Eating out for every meal is expensive, time-consuming and a hassle. Not to mention complicated if you want to eat healthy or have dietary restrictions. By cooking most of my own meals I save a lot of money on food while I travel. Instead of spending a ton of money on every meal, I save my hard-earned cash for street food, snacks, drinks and the occasional splurge.
This might not seem appealing if you are going a short vacation, but if you are backpacking for a few months, cooking your own food is actually really great. Not only is it cheap, you have full control over what you eat and sharing meals can be a great way to make friends.
Cooking your own meals can seem a bit daunting, but cooking cheap, healthy and easy meals as a backpacker is actually not that hard. I’ll share my tried and tested tips on hostel cooking, travel meals, and saving money on food below:
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Go for accommodations with a communal kitchen and free breakfast
The best way to save money of food is to pick accommodations that offer free breakfast. The cost is incorporated in the price and much lower than breakfast in a cafe. That is one meal out of the way, and if it’s a breakfast buffet maybe even more. You’re usually not supposed to take food from breakfast buffets with you, but I do it anyway. Make yourself a couple of extra sandwiches for lunch or take some fruit as a snack.
Depending on where you travel, cooking food isn’t always and option. Most hostels in Southeast Asia don’t have communal kitchens, so you’ll be limited in your options. Street food in Southeast Asia is so cheap though, that eating out is usually the better option anyway.
Luckily, hostels in Europe and the US do usually have communal kitchens. There you can cook full dinners if you want. Picking an Airbnb over a hotel also allows you to cook your own meals. Hostel kitchen vary wildly in how much you can do. Some are cramped, with only a few pots for everyone to use. Others that I’ve stayed at had a huge industrial style kitchen with lots of spices and gadgets.
Pick simple dishes that use similar ingredients
In case breakfast isn’t included, and I have to provide my own, I usually go for either yogurt with fruit and granola, oatmeal porridge or a sandwich. These meals are cheap, easy and only require a few ingredients and no cooking. Especially oatmeal is very practical as it keeps outside of a fridge, and you only need to add hot water/milk. And they are healthy and filling enough to tide you over to lunch. If you want something a bit more substantial, you can add eggs. It’s one of the easiest and cheapest travel meals and a great way to save money while backpacking.
Lunch is the meal I am most likely to skip or buy while I travel. Sometimes restaurants offer great lunch deals, making this the most cost-efficient meal to eat out. In Italy, I often ate a slice of pizza or gelato for lunch. In Austria I would grab a pretzel and in Southeast Asia I relied on street food. Or I’ll stuff myself with snacks in between sightseeing.
If I do make my own lunch, it will usually be a sandwich. They are easy to make and easy to transport. Or I’ll bring bread and cheese/humus/peanut butter (or buy them from the supermarket) and make my sandwich on the go or have a little picnic in the park. Both make for great backpacking lunch ideas.
Now, dinner is where you can really show your cooking chops. If you are staying at a hostel, some might offer “family dinner” or you can suggest cooking and sharing a meal with your fellow travelers. It’s a great way to make friends and keep costs down.
The best way to making travel cooking cheap and convenient is by making the most of your ingredients. Pick easy things to cook that use similar ingredients so you don’t need to buy new produce for every meal. You probably won’t have access to a lot of kitchen tools, so pick one or two pot dishes. Besides, you’ll have fewer dishes to wash 😉
Consider cooking vegetarian or vegan dishes to save a ton of money on ingredients (meat and cheese are expensive!). To make sure you do get all the necessary nutrients, add plenty of legumes, eggs and vegetables. My go to recipes are variations on beans and rice, pasta with veggies, stew or soup.
Here are a few easy dinner recipes for cheap healthy meals to inspire you:
Carry a few staple ingredients with you
Most Airbnb’s and hostels with communal kitchen will have a few culinary essentials, such as oil, salt, pepper and sugar. Often these are things people have left behind and you are free to use. But sometimes it’s really bare bones, so I like to carry a few things with me. These are also dry goods that keep well and that I can use on the go.
- A small bottle of olive oil (sometimes I just pour it in a small bottle)
- Salt, pepper, sugar, cinnamon (for oatmeal), spice mix (Italian herbs go with everything)
- Stock cubes and tomato paste (makes anything taste good)
- Pasta or rice
- Tea bags
- Red lentils (healthy, full of protein and cook quickly)
- Granola/muesli/oatmeal (for breakfast and to snack on)
- Peanut butter (to make sandwiches on the go and as a snack)
To keep myself from spending a ton of money on snacks or getting hungry, I also always take healthy snacks like fruit, nuts and protein bars with me.
Buy fresh ingredients at your destination
With those staples, you don’t have to buy everything new every time you move. You already have the basics, so all you need are fresh ingredients. Look for a cheap supermarket in the area (Aldi and Lidl are great) or a local market. I always try to visit markets as a way to explore the local food when I travel.
Farmers markets in the US tend to be pretty expensive, but local markets in Europe and Asia are really cheap. This is the perfect place to score vegetables, fruit, bread, eggs and yogurt (for breakfast) as well as anything else you need.
Calculate based on how many days you are staying and how many travel meals you intend to cook. You don’t want to be left with a ton of produce to carry with you to your next destination.
Invest in reusable cooking tools
In order to be really flexible in your backpacker cooking and eating, invest in some reusable items.
- Food container, to eat out of and transport leftovers.
- Travel mug, for tea/coffee and doubles as a bowl for breakfast.
- Pocket knife to cut fruit and veggies and slice bread, so you can have a little pick nick wherever you go.
- Reusable cutlery, save the planet by avoiding disposable plastic cutlery. Now you can just bring your own. And eat whenever, wherever you want.
- Beeswax wraps for wrapping sandwiches and leftovers
- Water filter bottle so you can drink from any sweet water source
I’ve used my reusable kitchen tools to make myself a sandwich at the top of a waterfall in Ireland, mix up yogurt, fruit and granola in a mug on the steps of a church in Venice and eat peanut butter straight out of the jar on a bus in Cambodia.
With these useful travel hacks, you’ll be able to cook delicious travel meals on the go and save money on food while traveling long term. Without sacrificing great flavor and a cultural experience! What are your tips for saving money on food while you travel? Or great hostel recipes? Share them with us in the comments.
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