How to Eat Well on a Small Budget

My post on the prohibitive costs of French cuisine (which you guys totally lambasted me on by the way! I promise, I’m not dumb- I did make an effort to eat well) got me thinking about all of the many workarounds for food-lovers on a small budget. While it may not be possible to try ALL the awesome famous foods on a small budget, it’s usually possible to eat pretty well, and usually quite memorable local food.

Of course, self-catering is the cheapest option of all- maybe a pot of spaghetti with a can of sauce. That’s not really interesting or local, so we’ll ignore that fact in search of more in search of more destination specific experiences.

Here’s what I’ve learned from 5+ years of traveling poor and hungry and still managing to eat well.

Stay AWAY From Tourist Areas

Pizza with tomatoes and olives in Buenos Aires - How to Eat Well on a Small Budget
Neighborhood pizza in Buenos Aires

Look, I’m no snob. We’re all tourists at one point or another, and we’ve all probably eaten at one or two restaurants with a designated “English menu.” Authenticity aside, the problem with these places is that you’re almost always going to end up paying out the nose. Personally, if I’m going to pay more I want it to be for better (or more) food, not for convenience.

As a rule of thumb, if you can see a major tourist attraction from the restaurant, if they offer menus in more than 2 languages or if they are directly next to a body of water, you’re probably paying a premium for location. Walk two blocks away in any direction and you’ll find somewhere less crowded and probably half the cost.

Street Food

Bacon and Eggs in China from a Street Stall - Want to Eat Well on a Small Budget? Look for street food!
Bacon and eggs China style

I’m a street-food evangelist. It is by far the cheapest, most authentic, most interesting food you can get in many parts of the world, particularly Asia. Many travelers overlook it because they worry about food poisoning, but that is easily avoidable if you pay attention and eat where the locals do.

Street food is the perfect way to try a lot of local dishes for very cheap. I have snacked my way through countless cities and discovered amazing cheap treats from barbecue in Xi’an to mulled wine in Prague to churros in Uruguay. I’ve fashioned diverse multi-course meals out of street food for less than $5 on many many occasions.  This is really an excellent way to eat well on a budget.

Local Markets

Street Vendor at a Local Market in Asia - How to Eat Well on a Small Budget

Is there anything better than a city market? My mouth is watering just thinking of the many surprises, fresh foods, and snacks that can be found inside. In Quito we found fresh ceviche for a couple of dollars, in Barcelona, there were grilled sausages on sticks. In Hoi An, Vietnam the market held dozens of tiny noodle shops serving unique variations of a single dish. Nearly every city has at least one and it’s usually a treasure trove of culinary finds.

Grocery Stores- Seriously

Framboise cookies - Want to Eat Well on a Budget? Shop at Local Grocery Stores

I like to cook at home but I’m not much of a hostel chef. Even so, I find grocery stores in other countries to be fascinating, and usually full of interesting and tasty snacks. Here you can find local wine, cookies, and savories for a fraction of the price of a restaurant. Some of my greatest finds include terrific $2 malbec in Buenos Aires, Brie in France and about a million kinds of biscuits in London.

In Europe, one of the cheapest and tastiest ways to eat well involves a load of fresh bread and an assortment of local meat, cheese, and fruits. Picnic basket optional.

Splurge on Lunch, not Dinner

A Copper Pan Full of Paella - Want to Eat Well on a Small Budget? Splurge on Lunch

Okay, but sometimes you really just want to eat at a real, sit down restaurant. If you’re going to eat one costly meal a day, make it lunch, not dinner. There are much greater deals to be had mid-day then at night. This is particularly true in South America and Western Europe where many restaurants run set-menus during the day with a couple of options and a fixed-price.  It is a great way to eat well, get a taste of a restaurant and not blow your whole budget.


What are your tips to eat well while traveling?


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How to Eat Well on a Small Budget


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25 thoughts on “How to Eat Well on a Small Budget”

  1. I’m totally with you on the supermarkets! It sounds awkward at first, but especially in Europe I love checking them for food the locals actually buy there themselves!
    You can discover so much about local fruit and veggies, or certain specialties on the fish and cheese counter… My favorite: The bakery sections! You will always find some typical, cheap goodies like pasties, cakes or cookies there 🙂

  2. Great list and definitely have to agree about the street food. There is so much out there and at a fraction of the price you would pay in a restaurant. It also helps make me feel ‘more local’

  3. All of these are so, so true…especially staying away from touristy places. Even if you’re in a place where the food is still relatively cheap, like Thailand, it’s easily double or triple what you would be paying for the same thing at the shop around the corner that serves the same – probably better – food, but doesn’t have pictures on its menus.

    In my experience the food at these places is also ‘dumbed down’ for the travelers – no good all around!

  4. I love street food, but I find I definitely have to balance it out with other options because more often than not, it’s deep fried and lacking veggies. That said, when you buy off a cart, you kind of have to walk and eat – so there’s so calorie-burning there at least, right?

  5. I’m addicted to street food. One of Taiwan’s most famous night markets is right outside campus, so it’s almost a daily thing! Night markets are definitely the easiest place for cheap eats and a lot of options.

  6. I love street food! It’s also good if they are preparing it right in front of you so you can see where it comes from and how long it is cooked.
    Mexico has some of the best street food I’ve ever had!

  7. Definitely agree about restaurants with English menus. Even though they definitely make life easier, the restaurants are still charging the foreigner prices!

    I’d also keep an eye out for local restaurants that have a lot of people eating inside. If a lot of people from the neighborhood are there, it’s bound to be both affordable and quality eating :9

  8. Since we’ve been in South America for 6 weeks now, I find the local markets and grocery stores to be a gold mine! LOVE bargaining for fresh produce to cook in our hostel and the food section in the grocery stores are ridiculous! I’m going to make mental notes for when we arrive in Eastern Europe in 3 weeks.

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