Questions for cooks: Meals that travel well without refrigeration

Reader Rose submitted the following to Questions for cooks:

I recently started a project that has me traveling to the other side of the state every other week. My flight leaves at 6:00 a.m. and arrives at 10:30 am. I then leave again at 4:40 p.m. and return home at 10:30 p.m.

I get a per diem to cover all three meals when I take these trips. But I really want to just pack my meals so I can pocket the per diem. Besides, the town I go to is very small and remote. There is a grocery store, but it’s selection is not good, and everything is expensive.

Anyway, I have to go through airport security and gelpack-type freezer packs are not allowed. I’ve heard things about using ice, but it seems to depend on the agent and the airport. So, I would like to avoid food that has to be refrigerated. To make matters worse, I have to strictly watch my salt intake, so most microwave and canned foods are not good options.

This is like a riddle or a word problem on a math test: “Rose needs 1,500 calories a day, but has to avoid refrigerated and preserved foods. How can it be done?”

Right off the bat, I know that fresh fruits and vegetables are going to be a good option for you. Apples, bananas, raw broccoli and cauliflower crudites, snap peas, and oranges shouldn’t cause a problem for you as you go through security. If the item is not refrigerated in your grocer’s produce section, you don’t need to refrigerate it in your lunch pail.

Bagels and bread should be fine. Same goes for almost all aged, hard cheeses. Cheese sandwiches aren’t usually exciting, but using a hearty bread and a wonderful cheese will be filling and enjoyable. I’m thinking something like a jalapeno cheddar bread with some pepper jack cheese, or a rustic Italian with a Parmesan or Manchengo.

Smoked salmon and cured meats travel well, too. I love a salumi that bites you back or causes you to take notice, like a Culatello di Zibello, a delicate prosciutto, a hot pepperoni, a crusted pancetta, or a spicy coppa. Don’t go overboard with the smoked and cured meats — just a little with crackers should be enough to give you some protein — because you don’t want to elevate your salt intake too wildly.

Cliff makes some wonderful granola bars that aren’t especially high in sodium or fat, and taste great. Talk to people who regularly go hiking, and they’ll also have great suggestions for you.

Thank you, Rose, for submitting your question for our Questions for cooks column. Check the comments for even more portable suggestions from our readers.

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10 comments posted

  1. Posted by Carson Chittom - 07/01/2011

    I know some will disagree, but I think doughnuts could be on this list. There’s a reason why cops stereotypically have them: cops sit in cars a lot, and doughnuts are a high-calorie food that can sit at room temperature for long periods just fine. Just be aware of the sugar content (so you can plan the rest of your meal accordingly) and don’t go overboard.

  2. Posted by Donna - 07/01/2011

    If she can’t use gel packs to keep food chilled, this lunch box might work:
    I have one and it does an awesome job of keeping stuff cold. I pack my lunch at 7 am and five hours later my yogurt is still nicely chilled (it helps that I freeze the yogurt, too). All you have to do is freeze the lunch box overnight and it’s ready to go in the morning. Definitely worth the $20!

  3. Posted by Keter - 07/01/2011

    I’m a great fan of stuff on a shingle. The stuff can be anything from peanut butter to sardines. The shingle can be any kind of cracker, flatbread, or firm vegetable or fruit slice. Apple butter on a graham cracker…Peanut butter on a saltine, kippered herring on a caraway rye cracker, cheese on an apple slice, tapenade on a cucumber slice…you get the idea. The shingle doesn’t even need to be all that firm so long as you can handle the mechanics of eating it: peanut butter on a banana is the classic example.

    Then there’s loose trail mixes, dried fruits, nuts, seaweed crisps, and if you are adventurous, visit an oriental store – you would be amazed at what all they dry. If you will have access to a microwave, try instant oatmeal and grits plus add-ins. All of those things should travel just fine in an insulated cooler bag, and many require no cooling. Plus they are finger foods so you can eat them almost anywhere. Pre-cut what you must, pack a plastic spreader and you should be good to go.

  4. Posted by Jenny - 07/02/2011

    I second the trail mix suggestion. I would suggest making your own. I go to the bulk section of my grocery store, and choose some things that sound good together. My classic favorite is peanuts (you would want to be sure to choose unsalted), raisins, and m&ms. But almost any kind of unsalted nut, dried fruit, chocolate chip or candy, or seed would be good.

    Also how about cold cereal or granola? You could bring a box of that, then only need to buy a carton of milk when you get there and breakfast is taken care of.

    For foods that don’t need to be refrigerated for safety, but just taste better chilled (most fresh fruits and veggies for me) how about using a frozen magic bag. If you don’t have one, just fill a cloth pouch or sock with raw rice and tie or sew it shut. Then store in the freezer for several hours, and pack in an insulated lunch sack. I don’t think this would keep anything refrigerator cold for too long, but should keep things slightly chilled for quite some time. Depending on your cooking facilities there, you could even cook up the rice with some of the veggies once you get there. Now that’s really multitasking.

  5. Posted by rebecca - 07/02/2011

    Tortilla espanola is most commonly kept at room temp and since the eggs are cooked through I feel comfortable eating it when it’s been sitting out. Plus, it’s the best combo of eggs and potatoes, soooo yummy!

    The next link has an example of a french bread that is more like a pound cake without the sugar and with ham. My dear friend made this for me when I traveled in a bus around Spain and it was wonderful, it gets better the next day. It travels really well and since it is more like a pound cake it doesn’t get too crummy and doesn’t make a mess

    I hope these help and give you a little bit of variety.

  6. Posted by Justine - 07/03/2011

    I’m surprised no one has mentioned Bento yet – japanese packed lunches that are designed to be eaten at room temperature and don’t necessarily need refridgerating. There are lots of resources online, but justbento[dot]com is be far the best and most accessible – you don’t need to use Japanese food, there’s lots of different cuisines adapted to the concept.

  7. Posted by sara - 07/05/2011

    Also, many health food stores have a huge selection of bulk foods, and many interesting “just add water” options. You can find dehydrated black beans, and add spices and dehydrated onions and peppers, and minute rice (uncooked). Then when you’re ready to eat, add boiling water, let it sit for 5 minutes, and put it in a tortilla with some string cheese. No refrigeration needed, very healthy and tasty. Or try instant oatmeal with dried fruits and spices. Or instant rice with freeze-dried veggies, spices, and boullion.Other options for quick cooking bases are couscous, instant potatoes, dried hummus, etc. The key is making a delicious mix yourself without all the sodium and junk in it, and then get hot water from the airport once you get inside.

  8. Posted by Lisa - 07/05/2011

    The cured meats and cheese could pose a problem on a salt restricted diet – both can be VERY high in sodium.

  9. Posted by sarakula - 07/14/2011

    As a work traveller (I fly out every Monday and fly home every Friday) I recommend the following:

    individual peanut butter or almond butter packets

    baggies of cut up apples (available in the produce section pre-cut in strong bags that are sturdier than a ziploc and won’t break or split)

    unsalted packages of nuts

    rice cakes

    I typically bring a water bottle and fill it when I get a chance, and sometimes I’ll carry individual packets of lemon juice. I also pack tea bags when I know I’ll have access to hot water.

    Also, I have a travel cutlery set that’s TSA friendly.

  10. Posted by Tiffany - 07/18/2011

    Put something in your lunch that is frozen but is ready to eat when thawed. I use frozen edamame in the pod for this, but you can use frozen grapes or something like that. The frozen food acts like an ice pack and keeps the rest of your lunch cool while it thaws out.

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