To prepare for the self-catering experience, here's what we take with us:
- 4 x plastic plates
- 4 x plastic bowls
- 4 x plastic cups
- 6 sets of disposable picnic cutlery
- 1 x flexible cutting mat (ours is actually a Tupperware freebie giveaway cutting mat)
- 1 x washing up brush
- concentrated washing up liquid (less than 100ml, to comply with LAG regulations)
- a universal sink plug
- 1 x quick dry face washer to use as a teatowel
Naturally, we have weighed everything - and we never buy expensive items. We had two bowls cracked through careless baggage handlers when we used to do checked luggage, so it all has to be cheap. We went with disposable picnic cutlery because we really didn't know if it would be confiscated at customs: it wasn't (and we went through baggage screening in Sydney, Hong Kong, Paris, Lisbon and London).
Here's some things we have done. Firstly, find a supermarket, general store, or similar near to your hotel. For example, in Seville, we found a small shopping centre about 5 minutes walk from our hotel. In Paris, we used small stores such as boulangeries, greengrocers and cafes. Even in Tahiti, where we stayed at a very plush hotel, we walked about 20 minutes to the local Carrefour supermarket (where the cheese counter was breathtakingly huge, and stocked full of French cheeses. Mmmm...!).
These sorts of stores are the self-catering key to success. Secondly, scope out your hotel room for possible equipment bonuses. Sometimes they have fridges. OK, so these aren't always very cold, but they open up the possibilities. A few have had microwaves - but they are a rarity. Many have tea and coffee facilities, including either a kettle or a coffee machine. The equipment provided will dictate the limits of your catering options.
One of the key appliances will be a kettle. There's a lot you can do with boiling water. For someone like me, the main thing is a decent cup of tea. If the hotel lacks tea-making facilities, I buy my own tea at the supermarket. In Portugal, we purchased a cheap kettle at a supermarket for the whole journey, then 'donated' it to our last hotel room. There are all sorts of substances in packages that you can turn into meals (or partial meals) simply by adding boiling water. These include soups, noodles and rice dishes.
When in America, we had to make do with the ubiquitous filter coffee machines. We had to run boiling water through them quite a few times to reduce the coffee taste! And I did wonder whether you could actually cook on the hotplate that sits underneath the coffee pot - though that's probably a safety hazard!
We boil fresh water each night and pour it into our 1 litre collapsible water bottles to cool down in preparation for use the next day. Boiling the water is a safety precaution against picking up some bugs or diseases, though obviously in some destinations you would need to do more than that to get safe drinking water.
In addition to a kettle, when we finally arrive at our longest land-based section of the holiday, we buy some cutting knives. We got a packet of two perfectly adequate vegetable/fruit knives in a Lisbon supermarket for only 0.50 eurocents. We use these for cutting fruit, vegetables, cheese, bread rolls - anything at all, really. Buy some knives - they are incredibly useful. Obviously we can't take them on planes any more...
We also usually buy the cheapest roll of plastic food wrap, so we can contain any partly used food - half tomatoes, cheese etc. An alternative to this is ziplock bags that can be washed out when used, ready for re-use.
Food ideas we have used successfully:
- Barbeque chickens (either hot or cold)
- Fresh bread rolls / baguettes / sliced bread
- Salad vegetables, such as tomato, lettuce - things which may not need refrigeration for a day or two if we don't have a fridge
- Some just-add-water rice or noodles
- Fresh fruit
- UHT milk, which doesn't need refrigeration. We spent two weeks in New England and Quebec surviving on powdered milk. By the time we got to our last week in New York we were positively craving fresh milk. Our walk to the supermarket each afternoon for a litre or two was a delicious treat.
- fruit juice in resealable cartons or boxes
- cheese (it doesn't always need refrigeration. The fromagerie we visited in Paris had hundreds of cheeses, NONE of which were refrigerated)
- tinned beans (a cheap alternative source of protein, instead of meat) with ring-pull lid - or you will need to buy a tin opener
- breakfast cereal
Sometimes we have purchased items such as yoghurt, fresh milk or ice-cream late in the afternoon - on the way back to the hotel - with the intention of eating it that night for dinner. In Paris, we were fortunate to have a cafe across the street from our hotel, where we were able to buy fresh croissants each morning for breakfast. Be sure to take advantage of opportunities like that!
Take note of the packaging that your food comes in. Sometimes it can be transformed into something very useful, such as a storage container. We bought some cherries which came in a plastic box with a flip-top lid: and the box became a perfect holiday food storage container after we washed it up.
Obviously, once in the hotel room it can be a bit tricky to prepare all this food. The little writing tables sometimes provided are not designed to be as spacious as your kitchen! If chairs are provided in the room, we usually insist that the kids sit at the table to eat. This helps to contain the mess. Having them eat from plates delicately poised on their laps, or sitting on one of the beds is, to us, just asking for trouble. And trouble is what we try to avoid.
Washing up is done in the bathroom sink. Some hotels provide huge benchtops in their bathrooms. Make the most of these. Some provide little more than the sink itself. Either way, if your kids are old enough, they might need to pitch in to help clean up because there probably won't be room to neatly stack the washing up. Taking a universal sink plug is a good idea. Once we had a hotel room with a plug that didn't seal the hole very well, and found washing up frustrating to say the least. We also use some of the boiling water from the kettle to ensure that the water is hot enough to remove greasy food residue and to prevent bacterial growth on the plates.