Meal Planning + Slow Traveling: Top 10 Ways to Stick to your Food Budget
Budget meal planning while traveling: it’s a constant priority for us to find ways to eat healthy and cheaply while we slow travel, without wasting too much, and also keeping it plant-based.
It’s probably no surprise to those who know me that I am constantly meal planning in my head. My husband hits five o’clock and says “Guess we better think about dinner!” I lay in bed the night before thinking “okay, those avocados need to be eaten up, there’s leftover rice, we have peppers and onions, there’s a pack of tortillas in the back of the cupboard somewhere, and black beans in the pantry – it’s burrito night tomorrow!”
To his credit, though, now that we eat plant-based, Jonathan thinks a LOT more about our meal planning in advance, since he prefers to do most of the grocery shopping. (I apparently become an impulsive spendthrift when I walk through the doors of a grocery store and/or stock up a ridiculous amount on whatever is on sale – he’ll appreciate it when the zombie apocalypse hits!)
Since we’ve started this new travel lifestyle and are still working on our income sources, living on a minimal budget is important. However, we love food and cooking, and need to ensure our two little vegan girls get a balanced diet, so we aren’t willing to just live on ramen and plain pasta and oatmeal.
“Don’t miss my bonus tip at the end on the BEST way to save money while slow traveling!”
Plus, if you slow travel like us, you are spending one to three months in one place. This means you will want to stock your kitchen with essentials, but not spend a fortune outfitting your pantry with everything you might be used to having back home.
So, here are my top 10 tips – plus my best bonus tip at the end! – for budget meal planning while traveling. I hope I can help you create cheap and healthy meals for your family, and stick to your food budget!
#1: Choose accommodation with a kitchen
We loved the full kitchen in our San Pedro, Belize apartment – and we also loved the five year old cleaner who came with it!
Side note: I love the Central American/Mexican parenting approach that kids automatically do work around the house. Not as a chore or a punishment or for allowance, but because it’s just part of being a family. They harness the helpfulness of toddlers, accept the resulting mess, and end up with seven year olds who mop the floors without whining or even being asked. It’s something I’m trying to incorporate more in our daily lives. Easier to do when we’re living these slower days on the road rather than in our previous hectic lives!
This might seem obvious, but you can get drawn in by other priorities if you’re not careful. In San Pedro, Belize, we had to choose between a place with a pool, and a place with a full kitchen (and two large separate bedrooms, which was an added bonus).
Although we missed having a pool, overall we were happy with our choice. Even when we’d feel stressed about money, we would remind ourselves that, in four weeks, we only ate out for two dinners and two breakfasts, bought a few coffees to get free wifi, and bought a few snacks at beaches where there was no other option and we stayed longer than planned.
Oh, and the delicious vegan ice cream at Paradice Ice Cream! Definitely worth every penny so my vegan girls can enjoy ice cream guilt-free (because it’s all about them… nothing to do with how much I love the stuff… never.). All the flavours looked amazing, vegan or not!
#2: Talk to your taxi driver
We usually take a taxi when we first arrive in a new destination to get to our accommodation, and my husband spends the whole ride up front, asking questions about where to shop and where to eat, to get the local advice and perspective – provided we share at least a little bit of language in common!
In San Pedro, our driver told us which grocery store to avoid (geared to tourists) and which one gives 10% off on the weekends (it’s smaller, dirtier, not to the same “Western” standards of clean and bright and organized – but guess what? The food is identical, and cheaper!)
This taxi driver chat will help you with the next tip!
#3: Shop where the locals shop
Esperanza’s Store became our favourite place in San Pedro for fruit, veggies, and especially her thick flour tortillas! Man, we still miss them and talk about them…
Prices are usually lower where the locals shop – the little fruit stands that don’t look so pretty, the crowded, cluttered grocery stores, the tiny hole-in-the-wall, blink-or-you’ll-miss-it store by Esperanza (her fresh tortillas are $0.75 cheaper than the Super Buy down the street!).
Plus, you’ll get immersed in the local culture, get tips on where else to shop, and once they know you, give you extra special service.
My husband popped out to the fruit stand one night when we ran out of bananas and our girls were about to melt down because they couldn’t have one more banana before bed (and when your girls are melting down about bananas rather than chocolate or ice cream, sometimes you decide to give in and get them what they want!).
He arrived to discover that avocados had arrived! (this is cause for great excitement in our vegan family). They were out of season in Belize and therefore a precious commodity.
However, my husband had only taken enough cash for bananas, so the lady there gave him 12 avocados on credit (worth $2.50 each!), and he went back the next morning with the cash.
Not something that would happen at the larger, tourist-focused grocery stores!
Our meal plan for our first week included dinners of rice and beans, tortillas (stuffed with leftover rice and beans, homemade salsa, and lettuce), pasta with black bean tomato sauce, Chinese noodles (soba or chow mein noodles with cabbage/carrot/onion stir fry on top), and pupusas with cabbage/carrot slaw.
Lunches were leftovers or peanut butter toast and fruit.
Breakfast was oatmeal and smoothies, and we eventually added one breakfast cereal for some variety and a bedtime snack option.
The spice/sauce dilemma is a big one, though! It costs a lot of money to outfit a kitchen with a full range of spices and sauces, so if you carefully plan your meals around the same ones, you can save a lot.
Our list: cooking oil, olive oil, apple cider vinegar, soy sauce, hot sauce, sugar, salt, pepper, onion powder, garlic powder, oregano, cumin, rescado (the Belizian spice mixture they use for everything), and taco mix powder.
This list made every seasoning, sauce, salad dressing and topping we needed for our menu. (If we had thought of it, we would have bought the camping spice package from MEC to take on our travels – next time!)
When I get around to it, I will write a blog post on our actual menu and recipes. Promise! Comment below if you want to see this to remind me and hold my feet to the fire 🙂
#5: Resist the urge to stock your pantry with every possible food you could ever want – stick to basics, favourites, and one-of-each.
As mentioned above, this one is hard for me! My husband prefers to shop because he never knows what random items will come home with me.
When budget meal planning while traveling, you have to resist having every possibility on hand at all times. Making a comprehensive meal plan that pre-plans re-using lots of the same ingredients really helps with this.
And this doesn’t need to be a fancy meal plan. Jonathan and I just jotted down our basic meal plan for the week on the back of a scrap piece of paper, brainstorming how to re-use and double-up ingredients and products.
You only need ONE box of crackers, ONE muffin/loaf/bread option, and ONE small package of treats (cookies, chocolate, etc.) at one time. You don’t need three different types of breakfast cereal (really, Meredith… you don’t).
Your kids will survive (and even thrive long term, I reckon) if their choices are limited and they can’t have every option they want.
#6: Shop regularly (every day or two) for small amounts, rather than doing big shops
This keeps your food waste down (another big way to save money!), and allows you to buy more of what’s working.
It’s also a good way to ensure you don’t reach the end of your time in one place with a bunch of food you haven’t eaten.
#7: Be flexible in your plan and adjust based on prices and availability
For example, when the avocados that seemed expensive at $2.50 each are suddenly $4 each, you buy fewer and adjust your menu plan!
We are so spoiled and privileged in Canada with grocery stores that carry every food we could ever want, all year round (should we really be eating strawberries in January, people??).
It’s actually refreshing to travel in places where it is truly exciting when you find avocados, and you adjust your meal plan to include avocados for lunch and dinner for 3 days straight, and just revel in how delicious they are.
#8: Cook the local cuisine rather than your usual fare
This became one of Jonathan’s favourite meals: rice and peas with beans, homemade salsa and lettuce – and here, grilled peppers and onions and guacamole – basically all the fillings without the tortilla!
In San Pedro, Belize, we made rice and beans, pupusas, coconut rice, and lots of burritos/fajitas/tacos when we would normally make Indian curries, Thai curries, Korean miso soup meals, vegan chick’n fingers and rice, tofu scramble, etc.
Getting the ingredients for our usual kinds of meals is far more expensive than cooking like the locals. Also, one of our favourite parts of travel has always been enjoying the local cuisine, so this lets you enjoy that part of travel without the expense of eating in restaurants all the time! Definitely a key part of budget meal planning while traveling.
#9: Adjust your usual recipes to use local ingredients or products
I have a bit of a problem with food photography, wherein I often forget to snap a picture until half way through!
This was one of our delicious pizza experiments – all done in the toaster oven, too, so you don’t have to heat up the whole house.
In Belize, we made mini pizzas with the thick flour tortillas from Esperanza’s, and they were SO delicious they became a staple in our meal plan!
Unfortunately, we couldn’t get the same kind of thick flour tortilla in Mexico (it was really more like a small naan bread), but Jonathan still tried with the thinner flour tortillas (more like what you’d get in a package in Canada).
We made toasted sugar-topped tortillas for dessert.
We sometimes make our sandwiches and wraps from tortillas instead of bread or pitas.
We started soaking our own dried beans rather than using our usual keep-it-simple canned beans (this was easy to do when there just weren’t canned beans available!)
We ate the locally-grown fruit rather than expensive imported options (except apples… we will buy apples anywhere, at any price, for our two little apple monsters!)
This also goes for buying local brands rather than imported brands. The local brand is usually far cheaper than the name-brand you recognize (the local cracker instead of Ritz crackers, for instance). Imported products will be much more expensive – we save a lot by buying local brands for as many packaged goods as possible (cereal, crackers, cookies, chips, etc.).
#10: Buy packaged pancake mix and muffin mix, and get creative
This one is not my favourite. I LOVE to bake, and when we’re settled somewhere for a few months at a time, I will invest in baking powder, baking soda, flour, etc.
But for only a month, to save money, we bought Aunt Jemima pancake mix and banana nut muffin mix (powdered mixes are often vegan until you add your own milk and eggs).
We use a mashed banana in the pancakes instead of an egg (makes them far tastier and less fake-feeling), and soy milk in both (gives a nutritional boost to the muffins, too). My kids eat the leftover pancakes as morning snack, and the banana muffins were a huge hit.
I didn’t have muffin tins, so I made sure the batter was thick and baked it in the one oven-safe glass dish we had – it was more like misshapen banana bread, but it worked and tasted great!
BONUS TIP: Make Your Own Bread!
Check out my blog post on making your own bread to save money AND keep it vegan: My #1 Money-Saving Budget Travel Tip: Make Your Own Bread
It’s definitely one of the best ways to save money. Bread is expensive to buy but SO cheap to make!
So, there you go: my top 10 ways to stick to your food budget. Budget meal planning while traveling doesn’t have to be difficult or stressful.
There are lots of different ways to save money while traveling. Some of them I only barely touched on here – reducing wasted food, making as much from scratch as possible, and staying away from imports – but hopefully these give you a good start.
If you have others you’ve found to be helpful, I’d love to hear about them!
About Meredith Kenzie
I am a full-time traveling Mum of two adorably blond and mischevious little girls (isn’t it a good thing nature makes babies so damn cute?). I love to explore new places, finding the fun little places for my littles to play, and getting immersed in different cultures. I like to write and share about our travel adventures while keeping it minimalist and vegan as much as possible! Oh, and I love yoga, ballet, reading, baking, and time with friends.
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