This story is a collaboration with By The Way, The Washington Post’s travel destination.
I see myself as a confident, competent cook, seasoned from years of stovetop fails and the occasional singed eyebrow. So I was surprised at how much anxiety I felt about grocery shopping when I was planning a remote work getaway to the Outer Banks of North Carolina. The house was about 45 minutes away from the nearest supermarket, and I wanted to prepare at least four dinners, so it made the most sense to pack most of our groceries before our long drive. This scenario crops up every time I rent a cabin or a beach house with friends, which constitutes most of the vacations I’ve taken in my late 20s and early 30s.
After a few days of fretting, I resolved to make a plan. With a little extra research, prep work and an assist from YouTube, I put together a menu of meals that proved exciting yet manageable. I’ve taken what I’ve learned over a decade of group trips to help save you the stress in the thick of summer rental season.
Here are six tips for planning a week of cooking on vacation.
BYO spices and condiments
Don’t assume your host’s cupboard has anything to offer beyond a generic salt-and-pepper set or an open bag of clumpy sugar. You might hit the jackpot with a full spice rack, but if you’re banking on smoky Spanish paprika or garam masala to complete a recipe, you better bring those from home.
Bottles of ketchup, mustard or olive oil might be on-hand when you arrive, but how do you think they got there? The last sap left them after buying a new bottle when they only needed a quarter-cup. I’m less nervous than most — in my family, expiration dates were considered to be suggestions, not rules — but if it’s shelf-stable, it will probably survive a long car trip, even mayonnaise. When in doubt, use your nose.
Load up on carbs and starches
Dry goods are an obvious staple for the traveling cook. If you’re with a group, boiling a pot of pasta with a simple tomato sauce is also a no-brainer. I’ve made a giant batch of spaghetti on so many of these trips that my friends now expect it out of me. Just because I splurge on San Marzano tomatoes and packets of ground beef, pork and veal doesn’t mean you should. Dump a jar of your favorite marinara in the pot and call it a day. I like Newman’s Own Sockarooni Sauce; it’s packed full of sweet and sour vegetables (plus, it’s fun to say Sockarooni).
You’ll also want sliced bread for a ubiquitous lunch of cold cuts; cereal or oatmeal for breakfast; and a baguette, Italian bread or ciabatta that you’ll use to make garlic bread, winning the affection of your housemates with very little extra effort.
Plan around hardy vegetables
I’ve never met a tomato I didn’t unintentionally bruise, but brassicas can take a fair share of jostling on the commute from the store to the car to the rental. While I consider group trips to be open season on potato chip consumption, it’s nice to throw in some cucumbers, baby carrots and celery to add nutritional value to your grazing.
On my Outer Banks trip, I gravitated toward broccolini, a mild-and-sweet star I seared hard for a thick sandwich recipe I pulled off YouTube. Grocery store hummus or artichoke dip would make any creation more interesting. I went through with making a homemade spread of confit garlic and Calabrian chiles ahead of time, following instructions to layer on sliced salami, pickled banana peppers, mayonnaise and American cheese — a swap I made for heaps of ricotta, because I knew it would go easier on my dairy-sensitive partner.
Buy canned (or pouched)
I can be snobbish about beans; I’ll go with effort over convenience almost every time, soaking and simmering for hours. But you’re on vacation to enjoy yourself, not tend to beans. Accepting a shortcut will let you spend time with the people you came to see. Avoiding long-cooking meals will prevent you from swearing at yourself in the dark outside while you’re trying to make barbecue while your friends inside are too nice to ask why dinner isn’t ready at 10 p.m.
While I was in North Carolina, I gave myself permission to buy premade pouches of Maiya Kamal brand’s everyday dal, saving myself the trouble of preparing lentils. Dumping the pouch into a small pan gave me an instant complement to a batch of aloo ko achar — a quick-pickled Nepali salad that incorporates parboiled potatoes, cucumber, Sichuan pepper and toasted, ground sesame seeds.
Nicoise salad is another option that lets preserved ingredients do the heavy lifting. I like to buy jars of tuna fillets in olive oil from brands such as Tonnino or Ortiz, then hit the olive bar hard. Capers are a welcome addition here, too.
Pick one ambitious make-ahead dish
This was a vacation, sort of, blending our weekday routine with lots of new scenery, so I wanted one of my at-home dinners to feel special. Enter “Italian American,” a cookbook full of red sauce dishes from Angie Rito and Scott Tacinelli, the owners of Don Angie in Manhattan’s West Village.
Before we left, I made a batch of scarpariello, a sweet, sour and spicy braise of chicken thighs and ground Italian sausage you roll into bite-size, easy meatballs. Poblano peppers, rice vinegar and sriracha reflected the book’s tradition-tweaking point of view. Spiking the sauce with cherry pepper brine taught me a new cooking hack.
Refrigerating the sauce overnight before storing it in Pyrex for the journey allowed it to develop depth of flavor, and serving it with penne boiled a la minute was a cinch. The same effect would apply for any braise — say an easy pot roast, or a batch of collards you could pair with a box of cornbread mix.
Clean the grill or oven
… Because the party who left before you probably didn’t, and your new habitat could get very smoky — or downright dangerous — if you don’t. I’m thinking about a cabin trip when I proudly packed steaks from the Farmer’s Daughter in Capon Bridge, W.Va., which is worth a stop for the world-class cheeseburger alone. I paid a premium sum for the meat and went through the trouble of dry-brining steaks overnight in the fridge, then promptly charred them inside a 3-foot fireball that sparked when I briefly left the grease-laden gas grill unattended.