A Family Trip to Washington, D.C, Part 21: Eating on a Budget

In case you missed the first few posts in this series, we are chronicling our family trip to Washington D.C.  The first post in the series is here.  You can find the rest under the travel menu on our main page.   Last week Todd discussed our final full day in the city.  Today, I will discuss what we ate during our week in D.C.

If you have followed our blog for a while, you know we do not eat out often.  There are two basic reasons for this.  First, it is extremely expensive for a family of five to eat really good food at a restaurant.  So we usually eat at less expensive establishments.

dc ice cream treat

And doing that seems counter-intuitive.  If we are going to eat “normal” fare, like hamburgers, pasta, sandwiches, or pancakes, we can replicate that ourselves at home for a fraction of the cost.  Why pay someone else to do what we can do on our own?  We are a smidge independent.

The second issue with eating out is the time involved.  This is especially true when we travel.  Our family vacations are on the go.  In fifteen years of marriage, Todd and I have never gone somewhere tropical.  Neither of us enjoys sitting on the beach reading books or working on our tan.  Instead, we do stuff.  Go places.  See things.

By the time a meal rolls around on vacation, we are famished.  So are the kids.  Waiting 30-45 minutes for a meal, all while watching other restaurant patrons eat their yummy food in front of us, is honest-to-goodness torture.  Most of the time, it is simply easier (and less embarrassing) to cook our own food.

Making memories that will last

Before we left for D.C., I prepared our menu for the week in the city.  We determined ahead of time which meals we would definitely choose to eat out.  I made a shopping list and researched online which grocery stores would be closest to our condo.

During our week in D.C., we purchased food “out” exactly five times: lunch at Chipotle on the day of our arrival, one Greek-style lunch from a food truck on the National Mall, Taco Bell for lunch at Union Station, ice cream treats from a cart, and McDonald’s French fries for a snack at the Air & Space Museum.  The food truck lunch turned out to be our most expensive meal the entire trip, but it was worth it.  The food was excellent.

So, how in the world did we survive a week in D.C. with almost no eating out?  We were creative.  Here are our favorite strategies:

1.  Know the rules at the museums.

It is against the rules to consume outside food and beverages inside virtually any museum or government building in D.C.  There are signs posted everywhere in case you forget for three minutes.  And the security staff are pretty serious about enforcement.

You are almost always allowed to carry food and beverages inside a closed container, though.  We have a nifty little cooler that is just the right size to carry a lunch and snacks for a day of adventures.  If you do not feel like carrying a cooler around all day, there are a couple of museums in D.C. that rent lockers to patrons.  We never took advantage of that option because it turns out that Todd makes a pretty good pack mule.

Since our trip was timed in the spring, we were able to eat outdoors in the sunshine several days.  On the couple days that we visited locations that did not allow food to be carried inside the facility (ex: the White House), we planned ahead and chose to pay for a meal instead.

2.  Invest in the proper equipment for picnics.

Our little cooler is very well-insulated.  Our ice packs stay cold for a long time.  We have napkins, spoons, and forks packed for meals.

In addition, we usually carry a set of small bowls.  Rather than purchasing individually-portioned bags of snack foods (pretzels, cereal mix, potato chips, etc.), we usually buy the normal sized packaging and divide it out as we eat.  Not only is it a more economical way to shop, it usually saves space in the cooler.

3.  Ask about cooking equipment at the rental property or hotel.

I had the foresight to ask about the availability of a slow cooker at our condo before we left home.  I am glad I did, because they did not have one.  So I schlepped mine halfway across the country and used it on a daily basis in D.C.  I forgot to ask about a pizza pan or cookie sheet.  And I should have.  Because they did not have one.  Baking French fries on a broiler pan is feasible, but certainly not ideal.

If you plan on doing any amount of cooking at a rental property, it is a good idea to find out if they have a cutting board and knife, a colander, two cooking pots, two serving bowls, a frying pan, a slow cooker, a pizza pan or cookie sheet, a toaster, a coffee pot, a can opener, and a microwave.  Just about any basic meal can be prepared with these items on hand.

4.  Bring along your recipes and a detailed shopping list.

I knew how many days we would eat sandwiches for lunch, so I planned accordingly the amount of bread and deli meat we needed.  We had several slow cooker suppers that called for onions, and my grocery list accommodated that.  I purchased enough portable snacks to get us through the week.

We used up our leftovers on the last night in D.C.  We threw away very little food when we packed up to go home.  And we ate well while we were there.

Our Menu:


Cereal with milk, Fruit juice, Muffins, Yogurt, Toast, Eggs


Pretzels, Trail mix, Crackers, Pudding cups, Tortilla chips, Granola bars


Sandwiches, String cheese, Baby carrots, Grapes, Raisins, Yogurt, Fruit cups, Celery with hummus or peanut butter


Tex-Mex lasagna, Re-fried beans, Lettuce salad

Beef stroganoff, Peas, Lettuce salad

Bacon & cheese chicken, French bread, Mashed potatoes, Green beans

Tortellini soup, French bread, Lettuce salad

Philly cheese steak sandwiches, French fries

Seafood Alfredo, Corn, Lettuce salad

Sloppy joes, Leftover veggies & fruit

At the end of the day, when we were finished seeing the sites, it was absolutely wonderful to walk into our condo and smell supper already made.  In the time it took the kids to finish their homeschooling assignments, Todd and I were able to have dinner on the table.

And after dinner?  We were already home.  There was no bill left to be paid.  No traffic to fight with.  No more walking on tired feet from the train station back to the condo.  We could kick back and relax.

How do you save money while vacationing?  Send me an email or comment below!