, too. If you won't have a fridge, consider a cooler. A plug-in cooler is ideal!
Shop StrategicallyOnce you get to your location, check out your hotel situation and the grocery store. See if you can use the meal plan you made before the trip, or make one now. When shopping, make life easier for yourself by taking advantage of prepared or semi-prepared items. This may include things you'll find in the prepared or deli area but also includes microwavable bags of rice or pasta, frozen vegetables that steam in the bag, and pre-cut produce. (My children will demolish a pre-cut vegetable tray, while a Mom-cut vegetable tray will brown in front of my eyes.) A salad bar is an awesome way to get various ingredients in the right amounts, already cleaned and ready to go.
My friend Emilie Lima Burke pointed out that meal delivery services can be perfect for hotel living. All the ingredients are provided, including the spices. Obviously this works best if you have access to a pretty full kitchen, but what a great way to eat some gourmet food without the hassle of shopping and buying full-sized ingredients just to make one meal!
Meal IdeasThe internet is full of ideas for eating in a hotel room. Here are a few suggestions to get you started:
If it is relatively clean, you can use hot water from the coffee pot to make instant oatmeal, ramen, or other instant-type meals.
Microwave an egg in a coffee mug, top with a slice of cheese and ham to make a breakfast sandwich. Or put the scrambled eggs in a tortilla that has been warmed between two paper towels in the microwave. You can add a pinch of onion, peppers, spinach, meat or cheese from the salad bar to make pretty much any combination you like.
Bagged salad and a rotisserie chicken. It is a little distressing to throw out the lovely chicken bones, but sometimes it has to happen. You can shred the chicken directly into the salad bag, if you like. My family loves the Asian-style chopped salad with a drained can of mandarin oranges added.
If there's a grill at your hotel or local park, a barbecue can make dinner for tonight and leftovers to use tomorrow. You can actually cook those large foil pans of prepared meals over a grill. It takes a long time, but you can.
Stouffer's frozen lasagna, served with bread and salad, makes a fine meal even at home. You just have to be sure you get the size in the paper container so you can microwave it.
If you can use a slow cooker or electric pressure cooker, you can cook just about anything in your room. Pulled pork is super-easy and so yum. The hardest part is finding a small pork roast that won't make a ton. After that, let it cook away, shred, and top with sauce.
Money and NutritionWe all want to feed our family well, and we want to stay within our budget. You don't want to abandon that entirely while you're traveling, but you might consider relaxing your standards just a little bit. We actually have a family tradition that there are a few select foods that I only let my kids eat while we are moving. (Toaster Strudels, to be exact.) Buying things pre-cut or somewhat prepared can be a little more expensive, but if it keeps you eating at "home," it is worth the money. Those store-bought fruit bowls are an extravagance, but still better than listening to your kids whine "there is nothing to eat" and then loading up on junk.
Feeding your family while you are living in a hotel can be challenging, but it absolutely can be done. It takes a good sense of humor, some patience, and a lot of flexibility, but it will save your wallet and make some fun family memories.