A self-catering guide for CouchSurfers

A key part of keeping costs down while traveling is finding ways to eat cheaply. While it’s fine to gorge yourself while on vacation for a few days, on an extended trip you’re going to find a way to eat healthy foods, even if your access to a kitchen is intermittent and your budget is small.

The answer to this is self-catering, preparing your own meals while traveling.

If you have a serious food allergy, all bets are off.

Kitchen-less meals

Two of the things I enjoy most while traveling are checking out the local grocery stores and people watching in the parks. The Zagat Guide gives you a glimpse into the culture of a place, but the grocery store, market, or green grocer will show you equally interesting things about what locals eat every day.

picnic in the grass in koln with mark and hwei ling

Where to eat

Who doesn’t like a picnic? If you don’t want to lounge in the grass, plenty of city squares provide tables and benches that make the perfect spot for your own little sidewalk café.

If it’s cold or raining, museums, colleges, and other privately owned public spaces often provide comfortable seating areas where you can quietly enjoy your meal, often while enjoying art and wifi.

Food safety

Official food safety guidelines advise you to throw out any food that hasn’t gone from the stove to the refrigerator – and then you have 72 hours to eat it. I can assure you that many things can be safely stored at room temperature for some time, either in your backpack or in a hostel. As a former dumpster diver, I know that many ‘sell by’ and ‘enjoy by’ dates are arbitrary. Pay attention to what you’re eating, not the date on the package, as unexpired food can make you sick and expired foods can be perfectly safe.

Of course, we each have our own tolerance for what foods we can stomach, so you should follow your common sense and not go overboard. Travelers often experience upset stomachs from the difference in food preparation, seasoning, and ingredients, so it’s safest to adjust your diet gradually. I grew up eating unwashed vegetables straight from the garden and have a mother who adamantly refused to follow even basic food safety rules.

What to eat

Most cheeses, cooked meat, boiled eggs, sandwich spreads, juice, and yogurt can all be stored at room temperature for a day or two or three with no problem. Fermented foods and anything with active cultures exist to have an extended shelf life. If you’re in Italy in August, you’re better off buying foods fresh each day, but in the winter things could be good for quite some time.

Grocery stores often have prepared foods, but don’t limit yourself to those.

  • Bread and cheese are a magical bounty in much of the world, but that’s hardly a balanced meal. Once you explore the million types of breads out there, white bread will seem incredibly boring.
  • Fresh and canned fish or meat products are worth trying, even if you’re just doing it to say you did it.
  • Sandwich spreads in jars and cans.
  • Yogurts and fermented foods are awesome and a great way to help you adjust to a new diet.
  • Fresh fruits and vegetables.
  • Juices in tetra packs are much cheaper than those sold in refrigerated sections.

I have the habit of picking up whatever seems strangest to me. You’ll find me using Google Translate to try to figure out what something is and what I should do with it.

Remember that every meal doesn’t have to be balanced. If you want to eat your food groups one at a time, that’s weird but totally healthy. Think about making sure you get the right stuff out of your food over the week or month and enjoy the delicious specialties wherever you are.


If you’re not flying, a pocketknife is essential. I would pick up cheap pocketknives along the way at big box stores (or from the trash bins outside of security check points) and leave them at my last destination before my next flight.

Camping stores sell a range of small, lightweight utensils. There are many opportunities to pick up disposable cutlery, but they can be pretty useless. I’m partial to my unitensil from Light My Fire.

Many canned foods containing ready-to-eat ingredients are available with pull-tops.

couchsurfing picnic in flushing meadows queens


Picnicking doesn’t have to be a solitary affair, even if you’re traveling alone. It’s easy to pick a location and create a CouchSurfing event. I’ve had picnics with dozens of people, but most of the time I would get 5 or 10 people to enjoy a meal with.

Cooking on the road

It’s not uncommon for hostels and guesthouses to have a kitchen stocked with basic items. Your hotel room may come equipped with a kitchenette. Any apartment you rent will hopefully have a kitchen ready for you.

If your hostel or guesthouse kitchen isn’t stocked with the essentials (butter, olive oil, herbs) you can cut costs and make friends by making a meal with the other guests.

Cooking meals that use common local ingredients is nearly always less expensive. Don’t waste time trying to track down ingredients from home, just embrace the local cuisine.

  • Beans are a healthy, inexpensive, versatile food. Dried lentils can be cooked quickly without soaking them first. Canned beans can be turned into pretty much anything.
  • Look beyond the boxed pasta you know from home. Rice is easy enough to master and there’s a world of grains and noodles for you to explore.
  • Buy the fruits and vegetables that are cheap where you are and learn how to cook them. Even if you think you’re a picky eater, it’s just because you haven’t found the stuff you like. Keep looking.

Street food

The obvious answer to cheap eats is street food. New York’s dollar pizza, Berlin’s currywurst, the crepes of Paris. While delicious, it’s ill-advised to subsist on doner kebab for three months.

While not necessarily a healthier option, don’t forget to check out bakeries, especially in Europe. You’ll often be able to find savory goods that make perfect on-the-go meals or get freshly made sandwiches.


By trying a wide range of foods in each place you go – from weird stuff at the corner store to whatever the food blogs are telling you to try – you’ll get a better appreciation for the culture of wherever you’re traveling.

save money and stay healthy by cooking and eating while youre backpacking and couchsurfing

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