Cooking for budget travellers isn’t always the most creative endeavour. Food is one of those beautiful necessities in life. I appreciate cuisine as one of the great joys of international travel, but sometimes you just want to be as stingy as possible.
Street food can be great and cheap, but in some countries there is nothing cheaper than cooking for yourself. So, run out to the nearest market and pick up a few essentials. Here are a few meal ideas for those times when cooking in a shared kitchen is the best idea around.
I see very little reason to eat breakfast out if you are on a tight budget. Unless you are in one of those amazing places where fresh fruit costs pennies. I’m pretty sure most hostels offer cooking facilities, and breakfast is a pretty easy meal to dish up. Some hostels even offer free coffee. It may not be the gourmet stuff, but it could save you a few extra dollars. Here are some more of my breakfast suggestions:
Yogurt and Granola
This is my standby easy breakfast. It’s filling, requires about zero preparation, and a tub of yogurt and box of granola will last you for a few breakfasts. A couple of scoops of yogurt (dairy, soy, coconut–whatever you prefer), mix in your granola, and it’s done. Maybe toss in some berries. If you really want to get fancy, splurge on some chia seeds to add to the mix. Sure, it can get boring, but it gets the job done.
Toast, peanut butter, honey
You know when you go on camping tours and in the morning the breakfast selection consists of bread, spreads, and cereals? I am not a cereal person, so my options are limited to, well, toast. However, one morning I discovered the beauty that is drizzling honey on toast with peanut butter. It’s actually a treat to look forward to following a night of sleeping on the ground and getting up at 4:30 am.
Toast, peanut butter, banana
If you want to be a bit healthier, or if you’re vegan, bananas on top of your peanut butter also add the perfect amount of sweetness. Or add another slice of bread and turn it into a sandwich. Too easy.
I admit that, like many travellers, lunch is the meal I usually eat on the go. It’s not too bad, many places have lunch specials. However, it’s obviously cheaper and healthier to pack your own lunch.
The “picnic” lunch
My idea of a nice picnic lunch is going to the grocery store and throwing together random foods: a couple rolls, some cheese, berries, maybe some hummus or a bit of chocolate for dessert. I love having a few small things to pick at. It’s easy and requires no real prep, just locating a market and then a decent park to enjoy your food.
I was hoping to avoid this–because it’s the most obvious thing ever–but sandwiches are just so convenient. You can make a sandwich with mostly anything, and buying premade sandwiches from a deli is not such a bad deal sometimes.
If you must go out, consider your options when looking at a menu. Dining with at least one other person makes it a lot easier to split one entrée and one side, saving you a few dollars. Tim and I would eat most meals like this on the road… and not on the road. Admission: we do it all the time. It’s a little stingy and very practical since restaurant portions tend to be huge.
You went out to dinner last night and made an effort to save enough on your plate to take back to the hostel. In many countries, taking a “doggy bag” isn’t that common. But, if you’re really prepared, no one can stop you from scraping your excess food into the Tupperware container that you brought along. Also, it doesn’t hurt to make a bit extra to save when you are cooking for yourself in the nights. And everyone made fun of you for bringing reusable containers on the road. Aren’t you keen?
It’s true, hostel kitchens are like a constant home to the aroma of fried rice or some kind of stir fry. But, it’s for a good reason–they are tasty, cheap, and you can put pretty much anything in them.
Not every hostel will provide you with the right oils and spices, so a good tip is to pick up a salad dressing with oil in it. This takes care of flavour and frying capability. Stir fry is a good idea if cooking for multiple people, whether they are vegan, vegetarian, or have some other dietary restriction–just dish up their portion before adding the next ingredient. There’s nothing better than the scent of frying onions and garlic (unless you don’t like onions and garlic… who are you?).
Maybe I was wrong before–pasta is likely the most common hostel dish. It’s cheap, easy, and takes all of ten minutes or so to throw together. I feel the need to include it for those reasons, although I rarely eat pasta. It can be quite heavy, so make less and bulk it up with added veg.
Ramen with veg
I’m talking about those packages of instant noodles, something I hadn’t eaten for several years before I moved to South Korea. There, whole aisles of the supermarkets are devoted to these dehydrated packages of sodium and nutritionally lacking noodles. The secret is that they are super easy to transform into something delicious. Boil up your noodles with the spicy seasoning in a pot, add in some onions, broccoli, whatever vegetable you fancy, beat an egg with a fork and drizzle it over the fork into the hot water.
“Baked,” “microwaved”–what’s the difference? Again, the easy part is that you can throw some onions and greens on the side and call it a meal.
The perfect four-ingredient salad: tomato, bocconcini, basil, and balsamic vinaigrette. Maybe your shared kitchen will have some olive oil and balsamic vinegar around so you can forgo the packaged dressing and make your own version (I just add a splash of each–we don’t need to get too fancy here).
Grocery store deli meals
Maybe this is a cheat because it’s not really cooking, but someone did cook it. In Australia, I had many a deli-counter quiche. It’s two meals, after all: have it for dinner and then for breakfast the next morning. I always head to the deli section to see what pre-cooked meals are on offer. There are usually plenty of salads and other snacks. Don’t worry about asking how long something has been sitting out for if it’s not looking too fresh, it might save you an unpleasant meal.
When to splurge
It’s really up to you where you spend your money. Maybe you are happy to spend extra on your food, maybe you’d rather spend that money elsewhere. I’m all for eating local foods and experiencing local culture. That being said, it’s definitely easier in some countries than in others. I definitely dine out a whole lot more while travelling, but I (try to) keep my budget in mind and make decisions based on the situation. I never cooked for myself at all in Thailand (that I can recall), but I prepared many of my meals in Australia. You make the call.
Do you have any ideas to add to this list? I’m sure there are many more out there–share below!