Most long-term travelers know that a hostel kitchen can be a total hit or miss. Some (okay, most) hostels will have working appliances and a decent selection of pots, pans, and other kitchen utensils, but some will have an oven from 1985 and one rusty knife for the entire kitchen.
You don’t need to stick to takeout or only eat pasta and pre-made sauce when trying to save a few bucks by cooking at ‘home.’ After countless hostels in over a dozen countries, I think I’ve mastered the art of having a delicious (and cheap!) home cooked meal, no matter the kitchen situation.
Top Tips: Cooking on the Road
In some regions, it doesn’t make sense to try to cook your own meal. Southeast Asia has such cheap and delicious food lining the streets that a kitchen is a no-go zone. But in more expensive regions like Europe, Oceania, South Africa, and South America, cooking can be a huge money-saver if you’re trying to travel on the cheap. Here are ways to keep those costs low.
Make a plan before you hit the grocery store. You don’t necessarily need a full menu, but be aware of how long you will be in one spot and which meals you’ll want to make yourself. Then focus on finding ingredients that can be shared across meals. Like spinach, which can be the green stuff on a sandwich and double as salad greens for dinner.
Veggies are your friend. I find that certain produce items like tomatoes, onions, and herbs go a long way, and they’re cheaper than packaged items. Plus, you can find these veggies in just about any country in the world. Pro tip: if spices are non-existent, sautéing garlic and/or onions in oil or butter is a guaranteed way to make anything taste delicious.
Watch your perishables. Only buy enough perishable food for the number of days you’ll be in one spot. Trying to bring a carton of milk on a hot bus ride is a surefire way to spoil your trip (or stink up the bus).
Think one-dish meals. Food that’s prepared in one dish means you won’t be the person hogging all the pots and pans in the kitchen at dinnertime, with the added bonus of fewer dishes to wash. Popping a chicken breast in the oven with some root veggies or potatoes makes a hearty and quick meal all on one sheet pan. Or throwing some tomatoes, cheese, and sauteed onion into some pasta with pesto sauce is an easy one-pot dish.
Starch + Protein + Veggies + Dairy = Yum. Rice and pasta are mainstays for budget travelers, but they’re often mistreated. To keep you fuller, longer, you need some form of protein mixed in. For carnivores, this means chicken, fish, beef, etc. For vegetarians, it means tofu, beans, nuts, etc. To keep this formula from getting bland, I like to introduce my secret ingredient in countries where it’s possible: dairy. A little queso fresco, grated Parmesan, or cream can take a meal from good to great.
Plan for portability. You’re traveling, so you’ll be sightseeing, hiking, and generally doing things outside of the hostel. This is why sandwiches will always be your friend. Think cured meat and cheese, apple and cheese, or the good old-fashioned PB&J. Be careful with anything that will spoil in a hot backpack, like soft cheese or avocados. Nuts and fruit are easy and healthy snacks that you can pack along. You can also take non-perishables from place to place — so a box of pasta can take a solo traveler a long way!
Get colorful. Aim to get as many different colors into your meal as possible. This packs a variety of flavor and nutrition into your meal, with the added bonus of making it look pretty. I aim for three or more colors per dish, and it’s what gives my hostel-mates food envy when I’m sitting down to eat.
Do It Yourself: Hostel Recipes
Ready to be the next Bourdain? Here are some recipes to get you started on your next culinary experience in a hostel.
Breakfast is easy to overlook when you need to get on an early train or catch the sunrise. This make-ahead meal is adaptable and portable, plus it is delish!
½ cup oatmeal (any kind but instant)
⅔ cup milk (non dairy is fine)
⅓ cup yogurt
1 tbsp sweetener from the share shelf, which may be: honey, sugar, syrup, etc.
1 tsp cinnamon or vanilla extract (if available, not necessary)
Any fresh fruit, dried fruit, and/or nuts you gave handy (I love cinnamon and apples or dried cranberries and walnuts)
Mix all ingredients together and pour into a jar with a lid (old pasta sauce jars work great). Put in the fridge for at least four hours, preferably overnight. The next day, open and enjoy straight from the jar!
Real Mac & Cheese
Sometimes, you just miss the comfort food of home. This will taste like mama’s home cooking – with no powdered cheese package in sight. This is so good, you have to make enough to share.
Serves 2 – 3
½ lb pasta (any kind, but smaller noodles are better)
1 tbsp butter
1 tbsp flour
1 cup milk
7 oz. grated semi-firm cheese, such as havarti, fontina, gruyere, non-aged cheddar, etc. (Pick a cheese you really like the taste of that will melt relatively easily and doesn’t have a rind)
Salt and pepper
Optional add-ins: cooked chopped bacon, sauteed onions and/or garlic, chilies, cooked chicken, etc.
Cook the pasta in salted water, drain.
While the pasta cooks, melt the butter in a saucepan in medium heat. When the butter sizzles, whisk in flour until combined. Allow to heat until golden and bubbly. Pour in the milk and heat until reduced slightly, about 5 minutes. Stir in the cheese, and keep stirring until it’s completely melted. Taste and add salt and pepper as needed. Dump in the cooked pasta, stir until everything’s heated through. Add any extras you fixed up and dig in!
Pro tip: I’ll cook bacon, then use the grease to sauté garlic, onion and even chunks of chicken to throw into this if I need protein. It makes everything taste sooooo good!
One-Pan Sunday Roast
A hearty roast dinner doesn’t have to be an all-day ordeal. Here’s a cheat version that will have you chowing down in no time.
1 chicken breast
1 medium potato, peeled and diced into ½ inch chunks
1 small squash, peeled and diced into ½ inch chunks
1 medium root vegetable, such as parsnip, turnip, or similar
3 cloves of fresh garlic, minced (optional)
½ onion, quartered (optional)
3 – 4 tbsp olive oil
Salt, pepper, and any other dried seasonings from the share shelf, such as paprika, thyme, rosemary, etc.
Preheat the oven to 375F/190C. Coat the chicken in olive oil and season liberally with salt and pepper. Toss the vegetables and onion in oil and minced garlic. Season with salt, pepper, and any other spices you can find. Place all items on a sheet pan, with the chicken separate from the vegetables. Roast for 20 minutes, or until the chicken is no longer pink in the center and the veggies are tender.
Cooking while on the move can be tough, but it doesn’t have to mean you can’t have a hearty home-cooked meal! What tricks have you developed on the road? What’s your go-to dish when you don’t have a full kitchen at your disposal? Let me know in the comments!
About the Author: “Jetsetter” Jenn Brown is an adventurer, amateur chef, and wine-lover who has been on the move since 2012. Past adventures include swimming with whale sharks in the Philippines, solo hiking the mountains of Montenegro, and apprenticing at a dairy farm in Spain. This summer she is working aboard a tourism charter boat in Southeast Alaska as their chef. You can follow her adventures at her site, JetsetterJenn.com, or on one of her many social media channels: Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter.