When families have to PCS (move on military orders), we send our kitchen supplies into storage. By the end of a PCS, most families are sick of eating out. Food from restaurants can be a delightful treat, but when you eat out, you don't get much control over what's in the food, or what size the portion is. On top of that, eating out every day leads to some astronomical food bills and generates lots of trash.
As a yoga and wellness nerd, I know that what I eat has a huge impact on how I feel. "Garbage in, garbage out," is never truer than during a PCS. Why put your already-stressed body and wallet through the ringer even more than necessary? After doing a couple of these lovely military moves, I've come up with a few ways to keep my grocery bill down while keeping my physical body properly nourished.
Two of my PCS experiences involved going to and from Hawaii. When I moved, it took somewhere around 45 days for household goods to make it between the mainland and the islands. I've learned a few things in the months I've spent in a semi-nomadic state.
Stay in your (semi-empty) house
I know this sounds nuts, but it's really worked for me. Many military family support services (such as Fleet and Family Support) can lend or rent out some items for temporary use. You might be sitting on a plastic lawn chair or sleeping on a yoga mat (which I have often done), but being home is a big money-saver. Some bases even offer loaner furniture for free! Your movers probably won't pack open foods and liquids anyway, so you'll get extra time to use those items.
Most importantly, you get access to your full kitchen. This keeps you from being stuck on microwave meals and restaurant food for extended periods of time. Yes, hotels with kitchenettes may be an option in some locations. Do your research to figure out what's available in your area. I didn't opt for the hotel, because it was cheaper and more comfortable to use our BAH (Basic Allowance for Housing) to continue to stay in our home.
Keep one of everything
Just because you won't be able to host a dinner party doesn't mean that cooking is out of the question. Borrow some cooking stuff from a friend, use your base's lending locker, or keep only the barest essentials. Remember that most airlines allow PCSing families to carry extra luggage with them. Use that space in your luggage to keep one of each of your essential items.
I hate buying plastic flatware and paper plates. It feels like a waste of money, and it's completely counter to how I live my life when I'm not relocating. If you feel like you have to buy that stuff to make the PCS work, no judgement here. This is just how I roll. It's hard to go from tree-hugging granola-cruncher to having disposable everything, so I just decided not to do that. When I move, the following always travels with me in my luggage:
- One set of flatware (fork, spoon, knife)
- One large spoon for stirring pots and serving
- One pot with a lid
- One medium plate (for me)
- One bowl
- One small plate (for the cat)
- One coffee mug
- Food and water dish for each pet
In almost every case, I've had to PCS by myself, so I've only had to have supplies for one person. If you have a huge family, this may feel like more trouble than it's worth. With a large family, you might try a hybrid approach. You could keep a pot for cooking, but buy paper plates, for example.
Cook before they take your stuff
Before the movers make off with my cooking gear, I go a little crazy in the kitchen. For the last PCS, I made my health-nut granola in bulk. Since it's dry, it keeps for quite a while. This saved me from paying $4 or more per bag for the granola-flavored sugar they have at the grocery store. I took all the bananas that had been accumulating in my freezer, and I made banana bread and banana muffins. I froze all of that so I'd have plenty of things to thaw for breakfast and snacks.
As for real meals, items like soups freeze well. The more you set yourself up to be in the business of thawing and not fully preparing your meals, the better. For the stuff you're putting in your freezer, you can start prepping a few weeks before you have to leave so you aren't in a mad rush. I hoarded jars and plastic containers from items I'd previously bought at the store so I could use them for storage and then recycle them when it was time to leave.
Make one-pot meals
I've held aside my cast-iron skillet and a medium-sized pot in previous PCS experiences. There are upsides and downsides to each. Food in cast iron tastes better, but that's a heavy item to schlep around in your suitcase. The pot allows you to cook noodles and soups readily, but baking things is out of the question. No matter what you have on hand, you can adapt. I've had many successful stir fry dinners over these last few PCS moves. Get creative with what you can make using only the materials you have. If you've done your homework, you won't need to make too much from scratch.
Figure out how to get your caffeine fix
Some humans live in this world without caffeine, but I am not one of them. I do detox from caffeine occasionally, but the stress and fatigue that comes with PCSing usually has me reaching for a cup of the mean stuff whenever possible. When we stress, we regress. You don't want to see what happens when I regress to a time before coffee and tea.
We all know that making coffee at home is generally cheaper than heading to the coffee shop. If you want to kiss your savings buffer goodbye, blowing it on $5 drinks is a great way to do it. I have tackled this caffeine problem in a few different ways. Of course, I always keep a small supply of tea bags on hand. (Tea is the first "medicine" I reach for, so I always have many types. For caffeine, keep green tea and black tea handy.) Tea bags don't take up much room in a suitcase, but they can help you ward off a headache.
I have a cold brew system, so I make cold brew concentrate the day before the movers arrive. The concentrate lasts up to 14 days, which means I have two-weeks of coffee if I ration it properly. I store the concentrate in a glass jar that I've re-purposed from some previous food purchase (old sauce jars, salsa jars, and pickle jars work well as long as they are totally clean) so that I can send my cold brew equipment with the movers. When I'm out of concentrate, I recycle the jar.
The last time I moved, it was near the holidays, and I was craving hot coffee. I found a small, single-cup coffee pot at CVS. It came with a Mickey Mouse mug and everything! It was clearly meant to be a Christmas gift for someone, so I said Merry Christmas to myself. After the coupon, I spent a whopping $10 on the thing. It wasn't a K-cup brewer either. It was just a tiny version of a regular coffee pot. I used it every day for over a month, so it more than paid for itself. When it was time to pack up, I cleaned the tiny coffee pot and nestled it between some clothes in my suitcase. It's ready for the next move.
Embrace no-cook meals
Sometimes nothing satisfies like a hot meal, but you don't need an elaborate feast every day to stay healthy. A nice plate of hummus, veggies, and flatbread can make for a satisfying no-cook meal. (You can heat the flat bread in your stove if that makes you feel better.) I'll admit that sometimes I have cereal days or reach for a peanut butter sandwich on whole grain bread. Eat either with a small bowl of fresh berries or a banana to balance things out. If your PCS takes you on a cross-country road trip, you might have to eat out of a cooler for a few days. Get the best sandwich stuff you can manage. Eating simply doesn't have to be miserable.
Stay true to yourself
Some of the things I've said probably sound crazy. Everyone handles PCSing differently, and while I feel pretty stressed during my moves, I turn fueling my body into a game. The objective: keep my diet close to normal and stay healthy. How much of my favorite stuff can I continue to eat? How well can I uphold my commitment to being a conscientious consumer? How little can I spend while still maintaining adequate nutrition and comfort?
Take what I've said or leave it. I've read and heard so much advice about how to live this military life over the years. I use what I like and set aside what I don't. We're all trying to make it in our own way. The way that gets you to the finish line with the least amount of permanent damage is best.
If you're a military family member about to do this PCS thing, best of luck! You've got this. If you're a civilian, thanks for taking some time to see how this madness unfolds in one military spouse's brain. Have a tip about feeding yourself and saving the planet during a PCS? Drop a comment below!