How to Cook Great Meals on the Road—Without a Kitchen

·10 min read

This past summer, I spent more than seven weeks on the road—and I didn't eat in a restaurant once. As much as I love dining out in normal times, the resurgence of COVID along with crowded, understaffed restaurants in the vacation spots I visited, made me give restaurant dining a pass this year. Make no mistake, I will be back; dining out is one of the greatest joys of traveling. However, it's good to know that you can truly cook joyful, vacation-style meals in a hotel room. It helps immensely that these days, most lodgings come equipped with at least a fridge and a microwave. And many national hotel brands offer small kitchenettes with two-burner cooktops to make cooking on a road trip even easier.

Here's how I managed to eat splendidly for 45 days while cooking without a kitchen.

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Top Tips for Cooking in a Hotel Room

Here are my top lessons learned that prove cooking on a road trip is possible.

  • Bookmark Some No-Cook Recipes: The most obvious go-to recipes for cooking in a hotel room is a stash of no-cook recipes.

  • Mix Up a Salad: Salads hit the spot, especially when you're traveling somewhere warm. Here's a great collection of main-dish salads. Look for the no-cook options such as White Bean-Tuna Salad, Salmon Salad with Strawberry Vinaigrette; or Chicken, Tomato, and Cucumber Salad (use baked chicken from the deli instead of cooking your own).

  • Go Local: To add a sense of place to your cooking, head to farmers markets to get great fresh produce. Keep an eye out for local specialties, which I found everywhere, including great Jewish rye bread in Florida and amazing crusty Sheboygan Rolls, smoked fish, and terrific local cheeses in Wisconsin.

  • Nibble Through Dinner: When you really don't want to cook, a cheese and charcuterie board can make a spectacular meal in a hotel room, RV, or dorm room.

  • Get Adept at Adapting: Look at your favorite recipe and think about how it can be cooked with the appliances and utensils you have. To make this Fast Chicken Fettuccine, for example, use microwavable fully-cooked pasta instead of boiled fettuccine and switch in baked chicken from the deli for the breast meat. Use any vegetable that looks good at the market, and use our cooking charts to cook it in the microwave.

  • Substitute, Substitute, Substitute: To avoid buying anything you'll only use once, bookmark this list of cooking substitutions. And remember, when it comes to cheese, a great aged cheddar can do it all—from showering over pasta or tucking into sandwiches to adding to salads and topping crackers at the cocktail hour.

  • Look for Fully Cooked Meats: When you're really short on time, ham and smoked sausages (such as kielbasa) can be quickly heated in the microwave and served with readymade microwaveable potatoes. Tear open a chopped salad kit and call it dinner.

  • Dessert?: Bake nothing and go local. I cherished heading to bakeries and orchards to score slices of great regional pies throughout my travels. These included Cherry Pie in Door County, Wisconsin; Lemon Ice-Box Pie in Memphis; Derby Pie in Louisville; and Chess Pies all over the South. An after-dinner walk to a local ice-cream stand also lets you take in the local scene.

Essential Equipment for an On-the-Go Kitchen

Cooking in hotel rooms requires gearing up a travel cooking kit of essential tools. The trick is to keep it all organized, handy, and minimal—with as few breakable items as possible. No uni-taskers allowed in my toolbox: I didn't bring a garlic press (a knife minces just fine), a grater (I used a knife to chop things finely), nor a vegetable peeler (I scraped or peeled veggies the old-fashioned way—with a paring knife).

I had everything I needed with these essentials, which I packed in one large plastic tote ($18, Walmart).

Tip: I did not find myself in need of coffee mugs. Most hotel rooms come equipped with coffeemakers and mugs, or at least heatproof paper cups. The latter aren't ideal, but I appreciated having one less thing to pack. Measuring cups and spoons? You can probably guesstimate amounts. After all, since you have no oven, you're not baking anything—and that's when exact measurements are key.

Optional Equipment for Your Travel Cooking Kit

If you'll be traveling for many days, you may want some of these nice-to-have items packed too.

  • Small Portable Folding Table and Chairs ($79, Walmart): Some hotel rooms do not come equipped with a table and chairs; many simply have a desk and just one desk chair. Our workaround was to set up a little portable table by the window (or in the best cases, on the balcony). If the hotel room's desk could be moved out from the wall, often we left our portable table in the car's trunk and simply brought up an extra chair, using the desk, prettied up with a beautiful tablecloth ($90, Williams Sonoma), of course, as our dining table. A small table also gives you extra workspace.

  • Small, Lightweight Toaster* ($15, Walmart): Many hotel rooms offer free breakfast; however, I noticed many offerings had been pared down to grab-and-go items, such as prefab pastries, cereal, donuts, and such. If you love toast in the morning, tote a small toaster.

  • Small Electric Skillet*: I swear by my electric skillet ($29, Amazon), which is perfect when cooking for two.

* Note that some hotel rooms explicitly prohibit cooking appliances beyond the microwave and coffeemakers provided. Be sure to follow the rules.

My Traveling Pantry

At home, I have dozens of herbs and spices, all kinds of pasta and grains, and way too many different varieties of vinegar and oils. On the road, when cooking in hotel rooms, I'm a minimalist, making do with just these staples.

  • Pure Olive Oil: Sure, extra-virgin olive oil tastes great for salad dressings, and other oils work well for cooking. But I find that pure olive oil can do both; it's good in salads as well as for cooking.

  • White Wine Vinegar: In my experience, a good-quality white wine vinegar can usually be substituted for most other vinegars in the kinds of easygoing recipes you can make in a hotel room. Learn more about vinegar substitutions.

  • Salt and Pepper.

  • Seasoning Blends: I tend cook a lot of Mexican, Middle Eastern, and Italian dishes while traveling. Rather than packing dozens of individual spices, I stash just three seasoning blends. Favorites include Harissa Spice Blend, Mexican Seasoning Spice Blend, and Italian Seasoning Blend.

Once I get to my destination, I stock up on these shelf-stable items:

  • Couscous: This makes great side dish that can be cooked in a microwave in minutes.

  • Precooked Rice Pouches: Pre-cooked, shelf-stable microwavable rice is much better than I thought it would be! I especially like the jasmine and basmati varieties.

  • Fully Cooked Pasta Pouches: I'd give microwavable precooked pasta a B+ overall — A+ for convenience (it cooks in minutes), and B+ for flavor. Sure, freshly cooked al dente pasta is better, but this product definitely pulls off an easy pasta-night supper.

  • Bulgur Wheat: In an attempt to get whole grains into my diet while traveling, I often serve this wholesome, nutty-good grain. Look for a package that offers microwave instructions or the option to soak the grain in boiled water (rather than stovetop directions).

Emily Fink

10 Recipes You Can Cook in a Hotel Room

Now that you know the basics, you'll be surprised at how many recipes you can cook in a hotel room that has a microwave and a fridge. Here are a few to get you started:

  1. Homemade Microwave Macaroni and Cheese: No need to buy purchased pouches when you can make it fresher with real cheese.

  2. Eggs in the Microwave: These are great for breakfast or poached egg salads for lunch.

  3. Spicy Shrimp Pasta: Substitute precooked shrimp and pasta instead of cooking your own.

  4. Butternut Squash and Chickpea Curry: Use a prepared korma sauce in place of the first five ingredients. Cook the butternut squash in the microwave. Serve with a pouch of microwavable cooked basmati rice.

  5. Lemon-Pesto Pasta: Substitute cooked microwavable pasta for the dried penne; cook the green beans (or any veggie of your choosing) in the microwave.

    Some hotel chains offer kitchenettes with two-burner cooktops and basic kitchen equipment (and even dishwashers!), making it easy to cook great recipes on vacation. Try these simple stove top-only, no-oven recipes. They also cook up easily in an electric skillet.

  6. One Pot Ham and Greens Pasta

  7. Chicken and Lemon Broccoli Alfredo

  8. Beef Sirloin Tips with Smoky Pepper Sauce

  9. Lemon-Thyme Roasted Chicken with Fingerlings

  10. Curried Pork and Rice

Truth be told, I was amazed at how much fun it was to cook in a hotel room. For me, devising a great meal with a minimum of tools and ingredients brought the same kind of satisfaction I get when solving a challenging puzzle. But before you hit the road, I have just one more word of advice: Whether you whip up no-cook salads and sandwiches or call on the microwave or a two-burner cooktop, the trick is to keep it simple. You're on vacation, after all. Enjoy!