I’ve always been a fan of pre-travel planning, to the point that I build a packing grid before every trip. The packing grid includes outfit components for every day of travel (based on predicted weather and activity), as well as a list of essentials that I don’t want to leave behind: Advil, Band-Aids, my Fitbit charger and so on.
When I was planning my most recent trip, a book-and-teaching tour that covered four states in 13 days, I added a few extra rows to my packing grid. These rows covered breakfast, lunch and dinner for every day of the trip: What I planned to eat, and where I planned to eat it. Here’s how to set up a similar plan ahead of your next big trip:
How To Plan Meals While Travelling
If you want to create a travel meal plan, here’s what you need to consider:
- Where you’ll be
- How much time you’ll have
- How long it’ll be before your next meal
- How much you want to spend
- Whether this should be a “special meal”
Let’s break each of those down:
Where you’ll be: In a hotel? On a highway? At an airport? Your location will help determine your options — and whether you want to take advantage of those options or plan ahead for something different (such as stopping by a supermarket before checking into your hotel vs. ordering room service after you arrive).
How much time you’ll have: Is this a situation where you can take a leisurely lunch, or will you need to catch a bus in the next 30 minutes? Did you schedule back-to-back meetings, or promise the grandparents you’d arrive by 5PM? Knowing how much time you have to eat will help you know what type of meal to plan — and ensure you fit it into the schedule.
How long it’ll be before your next meal: This is important. If you’re about to board a five-hour flight, you’ll probably want a different type of meal than, say, if you’re planning to visit a relative who will offer you delicious homemade cookies as soon as you arrive. Knowing when you’re likely to eat next — and what that meal will be — can help prevent undereating or overeating.
How much you want to spend: Check restaurant websites and make sure they’re within your price range.
Whether this should be a “special meal”: Travelling often means trying new restaurants and racking up larger-than-usual tabs, but if you’re hoping to stick to a budget, it’s useful to designate a few meals as “special” and let the rest of them be lower-cost or “ordinary”. Knowing that you have a special meal coming up also gives you something to look forward to.
I used a combination of Yelp, Google Maps and restaurant websites to choose the restaurants I planned to visit, and wrote those restaurant names into my travel spreadsheet underneath the itinerary (and matching outfit) for each day. For example, I might write “Breakfast: Free at hotel; lunch: World Foods next to Bolt Bus stop; dinner: Hearthstone.”
If you don’t want to do the full spreadsheet, you could calendarise your meal plan or drop it into your favourite to-do app.
When out and about, I used to put all my ideas into a pocket notebook. Then I switched to emailing myself from my phone. Then I tried the Notes app. Now I put them in Wunderlist, a to-do app. It's not my favourite to-do app — Microsoft even released another app to replace it — because I use my favourite to-do app for my actual to-dos. No, this is my sidecar and it's a much better way to jot down random notes than using a text app.
The Benefits Of Knowing Where Your Next Meal Is Coming From
Planning my meals in advance was a game-changer. Instead of having to ask myself, every few hours, where I was going to eat and how far I’d have to go to get the food, I was able to start my day with a plan.
Maybe that meant having continental breakfast at my hotel, taking an extra banana/bagel/yoghurt back to my room for lunch, and meeting friends for dinner. Maybe it meant mixing up some of the meal replacement powder I’d packed in my carry-on, and making sure to do it the night before so it’d be good and cold for breakfast the next morning. Maybe it meant splurging on a really nice prix-fixe meal — although does it really count as a splurge if it’s on the schedule and in the budget?
My meal plan also let me skip some of the indignities of travel: Arriving at the airport and buying a $9 hummus cup because I hadn’t thought to carry anything better with me; showing up at my hotel and having to decide between ordering room service and taking my chances on whatever restaurants offer delivery; picking some fast food place for lunch just because it’s familiar and I’m too hungry to research any better options.
I researched my options before I left, along with their prices and various distances from all the places I planned to be while travelling. (I even looked up food photos on Yelp, to get a sense of portion size and grease level.)
Avoid The 'Where Do You Want To Eat?' 'I Don’t Know...' Discussion
If you’re planning meals for a family or a group of people, looking up your available options before you leave — and picking one of those options in advance — will save you a lot of that “Where do you want to eat?” “I don’t know, where do you want to eat?” hassle.
You can look up nutritional information and allergens before you’re stuck on the highway (or in the middle of a busy downtown footpath). You can ensure everyone gets their favourite cuisine at some point on the trip. You can get your entire party into a restaurant or cafe before hunger compels you to choose the nearest option — and you’re less likely to have one of those meals that ends with everyone complaining about the food.
Of course, just because you make a plan doesn’t mean it has to be set in stone. Your meal plan is a guide that you can use if something else doesn’t come up. Maybe you drove by a quirky diner and decided to stop and give it a try. Maybe the restaurant you chose turned out to be too busy or too loud or otherwise unpalatable. Maybe you forgot to check the hours, and you picked a place that was closed on Mondays.
Going off-plan, in this case, means making an informed choice about where to spend your time and your money — which is very different from getting hungry and deciding to settle for the first restaurant you see.
If you’ve also tried planning your meals before you travel, let us know what worked and didn’t work for you. Do you estimate how much each meal will cost, and build it into your travel budget? Do you pack non-perishable food in your suitcase, or plan supermarket or convenience store trips to get fresh fruit and other essentials? When you look up restaurants online, do you plan what entree you’ll order and how it’ll fit with your daily nutrition goals?
I love planning, so I’m curious to learn how you do meals when you travel — and whether I should add a few more rows to my packing grid.