The non-foodie’s guide to eating while traveling

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Ok this title might be a little sensationalist, but…let me explain.

This post is not for someone going on a 5 day vacation. On a short trip, you can afford to break your rules. (Regarding both calories and budget.) So, sure, you can go all out.

But this post is for people traveling “long term.” When you travel long term, your travel IS your lifestyle, so you can only “splurge” as much as you would allow in your normal lifestyle.

For me, that means only occasionally indulging my inner foodie. A few special meals where the goal is to really have a culinary adventure, and otherwise a priority for healthy and affordable food. In cheap destinations, this allows for lots of foodie meals! But not everywhere.

So what does that look like in a variety of contexts?

(HT to Dan at Pointswithacrew whose tweet about cooking in a hotel with a slow cooker got me thinking about food and travel.)

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For the record, I’ve never tried the slow-cooker in a hotel trick he’s referencing, but I do have a few other tricks I have tried from time to time. And remember, these tricks are for prioritizing health and budget, not culinary adventures.

 

1. What to do when you have NO MICROWAVE, NO HOTPOT, and NO FRIDGE, but plenty of restaurants.

We have been in this situation a ton of times. And yes, in this scenario going out to eat is pretty much our primary option.

BUT, you don’t have to go all out. In these situations we have often opted for grocery store ready-made sandwhiches, yogurt drinks, and maybe one hearty sit-down meal per day. In Europe this past summer we did a lot of grocery store meals, cafeteria style cafes, and kebabs. Oh how sick I became of kebabs. I intentionally cut myself off from kebabs for the weeks preceding our Turkey visit, because I figured that would be a staple in Turkey.

In cheaper countries throughout Asia and Central/South America on the other hand, we do almost no grocery-store meals, because food is so cheap. Instead of grocery shops and kebabs, we eat almost every meal in one of those open-air restaurants with the plastic chairs and tables. We pick a place that is crowded and popular, and we try to avoid places that have menus catering to tourists. We don’t want to go to the place advertising pizza and burgers. We’d rather fumble around with a menu we don’t understand and get something authentically local, even if it is a bit of a surprise. Not only does this give us a taste of the local fairs, but is also better on the budget.

We are suckers for loyalty too, (duh), but this means we love finding a favorite place that we can return to every day and in some tiny way get to know the staff.

 

2. What to do when you are in the US or a more expensive country and you DO have a hotpot, microwave, and fridge.

The US is honestly one of the hardest places to eat affordably. Even Sydney was an easier place to eat for cheap if you headed to Chinatown. (DELICIOUS food I’d be happy to recommend if anyone’s interested in Asian food in Sydney.)

But the US can be very challenging when you have no kitchen and if you are trying to maintain a healthier diet than fast food will allow. When we’ve had a microwave, we have bought the healthiest microwavable things we can find. For instance, chicken sausage was a big staple for our month-long visit to Austin last year. Lunchmeat and cheese sandwiches also make up a huge portion of our US hotel room diet. A ton of chicken or turkey sandwiches in our stateside days. And the Whole Foods salad bar became an important survival tool as well. Not to mention grocery store rotisserie chicken.

 

3. What to do when you have a kitchen at your disposal, but not a fully stocked one, and not for long.

We have had random accommodations that provide the use of a kitchen, but not a long enough stay to fully stock it with bulk items. For instance when we visit friends or family, we try to buy our own groceries as much as possible so as not to burden anyone. And in an Airbnb, we don’t want to buy a bunch of groceries that will need to be left behind or thrown out.

This can be more prohibitive than you might expect. I couldn’t believe how many things I had to throw out at the end of our last Airbnb stay, and I was even trying to avoid bulk items.

For instance, you really can’t bake at all. No one wants to buy a whole bag of flower or sugar only to use a cup of it.

And no one wants to live on spaghetti only.

So here are the few things I end up cooking the most when I have a short-term kitchen at my disposal.

1. Chickpea kale salad with lemon and olive oil dressing (I buy the smallest bottle of olive oil and use it for my cooking as well as for the salad dressing. Then just buy a few lemons.)

2. Curry from the jar or from a small bottle of paste. (The rice is the biggest challenge here, but most grocery stores sell the precooked packets of rice per serving. For a short stay, use this, otherwise buy the smallest bag and make curry often!)

3. Eggs. Easy.

4. Rice pudding. (This helps you use up that bag of rice or any leftover eggs you have. The problem is, you have to get sugar of some kind. OR use a can of sweetened coconut milk instead of regular milk and sugar.)

5. This may sound weird…but I make barbecue lentils. (It’s like baked beans, but better.) You only have to make this 3 or 4 times to use up the whole bag of lentils and whole jar of barbecue sauce. Plus, if you  have leftover barbecue sauce, cook some chicken strips in it and have barbecue chicken sandwiches. Now you’ve avoided needing to buy any condiments that you won’t finish up.

 

4. What do you do when you’re at a resort, far from any kitchen OR restaurants?

In Egypt we tried desperately to find places outside of the resort to eat. But most of the resorts we stayed at were in the middle of nowhere. So, we mostly ended up with the following pattern.

First of all, because we have Hilton Gold status, we pretty much always had free breakfast.

Then, we quickly learned that the room service menu was significantly cheaper than any of the resort restaurants. I kind of toggled in between the same several menu items since the room service menu wasn’t all that diverse. Pizza, club sandwich, lentil soup, or pasta on most days. Kind of the opposite of the things I aim for when I can find local restaurants, but such is life.

At one of the resorts in French Polynesia, we discovered that the pizzas were decently priced, especially considering we were fine splitting one pizza between the two of us.

 

Conclusion

Of course eating out all the time is more fun. But it’s more expensive, arguably less healthy, and therefore, can be less sustainable for long term budget travelers.

So in general, I find myself being free as a bird in cheaper countries, making almost no compromises for the sake of budget and selecting whichever local restaurant looks popular and authentic. And if I need to make a compromise for health, I might try to make sure I favor rice over noodles at least half of the time.

But in more restrictive conditions, either in more expensive countries or resorts in the middle of nowhere, culinary fun takes a back seat. Waaayyyy back seat in some cases, (like French Polynesia.) In those cases, I lean towards almost the opposite food trends. Instead of avoiding pizza, pasta, and chicken sandwiches, I find myself eating a diet made up almost entirely of those items, supplemented with grocery items wherever possible.

Still, we almost never leave a destination, no matter how expensive, without having at least one good, legit meal, even if we have to kind of “splurge” just once to make it happen.

What are some of the “survival tricks” you have for eating as you travel?

14 Comments on “The non-foodie’s guide to eating while traveling

  1. Interesting post — especially since I’m heading to NYC for ~3 weeks and hoping to keep food costs down. Thank goodness for lounge access and pizza by the slice.

    (On a side note — are you guys no longer tracking/posting expenses? I love seeing how much you are spending and was just wondering if you were going to be tracking for 2016)

    • Ah yes gotta love that NYC pizza!

      As for the stats, we are still keeping track, but we may change up the way we do it a bit. And…as usual…we’re very behind!

    • Like in Sydney, NYC’s chinatowns (either in Manhattan or Queens) are good for cheap eats. Also, Eater NYC did a contest where everyone tried to eat out for <$10 a day in NYC, the results of which can be useful for cheap eats in the city (Google: Eater NY $10 Cheap Eats Contest).

  2. Always check the room service menu. It may be cheaper and better thanyou’d expect. It may be from a different kitchen. No guarantee. Just check

    • Exactly. Also I’m very much a soup fan, and the soups are often a fair price.

  3. Sometimes I just don’t really feel like putting any effort into searching for or preparing dinner. Microwave Chunky Sirloiner soup to a good boil and drop in the instant rice to soak up the liquid. I also keep instant grits and soups in general for an emergency.

    I travel solo often and meals tend to be a lesser part of the travel experience for me.

    • True. Sometimes the time spent hunting down a good lunch spot is a welcome break from the day’s work, and sometimes it just feels like such a time expense.

  4. One trick I came up with for hotels with a water kettle is to cook soups or pasta inside. Works better with instant noodles obviously. For regular pasta you have to keep making it go through the cycle, but it will get done eventually. Can add veggies and stuff that cooks quick- think greens, dehydrated mushrooms or tomatoes. For pasta, add sauce after.

    • If I had a better way to wash out the hot-pot I’d maybe be quicker to try this out. Do you use the hotel soap to wash it out or do you carry a castile-type-soap for that?

  5. On a recent two week trip, we used the hotel coffee carafe to heat water for ramen noodles and oatmeal for snacks (three kids with hollow legs). We recycled some large yogurt containers as dishes.

  6. Oh, and for North American trips, Costco is awesome for prepared side salads and rotisserie chicken.

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