So far, our trip has involved lots of cool wildlife encounters, diving, and other nature-focused activities. But aside from all that, we also have to eat 3 (or more) times a day, which can get pretty expensive. We really enjoy exploring different cultures through food and trying out new restaurants, but we have had to find a balance in order to make the long-term travel thing sustainable (both for our health and for our wallets).
While we were living normal lives with full-time jobs and other commitments back home (seems so strange now…), we would often make a big batch (we’re talking 8-12 servings) of a dish on the weekend and then have leftovers for lunches and suppers for the week.
We like cooking at home for a few reasons: 1) it saves us a lot of money, 2) it helps us eat healthy (e.g., we find it easier to get lots of vegetables & whole grains – yay fibre!, and we can use less salt), and 3) we find it fun.
As you can imagine, the big-batch-cooking strategy doesn’t work too well on the road, especially when you’re moving around every few days. We’ve been faced with all kinds of obstacles (e.g., irregular schedules, limited facilities/equipment, limited access to grocery stores), but our dietitian and engineer selves have embraced this challenge, and we think we’ve managed to adapt pretty well. Here are a few things we’ve learned along the way. Obviously, the budgetary concerns are a bigger deal with long-term travel like we are currently doing, but even for shorter trips, you can still save a surprising amount of time and money (and sodium intake). We hope some of this might be useful to you!
Pick accommodations with a kitchen.
This is the obvious first step to cooking while you’re travelling, and a big help if you want to save money. Although trying new restaurants is definitely high on our list of things to do in a foreign place, we also make an effort to make a lot of our own food. Even going out for just one meal instead of three meals a day can save the two of us $40-60 (or more), which over 6 months adds up to $9000! And that adds up to a lot of diving we could be doing.
Mostly we’ve stayed in Airbnbs or hostels (no, not those big dorm rooms; we always get a private room if available) and we always prioritize having a kitchen. Even if it’s a modest set-up with just a fridge, microwave and/or hot plate, there is a surprising amount you can do. And for anyone wondering, no, it is not difficult to find an Airbnb with some kind of a kitchen. Most listings include kitchen access, either shared or private.
We have now stayed in at least 25 Airbnbs and a handful of hostels, and aside from a few quirks, have not had any big issues at any of them. In fact, many of them have been nicer and more personable than a hotel, as well as being cheaper and having kitchen access. So really, we see no reason to stay at a hotel, unless it’s a last minute booking or only for a night.
Find a few go-to meals that are easy, quick, and require minimal equipment.
When you’re on vacation, spending a bunch of time in the kitchen prepping food, making labour-intensive recipes, and doing a bunch of clean-up afterwards probably isn’t high up on the list of things you want to do. However, making a tasty, healthy, and inexpensive meal at your accommodations can actually be quite easy and save you time compared to going out to eat. By the time you choose a restaurant (if you’re anything like us, this takes FOREVER), get to the restaurant, wait for a table, choose what to order, wait for your food, eat, pay your bill, and get home… you could have already cooked, eaten, cleaned up and be on your way to your next activity!
Even if your place has a kitchen, it might not always have every piece of equipment or cooking utensil that you could wish for, so it helps to be adaptable and keep things pretty simple. Some of the staples we have come to rely on include:
- quick-cooking rice
- instant noodles
- oatmeal (SO. MUCH. OATMEAL.)
- bagged salads
- frozen or canned vegetables & fruit
- frozen meals
- peanut butter
- canned beans (we try to buy the no-salt-added versions, but if we can’t find any, we make sure to rinse them extra thoroughly)
Another thing is that your kitchen might not have a lot in the way of spices or condiments, but you probably don’t want to buy a whole new pantry of stuff to carry around. However, condiments definitely help make your home-cooked meals more tasty and interesting. We generally take inventory of what is available at the hostel/Airbnb and plan around that (most places have some basic spices/condiments/cooking oil available for free use). Then we buy some of our own condiments, mostly sticking to things like salsa that we can use up during our stay in one place. Our favourite thing is hot sauce, which we will buy (Sriracha, Tabasco, or Sambal Oelek depending on availability) and carry around from one place to another – totally worth it. The key for us is making food that is still delicious, so we don’t feel deprived when we aren’t going out to restaurants. As soon as cooking = suffering, you’re in big trouble, so we don’t ever let it get to that point.
Here are some examples of meals we make a lot. We only cook vegetarian, so none of these examples include meat, though they do include good amounts of protein (mainly from beans, lentils, tofu, and eggs). However, even meat-eaters can enjoy these meals (indeed, we have shared these recipes with a number of meat-eaters, and they have all given them their seal of approval). Even if you have no interest in becoming vegetarian, you might want to consider reaping the benefits of skipping meat for some of your meals. For example, vegetarian food can be cheaper, easier to cook, and require less prep/clean-up. (Consider: rinsing and dumping a can of red beans into a stew vs. cutting up and cooking chicken or shrimp).
You’ll notice these aren’t detailed or complicated recipes, and you can adjust or modify them to your own preferences. The point is, these are some combinations that we’ve found work well together. They require minimal time and effort, but still taste great!
- Oatmeal (they had these really good instant oatmeal packets in New Zealand – Uncle Toby’s!) with extras such as yogurt, fruit (fresh, frozen, or canned all work great), nuts. Seriously, oatmeal with canned peaches is really good!
- Toast with tomato and/or avocado and fried egg (and Sriracha!)
- Toast with peanut butter and honey
- Mexican scramble when we had time & a good frying pan (eggs scrambled with onion, tortilla strips, and beans, topped with cilantro, sour cream, salsa, avocado and hot sauce)
Lunch (these are examples for when we needed to take lunch on-the-go):
- Bagels or bread with hummus and cucumber
- Peanut butter and honey or banana sandwiches
*Tip: save your bread bags or produce bags to carry around your sandwiches for the day
Dinner (or lunch if you happen to be at home):
No prep and no cooking except a microwave:
- Frozen microwave meals + bagged salad (easiest meal ever and surprisingly tasty)
- Pre-made items from the grocery store deli (e.g., salads, pies/pastries, etc.)
- Pasta with ready-made sauce and some frozen vegetables, maybe some feta cheese
- Dried soups (e.g., lentil soup) with some added frozen vegetables. Bob’s Red Mill soup mix was really tasty, and also very low in sodium. We occasionally added some – you guessed it – hot sauce (we are hot sauce monsters)
- Instant noodles (to cut down on the salt, we typically only use about half to two-thirds of the flavour packet, and still find it has plenty of flavour) plus some green vegetables (fresh or frozen – e.g., bok choy or broccoli)
No cooking and minimal prep:
- Black bean salad – rinse some canned black beans and mix with canned corn, tomato, cucumber, onion, feta, and avocado (when we felt luxurious and were staying in one place for long enough to make it worth it, we bought some olive oil and balsamic vinegar, and we used them for salad dressings)
Some prep and/or cooking (but still pretty easy!):
- Burrito bowls – cook some rice and then top with rinsed canned beans, canned corn, sautéed peppers and onion (you could skip the sauteeing if you wanted and just use raw veggies, but we prefer cooking these ones), tomato, avocado, salsa, and sour cream
- Stir-fry with vegetables (we love shiitake mushrooms, bok choy and onion in ours), tofu (or meat if you eat it), oyster sauce (or Teriyaki if you don’t have it or don’t eat seafood), and rice or noodles. You don’t need a wok for this – you can just do it in a large pot.
- Coconut peanut chickpea stew – throw a can of chickpeas, a can of coconut milk, a can of diced tomatoes, a few spoons of peanut butter, about a cup of water (depending how thick you want it), and about half a cup of rice in a pot, bring to a boil and then simmer for as long as the rice needs to cook. In the last few minutes, we throw in a bag of frozen veggies (we used an Asian mix, anything like cauliflower or broccoli would work) and cook until they’re hot. Then we just add some Sriracha!
- Basic rice and beans – get some rice cooking first (you can buy the quick-cooking type to make it faster). Then cook onion, canned beans, and canned tomatoes in a pot. If you have the time (and some cooking oil or butter available), we like frying the onion in the pot first on high heat until it’s nicely browned for flavour, then adding the rest of the ingredients and cooking until it’s all hot. Otherwise, you could just throw it all in and heat it up. Serve the mixture over the rice and top with hot sauce to taste.
- Coconut rice and beans – cook canned red beans, a can of coconut milk, onion, frozen vegetables (again, you can first fry the onions in a pot until they’re nice and brown, then add the rest and heat it all up). Serve over rice and top with hot sauce.
- If we do something a little bit more elaborate, we really like this One Dish Vegan cookbook (available on Kindle for optimum portability) for its use of simple and inexpensive ingredients. Most of the recipes are quite easy, and everything we’ve made has been delicious. Sometimes we don’t have all the spices/herbs/etc that they recommend, but we have found we can get good results with just pepper, hot sauce, and a bit of salt if needed!
- We don’t do this while traveling unless we are visiting friends.
Do you have any tips or go-to recipes for cooking while you’re on the road? Let us know in the comments!