Cooking for one can seem difficult. I have learned, though, that it’s really not. Not even as a solo traveler moving between hostels with just a backpack.
It’s no secret that you save lots of money if you grocery shop and cook your own food, at home and on the road. Not to mention it is much healthier than eating at a restaurant three times a day.
I did enjoy many restaurants while I was in New Zealand, but I cooked for myself far more often and got to experience more with the savings. It was challenging when at hostels with poorly stocked or overcrowded kitchens. Downright difficult when the hostels were both poorly stocked AND overcrowded.
To make it a little easier for others, here are some tips on cooking for one at hostels while traveling solo.
Helpful Items to Have on Hand
If you’ll be traveling long term (like a month or longer), you’ll want to pick up these four items once you arrive at your destination. Having these helped me exponentially in New Zealand!
Reusable + Collapsible Grocery Bag
A bag or two will keep all your food wrangled in the overcrowded hostel refrigerators and shelves. I used the one on this list and eventually picked up another for $1 at a grocery store in New Zealand. Plastic grocery bags are fine, but everyone else uses them, too. Get a colorful bag that stands out and makes yours easy to find.
Small Storage Containers
Just one or two small reusable containers to hold leftovers or take meals on the go. These can also just be left in a hostel’s share bin when you’re done using them.
Plastic storage bags are a must when backpacking and traveling solo. I used them for everything during my 3-month backpacking trip in New Zealand. Put foods that spill easily like coffee grounds or sugar in a zip-top bag. Ditch bulky boxes that tea bags come in, store them in a plastic bag instead. Or pack some snacks for long days of sightseeing.
Spices are the best cooking tool you can carry. Some hostels will have a bin or shelf with spices or oil left behind by passing travelers, but you’re lucky if you find what you need.
Grocery stores are beginning to sell spices in smaller portions or in easy to pack and carry bags. I found all the spices I needed in New Zealand packaged in small boxes that sold for $1-$2 each.
If you can’t find spices packaged this way, you could buy bottles of whatever you need and transfer them to Ziploc bags to ditch the weight.
Helpful and versatile spices to carry include salt, ground pepper, and garlic powder at a minimum. Add cinnamon, cumin, cayenne pepper, crushed red pepper, and paprika to add even more variety, plus any of your own favorite spices.
I did not carry my own sponge around NZ, but I frequently moaned and groaned to myself about the poor condition of hostel sponges. I found most sponges to be cheap, old, and smelly, while the dish soap was overly watered down.
>>> See this list for even more helpful items to have while staying in hostels.
Common Hostel Kitchen Rules (+ Etiquette)
- Eat your food only, do not steal or “borrow” from other guests. Don’t mess with or move other people’s food either.
- Most hostels will provide labels for you to stick on your food with your name, room number, and date of departure. If they don’t, try to do this anyway.
- Clean up after yourself. Wash your pots/pans right away so that others can use them, wipe down your cooking space, put your food away, etc.
- Refrigerator space is precious, don’t take up too much of it.
- If you’re not cooking or eating, don’t hang out in the kitchen, especially if it is a small room.
- For safety purposes, hostel kitchens may have curfews. Some even automatically turn off the electricity or gas overnight. If a hostel does not do either of these things, be considerate of guests in nearby rooms and don’t cook in the middle of the night.
- Put kitchen items back where they belong so other guests can easily find them.
- Do not scavenge pots and pans from someone else’s cooking space when they aren’t looking. Instead, ask them if you can use them when they are finished.
- Try not to burn your food!
- Refrain from cooking strong smelling foods like fish.
- Don’t count on an oven or tools for baking to be available.
- Bring your own bottle opener and corkscrew.
Cooking for One At a Hostel
Some of these tips may seem like common sense to some. Or maybe you’re someone who has never cooked a meal solo before and have no idea where to start! The more hostels you stay at while you travel, the more you will see the wide (VERY WIDE) range of amenities is offered in the kitchens.
- Eat like the locals do. The ingredients will be more abundant and cheaper.
- Make simple meals. You don’t need to make four-course meals, but you also don’t have to eat pasta and jarred tomato sauce every night either.
- Cook one-pan meals. One pan might be all that’s available in a busy hostel kitchen! Make the best use of it.
- Avoid recipes that use rare ingredients. These could be expensive or only available in larger quantities than you need.
- Don’t follow recipes at all! Be creative and resourceful with your meals.
- Eat breakfast for dinner (and lunch). It’s one of the easiest meals to make any time of day.
- Embellish pre-packaged meals like ramen or canned soup by adding extra veggies, leftover rice, pasta, or meat, and extra seasonings.
Use Versatile Ingredients
These staple items are the base of so many types of dishes. Add fresh local produce, meat, and some herbs and spices to create different flavors.
- Eggs – The cheapest protein available! Fried eggs, breakfast burritos, hard-boiled eggs, soft boiled eggs added to ramen, etc.
- Rice – The perfect side dish, or make a stir-fry, rice pudding, sushi or burrito bowl, add to soups, or make a fancy risotto. Here’s some inspiration.
- Potatoes – Bake them, mash them, roast them, make french fries, home fries, hash browns, potato salad.
- Bread – Make all kinds of sandwiches (breakfast, grilled cheese, PB+J), toast with toppings (avocado, Nutella, jam), french toast, bruschetta, or garlic bread.
- Tortillas – There are the usual things like burritos, wraps, and quesadillas, or get creative with some of these dishes.
Shopping for Food as a Solo Traveler
- Aside from supermarkets and grocery stores, shop at farmers markets and stores with pantry aisles, too. Avoid most convenience stores.
- Buy locally grown and produced ingredients.
- Buy in-season produce, it will be much cheaper than out of season produce that is shipped in.
- Shop frequently, and only buy what you need and will eat for a couple days.
- Shop bulk bins to get the perfect amount for one person.
- Buy store brand items instead of name brand. Same goes for local brands over recognizable American brands.
- Stop at bakeries and butchers, either in grocery stores or stand-alone, for individual servings and smaller portions.
- Day-old baked goods are often discounted by 50% or more. Check these sections first.
- Buy a small plastic bottle of salad dressing or oil. Once it is used up, refill the bottle with oil left behind by other travelers.
Eating Alone While Traveling Solo
First of all, it’s OK to eat alone. Don’t feel embarrassed or ashamed. Everyone eats, sometimes they do it alone. Here are some tips to help make it a little easier, and before you know it, you’ll be a pro.
When at a Hostel
- Talk to other hostel guests cooking and eating in the kitchen. Complement the food they have prepared, ask them where they are from and where they have traveled.
- Ask to sit at a table with other solo travelers or invite other solo people to sit with you. Making friends could lead to joined cooking efforts.
- If you see or overhear that another guest is missing an ingredient that you have like oil or spices, offer it to them.
- Bring some entertainment like a book or notebook. Occupy yourself while you’re waiting for your meal or eating so you don’t obsess about whether or not everyone is judging you for being alone.
- If you don’t feel like being social while you eat, you don’t have to. Pack up your food and bring it with you for a walk to a park or riverside.
When Dining Out
- Again, bring a book to read or a notebook to write in. I often use this time to review photos on my camera that I have taken that day.
- Eat at the bar if the restaurant has one. Strike up a conversation with the bartender or other people sitting at the bar, too. They might also be alone and wanting some conversation.
- Go on a picnic. Grab some food at the market, a packed meal that you prepared, or takeaway food from a restaurant and settle down in a park, by the river, or at the beach. Wherever there’s a great view and some people watching to enjoy while you eat.
- Have a drink with your meal or while you wait. Lubricate the situation a little with a beer or cocktail.
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