15 Tips for Cooking from "Home" While Traveling (Plus Grocery Lists, Go-To Meals and Gluten-Free Options in Asia)
You made it to your vacation! Hooray!
If you aren’t staying in an all-inclusive resort and you have kids (perhaps lots and lots of kid like us), you probably want to save some money on your food budget. It’s much more fun to spend that money on activities or save it for when it’s needed.
We’ve been traveling full-time for over a year now as a family of seven and eating-in is a must-have for our family. We spend TONS more money when we have to rely on only eating out, we gain more weight, and us parents get really tired of braving restaurants with kids all the time. We try to stay in Airbnbs so we can eat at home more and have somewhat of a kitchen.
Going to a new place and trying to figure out what to cook can be really intimidating. You don’t know the grocery store, you aren’t really sure how much to buy. It’s hard! I’m not perfect at it, bit I’ve had a lot of practice over this last year shopping and cooking both domestic and international. Here are some of my tips.
First, the shopping:
Find the best store. If you CAN travel to find a grocery store, it will be much better. Ask your Airbnb host for recommendations on grocery stores. I hate having to take a taxi to the grocery store, but you will save more money versus going to whatever is closest to you. Often in Asia, the closest thing is 7-Eleven. This is MUCH better than the 7-Elevens in the USA, but still, it’s expensive. The locals aren’t going there for many groceries :) . Plus, if you need speciality items, like gluten-free, you need to do some research.
Gluten-free grocery options we’ve found in Asia:
Bali: Popular Market had lots of GF options, including pancake mix and cake mixes
Taipei: Wellcome Market had a couple of options of GF pasta. Chinese culture, in general, doesn’t do GF. I was thrilled to find rice pasta, but it was location dependent.
Bangkok: Villa Market in Grand Rama 9 had LOADS of foreign imports with tons of GF options. We also found Pop Tarts for the first time!
Osaka, Japan: Seijo Ishi is spendy, but had multiple GF bread options, along with GF pasta and other goodies. We found peanut butter for the first time in a while :)
Find the local morning market in Asia. The locals don’t go to a grocery store, or at least not very often. Morning market are where you will find the best deals! Produce is super affordable here and fresh. Meats can be a little intimidating since they do just sit out, but depending on the country, they may still be alive! Yep, they want it fresh, so the butcher it there. I haven’t been able to brave this and still get my meats at a grocery store, but I’ve seen plenty of it.
Bring bags, or better yet, your wagon! If you’ve followed us on our social media, you know we LOVE our wagon. It is great for groceries. If you are anything like me, you’ll buy more than you expect to. It’s hard lugging groceries back if you don’t have a car, which we haven’t for many months, so bring sturdy reusable bags if your home has them (I actually travel with a couple anyway) or your stroller or wagon.
Google Translate is a must. If you have a foreign language to deal with, be sure to come prepared with the Google Translate app. It has a camera feature that you can use to hover over words and it will give you some idea of the English translation. Thanks to a follower for telling me about this! It is not perfect (in fact, it can be quite funny), but it’s gotten me a long way in Japan where I understand not a THING.
Don’t be afraid to ask questions. It’s intimidating, but you’re going to find things you don’t recognize, guaranteed! Ask an employee what it is if you need to. Just swallow that pride. Use Google Translate for help if needed to ask “What is this and how do I cook it?”
Be prepared for new organ meats. I’ve literally seen ALL parts of the animal used for food by now: brain, heart, liver, intestines, tongue, feet, legs, ribs, etc. They are not only used, but common and PREFERRED by locals.
Next, what to buy:
It’s mega overwhelming to get into a new place after exhausting travel days and have to quickly decide what to buy my family to eat. Even just for the next day it can be overwhelming. I’ve learned to divide into categories.
Breakfast first. Unless breakfast is included, this is likely the first meal you’ll cook.
My shopping list:
Butter (use this for cooking in a pan, a topping and a condiment. It’s the most versatile versus buying butter and oil and mayo)
Salt and Pepper (some Airbnbs have this, but many don’t. I usually buy it anyway).
Quick and easy meals:
Cereal and milk (always a standby, but I kind of hate it because they are hungry in about 2 minutes)
Eggs. I can ALWAYS find eggs anywhere, including the convenience store next door.
Hard boiled (great for a picnic or snack)
Fried over east with bread or rice
Egg sandwich- a little butter and ketchupSwitch it up from scrambled to fried to hard boiled. I’ve served fried eggs and rice and egg sandwich (I use butter instead of mayo and a little ketchup).
Egg salad. Not usually breakfast, but can be! Just hard boil eggs and mix with mayo and a little mustard (if you like mustard), salt and pepper.
Oatmeal. I can pretty much always find instant oatmeal and have learned if it isn’t flavored to put a dollop of peanut butter or Nutella in there. My kids love it and it’s pretty filling.
Pancakes. Load these up with nut butters and fruit to make them more filling
Lunch and Dinner. We tend to eat out once per day if we are adventuring that day, so I plan about one meal a day and then add maybe 1-2 extras. If we are staying for a week, for example, I’ll buy enough for 9 dinners/lunches. This gives me a back up and I can also stretch the leftovers if needed to make it so we don’t eat out at all a few days.
Proteins. I always center the meal around the protein and veggies, so it’s easy to start here. Do what you prefer, but I go for chicken breast (multiple meals), ground beef, steak, pork loins and ground pork or turkey.
Tons of fruits and veggies (always over buy on this- it doubles as snacks)
Pizza (frozen or crust. It’s a great back up or easy meal)
Seasoning packets. I love the curry seasoning packets or taco seasoning or anything like that. You don’t have your spice section on vacation, so simplify with this.
Seasoning spice blend. If you can find something like Mr. Dash that is a seasoning mix, this can go a long way in your cooking! I pick something universal like Italian Seasoning so I can add it to eggs, meats, pastas, even rice.
Pre-made meals. I usually buy 1-2 of these from the deli or freezer to have something really fast. If you are about to head out the door and need to feed people quickly, these can save you big money versus eating out.
Quick and easy meals:
Taco Salad (use tortilla chips on the bottom)
Fried rice (you can hide so much in there!)
Curry and rice
BLTs or other sandwiches (egg salad, tuna salad, cold cuts) with snack sides
Meat and cheese board. We love to get creative!
Baked potato bar (this already includes many of the ingredients you buy for other meals anyway)
Roasted chicken with mixed salad
Grilled meat (even in a pan) and veggies
Pasta and sauce
Breakfast Hash. This is one of our favorites. Brown some ground meat and blend with scrambled eggs, hash browns, tomatoes, avocados, salsa, etc.
Breakfast for dinner again!
Snacks. This is one of the most important categories since we OFTEN have to use snacks as a meal. We run out of time or can’t find somewhere to eat on the go fairly regularly, so I always have a little bit of quality snacks that can double as a small meal if needed.
Nuts. Always nuts- they pack a great punch for helping fill bellies. I also find them everywhere we go.
Yogurt and cheese (hard to keep cold, so only if using right away)
Dried meats (jerky)
Protein bars. We love SoyJoy and find them often in Asia
Fresh fruits with nut butters. I’ve taken jars of peanut butter in the car many times. Sometimes I just spoon out nut butters by the spoonful!
Fresh cut veggies
Water! Always bring more water than you think you need. Often internationally, this is bottled water, so hit the convenience store before you head out and get water.
Other tips for cooking in while traveling:
Sometimes you have to get creative about small appliances. We haven’t had an oven in months, so we have to rely on microwave and cook top. However, we’ve also made cakes in the rice cooker. I’ve toasted bread in a pan with melted butter. I’ve made nachos in a fry pan.
Dishwashers are NOT common. In fact, I don’t think we’ve had one in Asia at all. If you are a paper plate fan, more power to you here. If not, assign dish duty to the kids :)
You may have to split into multiple pans. Usually we only have one frying pan and one pot, so I have to be creative about getting everything cooked. Sometimes that means re-heating in the microwave when the last dish is done.
Do the dishes when you leave. Don’t leave the dirty dishes in the sink or you may be fined by many places we’ve stayed.
Quantity sizes can be much different. I haven’t seen a gallon on milk in months!
Learn to be comfortable with estimating cups and teaspoons, etc. I haven’t seen measuring cups in months.
Pack food from home. We can’t do this currently, but my mom always used to do this for our trips! We’d pack lots and lots of our favorites snack and foods, even to go to a hotel, so we could eat a meal in our room. We would have rice cakes and tuna for lunch instead of another restaurant bill. If you have food allergies, this is a lifesaver! We usually had a piece of luggage with just food. Bonus: you can fill it with your souvenirs when you go back.
Legitimately, it may be LESS expensive not to cook. In Chiang Mai, we were right next to a night market and could get dinner for about $1USD per person. Cooking in would have been more expensive by far! So be sure to weigh your options.
If cooking fails, Uber Eats and Food Panda are good options for take out. This may be more or less expensive than cooking yourself. The locals get their food MUCH cheaper sometimes and you just can’t beat it.
Bottom line: do your research! Check TripAdvisor and other sources to see if eating in really is cheaper. We’ve seen all ends of the spectrum. I spent hundred on groceries in Singapore and it would have been cheaper to eat at the hawker centers. However, they were still far from us and we don’t love taking all the kids out all the time, so I’m not sad about eating in more.
What other tips can you add? Do you have other favorite go-to meals on vacation?
Best of luck in your travels!