Getting Nutrition and Delicious Food While Still Saving Money Too
We all know that eating healthy is the right thing to do, but we also want to travel everywhere and eat all the things! Those don’t necessarily go hand in hand all the time though. Living out of your car/van/camper and constantly traveling puts some constraints on the types of food you can make yourself. Unless you have a legit camper setup, you probably don’t have an oven or more importantly a refrigerator. Without constant access to refrigeration you are stuck with only a few options: eat out for all your meals, eat out for some and cook some right after you buy your perishable foods, or cook as much as you can utilizing the technology available to keep food cold for short periods of time (aka coolers and ice). When it comes to overall cost the first choice is the most expensive, and the last the least expensive (however it may cost quite a bit to get all the right gear). Personally, I have gone with the middle option, leaning a bit more toward the third option since I really enjoy eating out and having a great meal at a great restaurant. Below I’m going to detail the third option, making all your meals yourself, in the way I have found works for me in my situation.
Turning your vehicle into a mobile five star kitchen*
When first figuring out how to turn your adventure mobile into your mobile kitchen you have to look at your available space, and think about what else you consistently have access to during your travels. I live out of my 2016 Subaru Forester, so not that much space for things like a permanent table, or larger stove, or other things you may be able to fit into even the smallest camper. Additionally I frequently stay at National Parks and National Forests with established campgrounds, so I usually have access to a fire pit and a picnic table, as well as running water. With that being said, my gear I chose is pretty much what you would take car camping with your family or friends for a long weekend:
- 2 coolers (about 32 Litres each)
- 1 Coleman Triton 2 burner propane stove
- MSR backpacking propane single burner stove
- Cutting board
- Chef knife
- Rubber spatula, tongs, can opener, bowl, spork
- Pot with steamer basket insert and lid
- 8” aluminum frying pan
It’s not that much gear, but I really have focused on covering the basic necessities for cooking most meals. My larger cooler I use for dry goods like rice, cans, peanut butter, utensils, cleaning supplies, and similar items that don’t need to be kept cool or are not perishable. The other cooler is slightly smaller and I use to keep my perishable goods, and things that I want to keep cool. In order to keep things cool about every two days I will buy a 10 lb bag of ice and separate it into two zip top freezer bags that then go into another zip top bag with the openings opposite each other. This serves two purposes, the first being I prevent water from spilling every where while it melts, and two I am able to take the water and filter it for drinking water. This bag of ice rarely costs over $2 and can keep my food cool for sometimes up to 3 days if the weather is not too hot outside. Now, unless I buy it frozen, I don’t ever keep raw meats in there for more than a day to prevent any possibility of food poisoning. Other items like yogurt, fresh fruits and vegetables, cheese, and beers I will keep in there until they are gone, which doesn’t usually last more than the 2-3 days the ice lasts since space is limited.
It took me a few weeks to figure out the best variety of foods to cycle through in order to keep my nutritional needs met, while also having the limited space. Here are some sample menu items I have found work quite well:
- Oatmeal or other hot cereals mixed with dried fruit and nuts
- PBJ, fruit, protein shake
- Canned meals (chili, indian curries, soups, etc.)
- PBJ, fruit, protein shake
- Deli meat sandwich
- Salad mix
- Canned meals (chili, indian curries, soups, etc.)
- Doctored up ramen (add veggies, tofu, cooked meat, other seasonings)
- Premade, bagged meals (indian curries are great)
- Stir fry (veggies, meat, rice, soy sauce or premade stir fry sauce)
- Salad with protein on top
- Jambalaya (rice, seasoning, sausage, veggies)
The list isn’t the greatest, but I have really only just started to figure it out and test out what works and doesn’t. However I usually save the bulk of the cooking intensive meals for dinner since I am usually on the go for breakfast and lunch, either driving or hiking. I will for sure be adding a more comprehensive list of meals that work once I have one compiled and make a separate post about it.
Mainly when shopping I look for a few things, as close to fresh or whole ingredients as possible, cost, and convenience (not necessarily in that order). For veggies, I definitely look at the cost to volume ratio (so even if something is stupid cheap, if I can only buy a lot of it I usually don’t buy it, or buy a smaller amount of it. Even if an option is a bit on the expensive side, but will last a long time in my storage situation, I usually go for that over more perishable items. But as I said before, I usually only buy for about two days worth of meals). Canned good are great but canned veggies frankly suck, so I usually will buy things like chili, or curries, beans, or tomatoes, something that is either a complete meal or can be the bulk ingredient in a meal since you can’t easily save half of a can of something. Dried goods are also really key for life on the road, products like rice, soup mixes, beans, lentils, pasta, are all great because they will last almost indefinitely and are quite cheap. As seen above, I kind of rely quite heavily on PBJ and this is for three reasons it’s cheap, it tastes good, and it’s a complete protein. Which brings me to more of the combination nutrition/actual food concept.
I have recently decided to eat primarily vegetarian while traveling (mostly when I make my own meals) for two reasons. One is that it is a bit more environmentally sustainable to eat less meat. The second, and also the driving factor for me, is the ease of vegetarian eating while living in a situation like mine. For the most part vegetarian proteins will last a lot longer under mild refrigeration or no refrigeration than meat will. Foods like tofu, edamame, seitan, tempeh, yogurt, cheeses, and similar items all need minimal or no refrigeration (especially over the course of only 2-3 days). Whereas fresh meats will be able to cause illness if not refrigerated properly (41F or under) at the 4 hour mark, which when driving 8 hours a day, or being out and about from about 6am until 6pm, that food can go bad quite quick in a hot car. If I do buy and eat meats, it is usually as close to the time I will be cooking it as possible to prevent myself from getting sick. This is why I will probably be posting a lot of recipes and concepts revolving around Indian and Asian cooking as they are more often vegetarian or vegan in nature (but also lend themselves quite nicely to the addition of meats).
Finally, the biggest aspect of making your own meals is the cost compared to eating out all the time. Shopping at a grocery store, depending on what you buy, you can typically cost out your most expensive meal (dinner usually) to about $5 or less. Compared to you average inexpensive healthyish meal eating out is about $8-$12, you can easily cut your food budget in half, giving you more gas money to go to more awesome places.
*Okay maybe more like a shanty town kitchen that gets the job done
So, that was quite the long post above, but it covers for the most part all of the basics of saving money by eating out of your vehicle and making all of your meals. There is definitely some upfront cost in buying coolers, and stoves, pots and pans, but if you buy quality products they will last nearly a lifetime (unless they fly off your roof at 65mph, more on that in a later post). Long story short, eating out is expensive, making your meals can cut your cost at least in half if not more, and vegetarian eating can be less expensive and less refrigeration intense. When thinking about saving as much as possible while traveling, so that you can travel longer and farther, think about switching to making all or most of your meals yourself, play around with your options and make it work.
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