Now that I have been hostel-hopping for 2 months, I feel experienced enough to share with you my tips, tricks and meal options for travelling on a budget. There is something quite alarming about witnessing young people cooking night after night in hostel kitchens. It pains me to see everyone concocting the same ‘pasta with tomato sauce’ dish, or worse still, packaged noodles. People throw meals like that together because they’re trying to spend as little as possible, they’re starving and desperate for a carb-packed stomach, or they just don’t have a clue about cooking. Me being me, it doesn’t matter how little money I have, I will not scrimp on food. By that I don’t mean I buy all the expensive groceries, or I go out for lavish dinners. It means that I will not go a day without fruit or vegetables even if it means being a little more thoughtful with my meal plans. I have now successfully got through 1/3 of my big trip without getting ill or having stomach problems or gaining too much weight. What’s more, I have cooked myself delicious meals that I look forward to and have made a lot of fellow backpackers very jealous in the process. Everyone talks about how difficult it is to eat while travelling in these expensive countries, so I want to offer some advice. It needs to be said that the below article is only really relevant for the self-catering traveller in developed countries like New Zealand and Australia, it will also be relevant for Euro-trippers and those travelling around the States.
Self-catering must dos:
1. Buy a cool bag
As soon as you get to a big supermarket in your first destination, buy a cheap cool bag that will serve as your portable pantry for the rest of your trip. When you arrive in your hostels you will be able to label it and place it in the communal fridge to keep all the contents fresh.
2. Get yourself at least one Tupperware container
Yes, it’s another random expense at the beginning of your trip but you will be quickly grateful for it. As a solo traveller, cooking for one can sometimes be depressing and feel expensive, but if you have a plastic box or two for your leftovers, you can cook enough for a few meals in one sitting. Not only will this be economical, but it will prevent you from eating a colossal meal because you’ve cooked too much and don’t want to waste it, and it will mean you don’t have to cook every night.
3. Cutlery can come in handy
In the same way that it is good to have a couple of receptacles available for leftover food, having cutlery in your cool bag can be very useful. There will be times when you find yourself on a long bus journey over a meal time and you need to rummage through your cool bag and lather some rice cakes in hummus or cut up an avocado. At these times you want to be the wise guy with some cutlery to hand. Sometimes you will find yourself in hostels with hardly any cutlery, or a place where they ask for a deposit for cutlery. It’s generally easier to carry your own. If you don’t want to splash out you can get ‘bio cutlery’ or camping cutlery for minimal cost in most supermarkets.
4. Don’t forget seasoning!
One thing people often forget when they are buying the ingredients for a meal is the fact that you will not have access to a herbs and spices cupboard to enhance an average meal into a delicious meal. Although herbs and spices aren’t cheap, I recommend you stocking up on a few of your favourites for the duration of your trip. Remember you will have your cool bag to transport them in so you won’t have to worry about stuffing them in your backpack. I recommend salt and pepper (I found a combination of Himalayan pink sea salt and black pepper in one shaker in Australia), chilli flakes, garlic powder and maybe some mixed herbs or curry seasoning if you like to cook with punchy flavours. The same goes for stock – it’s good to have some cubes at the bottom of your cool bag for a rainy day or a risotto!
This seems like a fairly obvious breakfast option for backpackers, however a huge majority of people buy the porridge sachets laden with sugar and all kinds of nasty hidden ingredients. Instead, I suggest buying a big bag of rolled oats, cinnamon, bananas and perhaps some honey/raisins if you like your porridge a bit sweeter. Every day cook the porridge from scratch in a saucepan with either hot water or almond milk (keeps well in the cool bag). Add half the banana while you’re cooking the oats to help sweeten the porridge, along with plenty of cinnamon and maybe a little vanilla essence, honey or a plant-based alternative. Top with the rest of the banana, more cinnamon and some good quality nut butter (if that floats your boat). Alternatively, if you don’t want to go to the trouble of carrying around a number of different ingredients for breakfast, make sure you buy porridge sachets by a natural brand like Carman’s in Australia. I tried out their almond, apple and chia sachets and they were pretty good with some additional banana – great for portion control as well!
– Chia Pudding
If you are not a porridge fan and can survive on a slightly smaller breakfast, chia pudding is a good option. Although chia seeds are not cheap, if you are keen to eat healthily you might not mind spending a little more to be able to eat chia pudding every morning. You also only need a few spoonfuls of chia seeds per breakfast. In Australia and New Zealand most of the supermarkets have a kind of ‘pic’n’mix’ system where you can decide the quantities of nuts, dried fruits, seeds, quinoa, chia, etc. that you want to purchase. These are great if you only need breakfast for a few days and cannot afford to buy a big bag of chia. A little air-tight jar or container is crucial if you are going to make chia pudding. You can mix chia seeds with nut milk/coconut milk/natural yoghurt, fruit, and some vanilla, cocoa or honey for a fairly up-market backpacker brekky.
– Hearty Salads
Hey! I saw the face you made as you read that. Salads have a bad rep as unsatisfying foods. I can promise you that the kinds of salads I have been creating while travelling have been totally filling and delicious. Some have not been as interesting as others, but my trick for cooking up a tasty salad is to mix cooked with raw, and always include some form of complex carb, such as steamed sweet potato, quinoa, brown rice or chickpeas. Maybe even throw in some feta if you’re feeling naughty! A really simple and cheap salad I whipped up a few times in New Zealand was mixed leaves, tomato, red cabbage, sweet potato, chickpeas and avocado. This drizzled with olive oil, garlic powder and salt and pepper is so tasty and filling. Always make enough for lunch or dinner the next day!
– Vegetable Curry
This might sound extravagant and like a lot of effort but it really isn’t and it’s well worth doing if you fancy making enough for a few meals in one go. Try cooking chickpeas, lentils, pumpkin, spinach and courgette with curry spices, stock and coconut milk. Pair with some brown rice for a substantial and wholesome meal.
– Mixed Bean/Vegetable Chilli
In much the same way that making a veg curry is a great option for a healthy, filling meal that will last a few days, so is a veg chilli. It’s very cheap to make as you can get canned beans and tinned tomatoes for very little indeed. So long as you have chilli powder, oregano, garlic and few other herbs and spices of choice you can make it seriously tasty very easily.
There’s no denying that lugging fragile eggs around in your portable pantry (cool bag) is a fairly bad idea. However, if you end up spending a few days in the same place, treat yourself to a box of eggs and treat yourself to a few nights of delicious omelette or frittata. You can literally throw anything into an omelette but if you’re looking for inspiration try red onions, courgette, cherry tomatoes, garlic, chilli, spinach and mozzarella.
– Fritters (e.g. Corn or Zucchini)
These might sound a little fancy for the average traveller, but they’re actually cheap and easy when you only have a hob for cooking on. You can have as many or as few ingredients in fritters as possible, and if you don’t want to buy flour, you can use oatmeal. Otherwise you can use mashed sweet potato or chickpeas and turn them into more of a patty. Take a look at these recipes (feel free to simplify them a little) for inspiration:
If you find yourself lacking imagination when it comes to lunch, get yourself some wraps (gluten-free wraps are readily available in stores if you are intolerant) and chuck in any leftovers. If you haven’t got leftovers, all you need is a bit of salad, maybe some beans or chickpeas and hummus or avocado. On a few occasions over the last 2 months I have bought some tofu and marinated it in curry spices, then baked or fried it (depending what cooking appliances were available to me). This is then great to eat cold in wraps if you’re in need of a bit of protein.
– Avocado Toast
So easy and yet so tasty. If you have days when you are near to your hostel for lunchtime, treat yourself to some nice bread (rye or sourdough are my personal favourites) and smash some avocado on toast with chilli flakes and salt and pepper. Delicious!
– Rice Cakes, Crudités and Hummus
This one might be a bit obvious, but it’s probably the easiest lunch to get on the go if you’re looking for a healthy option. Carrots, cucumber, red pepper, rice cakes, hummus…get spreading, dipping and enjoy! This is a great back-up lunch option. I found myself carrying around some hummus and rice cakes nearly all the time in case of an emergency.
Finally, when you feel the need to treat yourself in the biscuits/confectionary aisle, stop! Before you know it, you’ll be munching a chocolate bar a day. Trust me, when you’re on buses for hours this will happen. Instead, try snacking on raw nuts, dried fruit, nut butter and fresh fruit. Dates became my go-to when I needed to satisfy a sugar craving. I have also become a big fan of sliced apple with peanut butter. However, if you’re still not satisfied, allow yourself some good quality dark chocolate every once in a while.
I hope you find the above ideas useful. Please let me know if you have any further suggestions for eating healthy while travelling!