Just because long term travel requires careful budgeting, that doesn’t mean backpackers have to live on instant noodles.
Someone should have told that to my younger self. Eleven years ago when I first left home to travel Australia, I pretty much lived on Mi Goreng noodles, bread and the occasional egg. I’m still partial to a packet of noodles, there’s nothing wrong with bread, and eggs are great. But my diet was about as balanced as… as… the town drunk? That will do.
I figured if I was frugal with my eats I would have more money to spend on partying with fellow travellers and going out. Back then that took priority over everything else. Little did I know, I could have ate a healthy, balanced diet for just a few dollars more.
I have since seen the error of my ways and, as is customary with those who see the light, fully intend to preach and proliferate the right way. So here it is. Even seasoned budget travellers may find something of value in the following.
Where to Purchase
Where you purchase your food is equally as important as what you buy. Convenience stores, garages and corner shops are an absolute no-no, of course. But even supermarkets can be expensive for certain foods. If you can find one, farmers’ markets are by far the cheapest for fruit and vegetables (non-organic – we’re backpackers not champagne socialists) and free range eggs. Asian supermarkets are often cheaper for meat for some reason. And large chain supermarkets are the cheapest for staples like pasta and rice, as well as canned foods, sauces and condiments.
Best Budget Foodstuffs
Here is my list of the best budget backpacker foods based on three criteria: value, nutrition and convenience. Value and nutrition are inextricably linked of course – there’s little point purchasing cheap food if it has poor nutritional value. Convenience relates to the food’s availability and storability, as well as how easily it is prepared in a crowded hostel with limited space and basic facilities.
Note: This guide is intended for travellers who are travelling in ‘western’ countries and are cooking their own food in hostels. It does not relate to most of Asia, for example, where cooking for yourself is rarely cost effective given the proliferation of street stalls. The rule of thumb in that circumstance is to eat where the locals eat.
Second Note: Because I’m comparing between countries, all prices are in US dollars unless otherwise stated.
Staples / Carbohydrates
Staples are full of carbohydrates. The majority of your energy should come from carbs – between 45 – 65 percent – so they are vital to fuelling your body.
Rice is the third largest commodity in the world for human consumption after coffee and wheat. It’s cheap, easy to prepare and full of energy in the form of carbohydrates. Some vitamins and minerals are lost in the process of converting brown rice into white rice, so if you want to eat as healthy as possible buy brown; it does take a little longer to boil though.
If you buy in bulk, you tend to get it cheaper, which might be worth considering if you plan to stay in one place for a while. I always buy home-brand rice as it’s cheaper, has the same nutritional value and tastes the same to me. Cheaper rice tends not to be cleaned as well, so you’ll have to rinse it a few times before cooking to remove the starch.
One serving of white rice (½ cup, 100g) contains: 80g of carbohydrates, just over a quarter of the Recommended Daily Intake (RDI) of an adult; 7g (8g if brown) of protein – 14 – 16% RDI; Energy 1480kj, 17% RDI.
Per 1 kg average prices are around:
$2.30 Australia, $2.00 New Zealand, $3.00 USA, $2.00 UK.
That works out at just 20-30 cents per serving and of course you can do a little better than this if you buy home-brand.
Store in a cool dry place – shouldn’t be a problem.
To cook, rinse with cold water, salt to taste, boil for 25 to 45 minutes (until soft), drain and serve.
Buy in bulk – If you’re staying for a while in the one place why not buy in bulk with fellow travellers? The more you buy, the cheaper it is.
Buy budget or home-brand – It tastes the same, but remember to rinse the rice thoroughly before boiling to remove starch.
Did You Know?
Asia both produces and consumes 90 percent of the world’s rice. Using traditional methods, cultivating one hectare of of waterlogged land requires walking 80 kilometres (50 miles).
Like rice, pasta is cheap, easy to prepare and high in carbs. It is a type of noodle made from durum wheat making it a staple with high energy content. There are two main types of pasta: fresh and dried. Fresh pasta is often made from eggs instead of water, is not widely available and is much more expensive. Dried pasta is more the backpacker’s cup of tea being cheap and available pretty much everywhere where there’s civilisation.
One serving of dried pasta (100g) contains: 74g of carbohydrates, 24% RDI; Energy 1500k, 17% RDI; Protein 11.4g, 23% RDI.
Between $1 and $2 dollars for 500g, between 20-40 cents per serving. Again homebrand pasta is cheaper. Perhaps you can tell the difference. I, for the life of me, can’t.
Easy. Boil in pot for 12 – 15 minutes, salt to taste, drain and serve.
I often use spaghetti as a base for stir-frys instead of traditional Asian noodles. Pasta is cheaper and often more nutritious. It also works really well, being pretty much the same thing.
I can’t leave noodles off this list, especially the instant variety, known by many as Ramen. Here’s why: If you buy the right sort, instant noodles are really tasty, inexpensive and literally take two minutes in the microwave. Although I’m not recommending them as a main meal, they’re great with a poached egg for a snack and they actually have some nutritional value.
Don’t buy home-brand, though. They may be incredibly cheap but they’re full of salt, have little nutritional value and taste bland. My personal favourite is Indomie’s Mi Goreng noodles from Indonesia, which are available in Australia, Asia, Africa, New Zealand and the United States.
Other types of Asian noodles, like Udon, can be pretty reasonably priced too and are great for Asian style soups.
Typically, instant noodles come in a pack size of about 85g, which is a little less than a full serving.
Per serving (85g) Mi Goreng noodles contain: 59g of carbohydrates, 19% RDI; Energy 1750kj, 20% RDI; Protein 8.4g, 16.8% RDI.
On the down side they have 820mg of salt, which is high at 34% of your RDI.
A packet containing five blocks of noodles costs around $3-$4 in a supermarket. The non-instant variety tend to be a bit more expensive but can be reasonable too, especially in Asian supermarkets.
Noodles are available in every supermarket. Preparation is easy. Three or four minutes in boiling water does the trick. Or a couple of minutes in hot water in the microwave. Drain, stir in powder and sauces (if instant), and serve.
Instant noodles come in singles, fives and tens. Buy fives and tens were available for better value.
Eat with a poached egg or canned tuna for extra protein.
Did you know?
Slurping your noodles noisily is considered a compliment to the host in Japan as it denotes enjoyment. See, mum?
Ok, I’m from Ireland, of course spuds were going to make this list. And I’ve heard all the jokes. Repeatedly. I make no apologies for including them on this list. Potatoes are not only full of carbs, as a tuber they also contain lots of vitamins and minerals. They are also as cheap as chips (get it?), especially if you can find a farmer’s market. For backpackers, boiling them is probably the handiest way to prepare them. But making mash or potato wedges in a hostel is not inconceivable.
I’m going to call a serving one large potato (with the skin on) for the purpose of nutritional value.
One large potato (370g) contains: 64g of carbohydrates, 21% RDI; Energy 1188kj, 14% RDI; Protein 7g, 14% RDI. Potatoes are also high in iron, magnesium, vitamin C and vitamin B6.
There’s a bit of a range here depending on where you purchase and which variety. Average prices for 1kg are as follows:
$2.40 Australia, $1.85 New Zealand, $2.45 USA, $1.85 UK.
That’s around a dollar per serving at the higher end, so potatoes are a little more expensive than other staples but they do count toward your ‘five a day’. Not if you make chips, unfortunately.
Boil in water for half an hour. Poke with a knife to make sure it’s cooked right through. You can then mash in butter, if you like.
To make wedges, cut a medium potato into 6-8 pieces, cover in oil and season. They take about forty minutes at 200C in an oven, if you’re lucky enough to have one in your hostel that works (I’m pretty sure I’ve encountered more broken ovens than ones in working order).
Eat the skin! Most of a potato’s vitamins and minerals are contained in and just beneath the skin. Lighter Potatoes have a thinner skin, so may be more palatable for some people.
Did you know?
Prior to the Irish potato famine, Irish farmers rarely ate anything other than potatoes, with milk to wash it down. An average working man ate around 6 kilos of potatoes a day!
There’s not really a lot to be said about bread. It goes with practically everything, is full of carbs and is cheap. I buy brown as it’s healthier. Home-brand is the cheapest but rarely the best. You can get some reasonably priced granary bread that is even better for you and tastes delicious. But if you’re in a pinch, buy home-brand.
Two slices of bread typically contains: 24g of carbohydrates, 8% RDI; Energy 530 kJ, 6% RDI; Protein 5.3g, 11% RDI. Bread is also high in Calcium and Iron.
Between $1 and $4 dollars depending on type and where you buy.
Bread is a little bulky and it doesn’t last particularly long, but preparation is as easy as ABC.
Never store bread in the fridge. It goes hard within hours and makes terrible sandwiches. Suck the air out of the bag, twist and secure for longer lasting freshness. Mmm, I’m starting to sound like a commercial…
Did you know?
What is possibly the worst idea since sliced bread? Banning it, maybe. For conservation reasons during WW2 (sliced bread required heavier packaging to prevent the bread going off), a member of the US government decided to ban sliced bread in 1943. The move proved so unpopular that the ban was lifted two months later.
We all know vegetables contain the vitamins and minerals that keep your body fit and healthy. Believe it or not, it’s actually pretty easy to get your ‘five-a-day’ when travelling and it doesn’t have to cost the earth. In some countries there is a huge difference in price between when vegetables are in season or out, so try to find replacements for vegetables that are not in season. For example, you can replace lettuce with celery in sandwiches in winter.
I prefer to buy fresh, but frozen vegetables are a lot more convenient (no chopping) and you may find this the best option. Remember, some hostels don’t have freezers and if they do there’s generally limited space, so realistically a kilo of mixed vegetables is probably your limit here. Try to buy frozen veg that doesn’t include carrots. Fresh carrots are cheaper and tastier; if your frozen veg is full of them you’re being short-changed.
Canned vegetables are really easy to store and because they last forever tend to be much cheaper than the fresh variety of the same thing. Things like sweetcorn, tomatoes, peas, beans, etc. are usually best bought in the can.
That being said, always compare canned goods with the frozen variety, especially if you eat a lot of it.
Fresh vegetables are clearly the best but seldom the cheapest. There are exceptions to every rule though, and I would always recommend buying the following fresh vegetables as a good base for other ingredients.
I put fresh brown onions in just about everything. They’re great for flavour, really nutritious and cheap. They also don’t require refrigeration which means you can buy them in bulk without causing the ire of your fellow housemates when you take up more than your fair share of fridge space.
Onions contain no fat and are high in vitamin C and vitamin B6.
Only a couple of dollars a kilo (2.2lbs).
Chop and cook. Don’t require refrigeration.
Don’t bother buying expensive red onions for salads and sandwiches. Just thinly slice a brown onion instead.
Did you know?
You can get rid of onion breath by chewing on parsley.
Onions are some of the oldest vegetables that were used by the first modern civilizations. They were cultivated in ancient Egypt where their spherical rings was believed to be a symbol of eternal life.
Carrots are another cheap but nutritious vegetable. Like onions you can throw them into just about anything and they don’t require refrigeration either. You can also eat them raw as a snack, of course.
Carrots contain lots of vitamin A which helps maintain healthy eyesight and protects the skin from sun damage. They also contain antioxidants which slow down cell damage which causes aging.
A kilo of carrots costs a paltry $2-3 dollars a kilo (2.2lbs).
Doesn’t require refrigeration. Chop it, cook it, eat it. Or munch it raw. Simple.
You can use the edge of a sharp knife to peel a carrot rather than a peeler. Hold the blade at 45 degrees, with the blunt edge furthest from you, and employ down strokes. Peelers are notoriously hard to find in hostels.
Did you know?
During WW2 the British developed a radar system that allowed them to pinpoint incoming German bombers at night. As they didn’t want the enemy to know they possessed this technology, Britain’s air ministry propagated a rumour to account for the sudden increase in enemy aircraft being shot down. Stories started appearing in the press about extraordinary personnel with exceptional night vision manning the defenses. Their powers were attributed to being fed large quantities of the brightly coloured root vegetable.
Actually, carrots do contain large quantities of vitamin A which is necessary for healthy eyesight, and people with vitamin A deficiency will suffer from poor vision in low light. But there is no evidence to support the idea that it will improve night-vision in healthy eyes.
Protein / Meat
Protein is essential for repairing and building muscle. It can be found in nearly every foodstuff, but here is a list of the sources which offer the most value for the budget traveller. Even more important if you work out as any worker outer will know, or if you have a physical job. Like backpacking.
Fishermen can command huge prices for fresh tuna around the world, as well as salmon, so I’m not sure how both end up in a can and be sold for a couple of dollars. But they do and they can. Maybe it’s not the best quality of meat but it contains lots of protein as well as essential oils. I use it in sandwiches a lot – it’s great with mayo and sweetcorn. I also mix it into noodles or pasta. I buy the home-brand stuff whenever possible.
A can of 85g contains 16g of protein, about 30 percent of RDI.
A small 85g can of home-brand tuna costs between 1-2 dollars. That’s only 10 cents per gram of protein on average. Larger cans are even better value.
Pretty easy if you can find a tin opener.
Check out this cool trick for opening a can without a can opener. I’ve used it a couple of times and it works a treat.
Did You Know?
A Bluefin Tuna can swim at up to 35 mph (56 kmh) in short bursts.
Beans are often described as nature’s super food. There are many varieties of beans: kidney beans, pinto beans and black beans to name but a few. These are reasonably priced and contain loads of protein and vitamins but they aren’t always easy to find. However, the humble baked bean (navy bean) in tomato sauce is a worldwide phenomenon. And rightly so. Not only does it contain an abundance of protein, a can provides two of your ‘five-a-day’ in one fell swoop.
I always buy home-brand or budget beans. There’s very little difference. Budget beans don’t have a glossy picture and they generally require a tin opener. They also tend to have a slightly greater sauce to bean ratio, which affects the nutritional content very slightly. But at around a third the price of ‘leading’ brands, that’s not even worth thinking about. Also, the moist bean is a superior bean in my professional opinion.
Baked beans are a great source of protein and also have all the nutritional benefits of the tomato sauce. A can contains 16g of protein, 32 percent of RDI, as well as around 16 percent of your daily requirement of energy.
A can of beans containing 420g can cost as little as 40 cents in a supermarket. That’s just over a cent per gram of protein!
Microwave or put in a pot. Doesn’t matter. Couple of minutes.
Buy home-brand every time. And never buy from a convenience store: they’ll only have the expensive labels and will overcharge.
Did You Know?
Most baked beans are actually stewed. However, Heinz (an expensive brand that should be avoided unless you’re feeling flush) use a method whereby the ingredients are added raw and are then baked in the can using pressure cookers.
Eggs are a fantastic source of protein and nutrients. Unfortunately there is quite a difference in price between cage eggs and free range in the supermarket. Still, in my opinion it’s worth paying the extra money for a superior and more ethical product. Not everyone will agree with me. I’ve actually seen a vegetarian who didn’t eat meat for ethical reasons using caged hen eggs without a thought. Since I don’t know what side you’ll come down on, I’ll list both prices.
There are an average of six grams of protein in each egg. They supply all essential amino acids for humans (a source of ‘complete protein’), and provide several vitamins and minerals as significant amounts of RDI – vitamin A, vitamin B12, choline and phosphorus.
Twelve cage eggs are around 3 dollars a dozen. Free range eggs are about 6 dollars a dozen, give or take.
Available almost everywhere and can be stored in or out of the fridge.
Boil ‘em, fry ‘em, poach ‘em, scramble ’em. Whatever you decide, it shouldn’t be too difficult.
An egg lasts around a month from being laid, without refrigeration. However, you get much better results from frying and poaching if the egg is fresh. A fresh egg will sit up like a steak in the pan and will not burst nearly as easily. Supermarkets rotate their stock, so dig to the back to get the freshest eggs. If you can’t find a box with an expiry date close to a month in advance, try a different brand.
In a 600 watt microwave oven, you can poach the perfect egg in a minute. Fill a bowl with boiled water, crack an egg into it and place in the microwave for one full minute. If your oven is more powerful, adjust it down. Don’t overdo it or the egg will eggsplode (ahem).
Did You Know?
Chickens have been domesticated for some 5000 years. Red Jungle-fowl with some hybridisation from the Grey Jungle-fowl is thought to be the ancestors of the modern chicken. Since they still exist, perhaps they’re cousins too. They lay just one egg per month.
How many different varieties of cheese are there? I don’t have a clue but I’m guessing there’s a lot. Some cheese is expensive, others pretty cheap. All contain high levels of protein and last for ages in the fridge, despite what the expiry label may say. What is it about cheese? It is matured for months but as soon as it lands on a supermarket shelf its days are suddenly numbered. Anyway, we’re backpackers, not cheese connoisseurs, so the cheapest variety will have to do.
Really high in protein and calcium with a good dose of vitamin A to boot. The fat content is quite high too though so everything in moderation, as the saying goes.
You should be able to get a 1 kg (2.2lb) block for 6 or 7 dollars. As cheese is ¼ protein, that’s 35g protein for a dollar.
It does require refrigeration but it’s compact, lasts for ages and goes with lots of stuff.
If your cheese does get a little mouldy on the outside, don’t throw it away. Simply slice the outside edge off. Don’t worry, this is exactly what happens to the cheese when it is being produced.
You will pay less for lighter cheeses as they take less time to mature. The nutritional value remains similar.
Did you know?
Contrary to the old wive’s tale, studies have shown that cheese can help you sleep. And did you know eating certain cheeses is illegal in the US? That’s because the US has stricter expiry dates than most of Europe. So if you want to taste genuine Brie you’re going to have to travel. Just as well you”re reading this then…
When I’m at home I drink milk with every meal; not so in other countries. In the UK a two litre carton of milk costs about a pound (1.60USD). In New Zealand, where I’m travelling at the moment, the same carton costs 5.20NZD (4.00USD). In the the US it’s a couple of bucks. There’s huge differences in price around Europe too.
So, depending where you are, milk can be an excellent cheap source of protein or a moderately expensive one.
3.2g of protein per 100mls. That’s 64g in a two litre carton. Lots of calcium to keep those bones healthy.
Even at New Zealand prices, milk offers 20 grams of protein per US dollar. In the UK 41 grams per dollar. A pretty good return, if you ask me.
Be aware that milk is pretty bulky to store in hostel fridges. Still, two litres should be ok.
When you use some milk, squeeze the air out of the carton before putting the lid back on. This will keep your milk fresh for longer and take up less room in the fridge.
Did You Know?
The average dairy cow produces around 8 gallons (30 litres) of milk a day in the US. Four times that of a cow’s yield in 1925.
If you’re on a serious budget, you may want to leave fresh meat of the menu most of the time. It tends to be expensive and goes off quickly, especially in hostel fridges that are constantly being opened and are often not shut properly.
But here’s the thing. You can take advantage of the fact meat has a short shelf-life by popping into the closest supermarket regularly and seeing what has been reduced for a quick sale. Even if the meat is on its final day, once it’s been cooked it will last as long as any other cooked meat dish, so you can make something that will last for a few days.
Chicken is by far the most common fresh meat produce consumed by travellers. And they almost always buy expensive breast fillets. Perhaps this is a matter of both personal taste and convenience, though they’re wrong on both counts in my opinion.
Firstly, chicken on the bone, or ‘brown meat’ as I’ve confusingly heard it being described, is much more moist and succulent. If you watch TV chefs you’ll notice they use it far more often than breast for this precise reason.
Secondly, while breast is easily prepared, so are thighs and drumsticks, even without an oven. Just pop them in boiling water, simmer for five minutes, cover and let them sit in the water for a further fifteen while you prepare something else and you have beautiful tender chicken that you can use for anything. Stick a knife in to make sure the juices run clear. I normally brown the skin as well just for the look of the thing. The difference in price (and taste) is not to be taken lightly. Less than half price normally, even accounting for the bones.
So there you have it. That’s all I can think of for now, thank goodness. I’ve written far more than I intended on the subject. As always, if you have anything to add, or just wish to comment on my amazing travel skills, let me know down below.