My friend Moe is living in Australia to fulfill a lifelong dream and personal journey. Her mission is to learn, love, laugh, and really break out of her shell, have an adventure, forsake the straight and narrow and carve her own path. You can follow her compelling tales from down under here: Journey Uncharted.
Although things are going very well, Moe messaged me the other day about a particular challenge she is facing: eating well on a budget in a foreign country.
Australia isn’t super foreign for Americans, but Moe is finding that her go-to foods she’s used to buying on a budget aren’t as budget friendly.
This article is for anyone who is traveling on a budget, especially backpackers and low-maintenance, open-minded types. It is also for people who either already have working knowledge about food or who are willing to do some research.
In this article, we talk about some of the limitations we have while traveling to unknown places and how to think about solutions.
1. No kitchen
Not having access to your own cooking tools leaves you at the mercy of restaurants and markets. You either have to eat raw foods, scrutinize every menu and potentially compromise your health goals, or hunt for places that match your goals, which are often more expensive.
- For breakfast and snacks, choose raw fruits and vegetables. If you have space to store a bit of food, choose items that can sit on a shelf without refrigeration for a few days. Granola or energy bars are also good on the go and can provide balanced nutrition (definitely read the ingredients and nutrition facts to verify). Nuts and dried fruit (with no added sugar) are also good snacks.
- If you don’t want to eat pre-assembled foods from grocery stores or restaurants, why not purchase one freshly made roll, a couple slices of deli meat and cheese, and make your own sandwich? You don’t have to buy a whole pound of sliced turkey to make the deli happy. Just get two or three slices, rip open the roll, and shove those bad boys in there. You might be able to purchase individual mustard packets, too. (Although, you can be more environmentally-friendly by skipping the condiments altogether.)
- Pre-assembled food can be your friend sometimes. Just be aware that pre-assembled foods usually have high sodium content and potentially high sugar. Grocery store soups and salads are usually reliable for taste and availability, and they may even have some sandwiches, too.
- For lunches and dinners, definitely indulge in the exciting tastes and smells around you, but perhaps plan out your indulgences at bit. Pick a couple meals when you’re not going to care what you eat and just experience the food fully.
2. Strict budget
Healthy food is for the wealthy brood, unfortunately. Nutrient-rich, pesticide-free, nature-made delicious foods cost a pretty penny, especially in tourist locations. Back at home, you know which stores offer the best deals and are willing to shop around as part of your regular grocery shopping. While traveling, you’re not as familiar with your surroundings and transportation options, nor do you want to waste too much precious time on food shopping.
- Before traveling, search online for grocery stores and restaurants near your destination. Check out their ads and read through customer reviews. This will give you a good sense of how much stuff costs so that you can budget effectively.
- Give yourself a per diem. It’s helpful to set a cap on spending for each day of travel. This per diem should reflect your travel goals and general cost of food in the area. A daily cap of $20 per person might make sense in some countries and cities, where $75 is more reasonable in others.
- Personally, when I’m traveling, I prefer to graze while I’m out and about and try niblets of all sorts of different foods. Perhaps I’ll get one larger meal midday that provides enough energy for excursions, but I’ll keep light snacks in my bag or grab an apple from a fruit stand wherever I’m at. This way of eating can be a lot cheaper and a fun way to experience the culture.
- If you end up chatting with any locals, ask them where to get the best deals on groceries and the best affordable restaurants.
3. Unfamiliar with surroundings
Back at home, you know where all the good deals are, where to stop on your way home from work or the gym, how to finagle your way out of paying for overpriced goods. When you’re in a new place, it takes time to acclimate yourself, get your bearings, learn the roads, and develop a efficient transportation strategy.
- Don’t limit yourself to the area where you’re sleeping. Oftentimes, we get in the “homebase” mentality where we focus on the markets nearest our room. If you’re staying in a tourist town, you’ll likely be paying more than you would in the outskirts.
- Get a map, take the bus to different parts of town, and explore the scenes there. While you’re on a walk, pay attention to stores and prices. Keep a mental note or write it down and circle the location on your map.
4. Unfamiliar foods and language barriers
Every country in the world has some familiar food, like grains and fruit, especially in the tourist spots. That means, you can count on having some variety of your favorite staples no matter where you go.
However, there’s also going to be a lot of unfamiliar items with names you can’t pronounce. There’ll be tiny, spiky fruits that come in bunches and taste like apricot preserves and long, brown vegetables that seem like they’d belong in the potato family, but really grow from a rare tree in the middle of a jungle.
Then there’s the meat – brain, tongue, testicle, cat, kangaroo, embryo, larvae, spiders – you name it, someone somewhere in the world eats it.
This is one of the most exciting and interesting parts about traveling, but can also be a huge mental and physical shock for the unadventurous.
- A translation pocketbook is essential when traveling to countries with languages you do not speak. You might not have internet access and probably no data connection, so either a digital book on your phone or a good ol’ fashioned paperback will be your friend. (Wouldn’t be a shame if you ordered the scrotum-wrapped rhinoceros liver instead of the apple-stuffed breaded pork?)
5. Healthy eating
Given all the challenges listed above, how the heck do you stay true to your personal philosophies while on the road?
When traveling, there is going to be some compromise. You must first understand what’s most important to you, then structure your eating and activities to reflect your priorities.
Here’s a general thinking strategy that may work for you:
- At restaurants, food is very likely to be saturated in butter and salt. Knowing this, plan to have a couple delicious “I don’t even care” meals spread out throughout the week to indulge in the culture, then fill in the rest with more simple, basic meals.
- Simple, basic meals can consist of your favorite grain, vegetable, and protein dish, a salad or sandwich, grilled lean meat and veggies, or whatever you usually choose as a healthy option at home.
- Prepared foods from grocery stores and markets can be easy and budget-friendly, but be aware of the sodium and added sugar content and make sure that the food provides relatively balanced nutrition. Fill in the rest of the day with low-sodium and no added sugar foods.
- To increase energy quality, choose foods with higher protein, moderate fat, and low added sugar, and high fiber. To increase micro-nutritional quality (vitamins and minerals), eat more plants.
- Don’t be afraid to ask restaurants to substitute nutrient-dense foods if they have them, such as subbing brown rice for white rice or quinoa for white rice. Don’t be afraid to ask restaurants to hold the butter or substitute steamed veggies for fries if they have them.
- Remember that eating is just one component of health. You must move your body and practice meditation to make sure you are functioning properly. Be sure to plan activities that require walking, hiking, lifting, stretching, and so on. Vacations and travel adventures are perfect times to challenge and heal your body and mind.
- Bring a cooler bag as part of your luggage, and it can double as a temporary refrigerator.
- Have a fridge and microwave? Order plain brown rice from a restaurant to keep for meals later. My favorite go-to nutrient-dense side dish slash meal is a mix of grains, beans, corn, beets, peas, tomatoes, and an oil and vinegar dressing.
- Consider buying canned goods like beans, beets, and tomatoes.
- Don’t buy bags of chopped up carrots – there’s too many in there. Buy one large carrot, skin it with a knife, and chop it up yourself.
- Edamame (soy bean pods) is a quick, easy, delicious, and high-protein snack for anytime of day.
- Split meals with your travel companion or ask for half-orders.
- Make your big meal lunch, as lunch portions are usually smaller and less expensive.
- Gather foods that don’t require refrigeration or cooking, such as nut butters and fruit.
- Have fun and enjoy! Make the most of your travels and balance food with physical activity.
What else you got? What other tips do you have? Please feel free to share your trick of the trade so that we can all benefit.
(Photo credit: Journey Uncharted)