The Culinary Essentials Every Budget Traveler Should Know
by Nora Dunn | August, 2013
I have seen way too many fellow hostelers prepare a dinner of macaroni garnished with salt and pepper masqueraded as a cheap healthy meal. Sure, it’s cheap, but it sure ain’t healthy.
And I have seen other hostel travelers yet who take cooking in a shared space to a whole new level. They occupy multiple burners and pots in a limited kitchen space, sometimes crippling the dinner efforts of other hungry travelers.
There is a happy medium between these two extremes! Here are some healthy meals you can prepare in your hostel (or even at home) that won’t cost a fortune and will give you the energy to keep on trekking.
Steel Cut Oats
Those prepared instant oatmeal packets may be yummy, but they are ultimately more expensive and nowhere near as healthy as the more natural alternative.
Oats actually don’t come rolled, as rolled oats are a form of processing. So if you buy steel-cut oats, you may pay more for a bag, but those little grains are jam-packed with goodness and it will take less to fill you up.
The good news is that they don’t even need to be cooked! Simply soak them (1/8 to ¼ cup dry is a decent serving) in water, preferably overnight, and they will expand to more than double the size.
Drain them when you’re ready to chow down, add some raisins, cinnamon, any fruits you wish, top it off with yoghurt, and you have a breakfast of champions. Steel cut oats are one of the best protein sources you can find in a grain.
If you forgot to soak them overnight and you’re in a rush, you can soak them in the morning for about half an hour, or you can cook them just like oatmeal in less than five minutes – quick and easy.
On The Go
Most travelers catch lunch on the road, so you can either pack a lunch or buy one on the fly. Of course the cheap healthy option is to pack one.
Lunches are some of the easiest meals to prepare, with sandwiches being the most logical option. For a twist on the average sandwich, try buying individual buns instead of a loaf of bread (which you know you’ll never finish). Wrap up a hunk of cheese, pack an apple or other indigenous fruit, and you have a decent quick lunch to eat on the go.
Cream cheese is also a great mayo-alternative in a sandwich, and keeps a little longer out of the fridge.
Ramen … With a Twist
Anybody who has spent time on the budget travel road could probably stand to own a few shares in a ramen company. These small packets of oriental noodles in a flavored soup base are cheap, yummy, and quick to prepare. But they are terribly processed, and lack many of the nutrients we need.
If you must have ramen, you can easily spice it up and be the envy of your traveling comrades. Along with the noodles (or before you add them), throw in a mix of local vegetables (try broccoli, carrots, peppers, and onions for starters). Add some rice vinegar (or whatever vinegar is available on the “free shelf”), soy sauce, hot peppers, and fresh ginger to the broth, and boil just long enough for the veggies to become al dente.
Just before you take your masterpiece off the heat, add an egg and scramble it into the soup. It will only take a minute to cook, and will add amazing texture, flavor, and protein to your now well-balanced ramen meal.
Another less explored lunch option if you are brown-bagging it is to bring along leftovers from your glorious dinner prepared the night before. Read on …
Here are a variety of dinner options you can prepare, including full meals, side dishes, and expandable options.
The Baked Potato
I haven’t seen many baked potatoes in my hostel days, and I’m not sure why. Potatoes are cheap, and we all love them. You can also “bake” them in the microwave, or on the BBQ if your hostel is so equipped.
The glory of baked potatoes (or any potatoes for that matter) is their versatility and ability to go with just about anything. Throw leftover pasta sauce on it with some cheese, add some spices like basil or oregano and garlic, and you have a one-serving masterpiece.
Or try them with bacon bits (which travel well) and some plain yogurt (which you have on hand for breakfast) and you may not miss the sour cream.
An even better and healthier twist on the regular baked potato is to substitute it for a sweet potato, which is richer, chock full of nutrients, and arguably yummier.
Tuna Pasta Casserole
Pasta abounds in most hostels, and if it isn’t already on the “free shelf”, it is cheap, cheerful, and easy to travel with. So is a can of tuna, a small can of black olives, and a small bottle of tomato sauce or pesto. The only missing ingredient is some cheese (preferably feta), which you can pick up on the way back from your day of sight-seeing. I would also be inclined to add a variety of vegetables like green onions or celery, but that part is up to you.
If there is an oven available, then just mix all the ingredients together (cook the pasta first), and bake it until warm and gooey. If there is no oven, you can achieve a similar effect on the stove, conveniently using the same pot you used to cook the pasta.
This dish is great as a leftover for lunch too.
The glory with one-pot wonder dinners is that you can get as creative as you like with the local foods available. Just follow a simple formula: one starch (be it pasta, potato, or rice), one protein (cheese, meat, seafood, tofu, or beans), lots of veggies (onions, celery, broccoli, tomatoes, eggplant, and so on), and seasonings (fresh garlic, pepper, hot chili flakes, and anything else you can find – spices are easy to travel with too), can combine with some oil in a frying pan to make a delicious and nutritious off-the-cuff meal.
Where and How to Shop
Farmers markets or other local markets are by far the best places to get produce (and sometimes some other foods) inexpensively. It is also a great way to immerse yourself in the culture of the place you are visiting and to feel the energy of the local people.
In lieu of a farmer’s market, try to avoid the local convenience stores since they will have poor selection and pricier goods. Instead, go for a walk and find the nearest grocery store where the locals shop. Half the fun of the meal is sometimes trying to figure out what you are buying, how to pay for it, and how to say “thank you” to the cashier!
Buy in Bulk
You don’t have to buy a bulky amount of food to buy in bulk. You have the advantage of being able to pick out just how much you need – be it one meal’s worth, or enough to travel with and carry you through the next week.
Buying in bulk also saves on packaging, is usually cheaper, and provides more variety of grains, pastas, nuts, and spices than you might find in the grocery store.
Look for Sales
I’ll often decide what’s for dinner while perusing the grocery store or farmer’s market aisles. Oh look – rice is on sale! So are mushrooms and milk. Risotto it is! Try creating your own one-pot-wonder with nothing but sale ingredients.
Obviously in certain parts of the world, these meal ideas and shopping techniques won’t be as practical as in other places. But hopefully your creative cooking juices are flowing a little better now, and I will start to see less plain macaroni and more healthy, cheap variety in those hostel kitchens!
If you liked this post, check out these easy-to-make hostel recipes for backpackers (PDF download)!
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About the Author
Nora Dunn is the The Professional Hobo, a woman who sold everything she owned (including a busy financial planning practice) in 2006 and has been travelling the world in a financially sustainable way ever since. She is an internationally published freelance writer on the topics of travel, personal finance, and lifestyle design, with columns on Wisebread, Flight Network, and Care One. Check out her latest musings on Facebook and Twitter.