Conventions have a certain quality of being overwhelming; that is, there nearly always seems to be too much of everything and not enough time for it all, but there’s one, perpetual exception: con food sucks. It seems that regardless of the size or location of conventions, one recurring theme is that nobody eats well. It’s entirely possible to survive solely off of fast food and food from the consuite (if there is one), but by the time the show is over, you’ll feel the effects of your poor diet for days, if not weeks. And if you have any special dietary restrictions (like you have severe food allergies, you’re vegetarian or you keep kosher), not only is it nigh impossible to eat well, most find it difficult to even eat enough.
Dietary restrictions aside, if there’s no consuite (and sadly, consuites seem to be a dying tradition), feeding yourself during a convention can get really expensive. Restaurants near convention centers and large hotels often have inflated prices, and after a whole day of walking around and navigating crowds, you’ll find your appetite to be a bit larger than usual. Bringing some of your own food to, at the very least, supplement your diet will save you some serious coin, especially if you can take what’s left over home with you.
Whether you’re living out of a hotel room or your car, your solution and convention food savior will be a cooler with plenty of ice. So let’s start there. Most conventions are held in hotels, and whether you’re actually staying there or not, you can probably access one of the ice machines. My cooler doesn’t have a drain plug, so I put the ice in gallon-sized freezer bags so that it’s easy to change out the ice without having to empty the contents of the cooler every 12 hours or so. But what if you don’t have a cooler or can’t bring one because you’re flying in? What if the convention isn’t in a hotel and you can’t get ice? Most convenience stores and grocery stores will hold your solution: styrofoam coolers and bags of ice. The styrofoam coolers do the job just as well as the pricier ones, and you can afford to leave them behind. For that matter, if you’re flying in, you’ll want to find a grocery store at your destination, anyway, as you’ll need to do some shopping for food, anyway.
When building your shopping list for the convention, take into account what conveniences you will have on hand at the convention. Some hotel rooms have refrigerators, which significantly reduces your need for a cooler (though they’re usually small, so they don’t entirely eliminate it) and increase your options for the kinds of perishables you can bring. Some even have microwaves in the room or available in the hospitality room, which further increases your options. Consider yourself lucky if the place you’re staying provides these, because in most cases, you’ll have neither. The following food suggestions are based mostly on the assumption that the only things you will have at your disposal will be the cooler of ice that you’ve brought and a small coffee maker (which really doesn’t do you much good, come to think of it, unless you don’t mind pouring coffee-tainted hot water over your ramen noodles).
When shopping for food to bring to the convention, you want to try to maximize the nutrition that you can get while minimizing the amount of things that you have to buy, as you have limited space. Below is an example shopping list, based upon my own experience and some good ideas that my mom had last year at Dragon*Con that I didn’t consider. I am not a vegetarian, nor do I adhere to any special dietary restrictions, so some of the suggestions below might not work for you if you do. However, I still think it’ll give you a place to start.
Non-perishables (or doesn’t require refrigeration)
- Peanut butter and jelly (the kind that come together in the same jar)
- Canned fruit (don’t forget a can opener in your con box!)
- Pop Tarts
- Cereal (something that can be eaten as breakfast or a snack–Cheerios is a good one for this, as are Kix, Cocoa Puffs and Reeses Puffs)
- Aseptic cartons of milk such as these from Horizon. They don’t require refrigeration, but if you like your milk cold, you can keep them in your cooler without having to worry about keeping them cold enough. Powdered milk is another option, but I personally can’t stand the taste.
- Canned or pouched tuna or chicken (mix with mayo and make a sandwich or toss with the bagged salad for a more substantial meal)
- Mixed nuts, trail mix and/or dried fruit — these are typically a nutritionally dense food that you can easily carry around in a small zip-top bag in case you need a pick-me-up.
- Beef jerky
- A flat of bottled water
- Juice and/or soda
- Sweet and salty snacks of your choice — a bag of chips, a bag of pretzels, some candy…whatever floats your boat.
- Condiment packets (like the kind you get at fast food restaurants). Staples include ketchup, mustard, mayonnaise and soy sauce.
Perishables (requires refrigeration/cooler)
- Deli meat — I recommend the kind that comes in the plastic storage containers. As long as you keep the ice changed out, this can be stored in a cooler for several days with no ill effect.
- Cheese — sliced, sticks, cubes…whatever. If you’re keeping it in a cooler, keep the ice changed out and the cheese in a water-tight bag or container. Wet cheese is gross.
- Fresh fruit/veggies — only get things that don’t require elaborate preparation. Baby carrots, apples, oranges, bagged salad kits, pre-cut broccoli florets, grape/cherry tomatoes, bananas and grapes are all good options.
- Pre-made cold pasta or bean salad — buy it in the deli section of the grocery story or make it at home beforehand. Keep it in an airtight container in your cooler. Unless you have a real refrigerator at your disposal, stay away from anything containing potatoes, eggs or mayonnaise.
If you have a microwave available (some can be made with hot water from the coffee maker, if you don’t mind a little coffee-flavored contamination)
- Ramen/Cup o’ Noodles
- Easy Mac
- Hamburger Helper singles
- Canned soup
- Chef Boyardee (or similar)
- Any other self-contained, boxed, just-add-water food with microwave instructions. Take your pick.
Of course, with nearly all of these, you’ll need to remember to bring bowls, plates and utensils. Fear not, these and much more will be in your Con Box, which will be the topic of Part 3!
Have any additional suggestions? Leave a comment!