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Premake All Your Vacation Food

It might not have magazine-spread appeal, but it’ll make vacation feel like vacation

Overhead view of table with bowls of pasta salad, cut watermelon, and strawberries. Getty Images

This post originally appeared in the July 20, 2020 edition of The Move, a place for Eater’s editors to reveal their recommendations and pro dining tips — sometimes thoughtful, sometimes weird, but always someone’s go-to move. Subscribe now.

Every year around May they start to arrive — the glossy food magazines with their lusty summer travel features. The centerfold star is always some fantastical rustic-but-not vacation house, its occupants eating a thrown-together-but-not feast off some massive weathered-wood slab draped with we-just-found-these-here vintage napkins and foggy coupes of chilled $47 rosé in the waning sunlight. This, we have been taught, is the modern vacation ideal. It’s built to look effortless, but — as we learn via the accompanying text — is in actuality achieved by packing up and schlepping the better part of your own home kitchen (the cast iron, the spices, for god’s sake the knives). Then, between the swimming hole plunges and front porch meditations, there’s a few hours of browsing local grocers, of pickling and prepping and marinating, and the dramatic tossing of everything in heaps on a searing hot wood grill in July’s 99 percent humidity.

Yes, this looks amazing. I want to do this. I have done this. I’ve likely designed the better part of my life around making sure I’ve had as many opportunities to do this as possible. But, as I recently discovered, I may have been wrong — or at least close-minded. There is another way.

A couple of weeks ago, after months of being stuck at home, my family decided to pod up with another family for a weeklong vacation in a Central California beach house — a bona fide rustic one, with a scraggly crew of adults and kids and dogs. As I was getting ready to pack up my pans and pots and cutlery and spice cabinet and mortar and pestle and dish towels and basically every condiment in my refrigerator, making maps of all the best local markets and grocery delivery services in the area, my friend stopped me.

I’ll just make it all ahead and bring it,” she said. “It’ll be easier than lugging everything to cook it there.”

Uhhhhh, what? I mean, okay, I guess you can just, like, make the pesto ahead and jar it. And yeah, I suppose meatballs do hold up really well. And sure, you could pre-marinate the meat to grill and bring it in Ziploc bags. Yes, par-baking potatoes is easy enough, and cornmeal waffles freeze fine. And there’s no reason we can’t make a loaf of chocolate chip banana bread and bring it.

The more I thought about it, premaking the key elements of our week’s meals solved so many of the problems normally encountered by the vacation house rental — and even some of those specific to these less-normal times. With most of the food at least partially prepared, there’s no need to worry about the quality of the kitchen equipment at the place, or having the trunk space to lug your own — a halfway decent oven, grill, and microwave should do it. It also meant I didn’t need to drag my hot spot-level COVID-risky self into any small-town local markets in search of fresh tarragon. And better yet, I didn’t need to spend $5.50 on an entirely new, tiny jar of mayonnaise I’ll use one tablespoon of and eventually leave behind.

But the best argument for premaking our meals was the fact that by doing so our vacation actually felt like a vacation. After being cooped up for nearly four months, cooking and cleaning up three meals a day in our home kitchens, not cooking and cleaning for a week was pretty revelatory. It meant we could spend an extra hour at the beach, read a few more pages of our books, play one more round of Scrabble, and drink an extra few chilled coupes of rosé in the waning sunlight. (Listen, not everything about the fantasy needs to go.)

So sure, reheating the summer vegetable lasagna you made the week prior in your apartment doesn’t have the same magazine-spread appeal as roasting that whole lamb over the beach bonfire. But man, it’s easy. And isn’t that what vacation is all about?