I eat the carnitas burrito I accidentally left in my car for 24 hours. I use sticks I found on the ground to scoop my peanut butter and rocks to scrape the meat out of my coconuts. And I definitely don’t follow the five-second rule.
But one thing I will never, ever do… is cook in a hostel kitchen. And you probably shouldn’t, either.
But next time you’re in a hostel, take a look at the pots and pans. Can you find a single one that isn’t super scratched? It’s like, do people cook on these, or ice skate on them?
In general, Teflon is a great way to keep things from sticking. But the Teflon coating chips off when scratched by rough-edged kitchen utensils or abrasive scouring pads. Which is bad. Perfluorooctanoic acid, or PFOA, a chemical used as a processing aid for Teflon, has been linked to cancer in lab animals, as well as possible birth defects. Granted, the FDA says that Teflon is safe, and perhaps my fears are unscientific and overblown... but I really would prefer not to eat chips of it with my dinner.
(And, for what it's worth, since 2015, most companies have been making PFOA-free versions of their cookware. I'm just not convinced that the cookware in most hostels is under a year old.)
I saw one particularly ironic example of this recently in Pavones, Costa. (The same place where I met the horrible man in this article.)
The Clear River Hostel (one of the only places to sleep or rent boards in all of Pavones that takes credit cards, FYI) was full of all new-age hippie types. Any of their sentences that didn’t end with “toxins” or "meditate" ended with, “… It’s so healthy for you!”
Coconut oil -- “It’s so healthy for you!”
Quinoa – “It’s so healthy for you!”
“Organic” honey – “It’s so healthy for you!”
Kefir – “It’s so healthy for you!” (And also, according to them, "Definitely not fermented.")
They would spend half their day talking about how to be healthy. They would spread false information about the dangers of GMOs and the supposed safety of organic. They would spend extra money on health food every time they shopped.
And then they would go back to the hostel and cook on these scratched up pans.
Which, I guess, isn’t that surprising. People are more scared of sharks than mosquitoes, even though millions of people die from mosquito bites every year, and basically none die from sharks.
People are more scared of letting their kid walk home from school (which is one of the safest things a child can possibly do) than driving them (which is one of the most dangerous things a child can do – even though it’s still actually super safe).
And, finally, people are more scared of anti-scientific and wildly inaccurate claims about non-organic foods than they are of cooking on scratched pans.
When I told my second best friend that I was writing a post about why not to use a shared kitchen, he autocompleted my sentence: “Yeah – shared utensils are gross!”
And, yeah. They are. But it’s not like it’s hard to just wash a bowl with soap and a paper towel before you use it. I mean, let’s be real – do you think they do much more than that in most of the restaurants down there?
I do use shared utensils, plates and bowls in hostels, because germs aren’t that scary. Just wash it first, and you’ll be fine.
But I don’t expose myself to toxic chemicals unnecessarily.
Maybe reading this makes you feel kind of crappy. Like, “Well, I can’t really afford to eat anyplace else.”
I think you probably can – here are my suggestions:
1.You can eat really well (and save a lot of time) without cooking.
I’m not a huge fan of the whole “raw food” diet. After all, as Johnny Academic recently wrote in The Daily Beast,
There’s a reason humans cook food...
Think of cooking as a second, third, or fourth stomach like those inside cows, sheep, and goats who use each one to break down food. Moose spend their days chewing, swallowing, and digesting. Humans spend only a fraction of time eating compared to other animals because we learned how to break down food before eating it with heat and fermentation.
And don't forget about super filling and affordable staples like:
- Peanut butter
- Canned tuna
- Canned chicken
- Oatmeal (you can microwave the water, or just eat it cold. I eat cold oatmeal all the time. It's glorious!)
You don’t actually need to cook all the time to eat well – and you’ll get going more quickly in the mornings and have more time to chill, journal, walk or jam in the evenings.
2.Learn to identify edible plants.
When I was in Costa Rica, I hardly ever ate lunch. Between the mangos, coconuts and guavas that I found growing everywhere, I wasn’t usually that hungry in the middle of the day. On occasion, I would also see starfruit (carambola) or guanabana, and use the opportunity to stock up on calories.
These fruits, which are all "gourmet" back in the States, were completely free.
Another thing I love about this suggestion is that, in my experience, keeping an eye out for plants and animals you can identify keeps you present and mindful. You’re not thinking, “I wonder why my boyfriend didn’t email me back yet,” or, “I wonder why my Instagram post only got 7 likes,” or, “I feel fat,” or whatever negative, nagging thoughts so often keep people distanced from the present.
Instead, your eyes are open, checking out the different plants along the beach, or scanning the ditch for fruit. You become more aware of the sights, smells (I always smell the guava trees before I see them) and sounds around you.
Which is, like, soooo healthy for you. :P
No, but seriously, though, mindfulness is super good for you. And, like, it’s not like I’m some sort of botanist. Pretty much anyone could have identified the same fruits I did – but most tourists, it seemed, didn’t. They were too “busy” getting where they needed to go. They weren’t paying close enough attention to see the abundance of free fruit growing all around them.
Helpful hint: I learned from hitchhiking that pretty much everyone has a machete in their car or motorcycle – so if you find a coconut you want, almost anyone can open it up for you.
Another helpful hint: one book I read that I loved last year was The Cloud Collector's Handbook, by Gavin Pretor-Pinney. It totally helped me appreciate everyday miracles.
3. Eat like a local.
There’s a decent chance that at least some of the people in the country you’ve visiting also eat on a budget.
Talk to them. Find out what they like to eat. Or, better -- eat with them! Either in their homes or at their favorite restaurant.
And then… eat like them.
In Costa Rica (and many other locations in Central and South America), you see a lot of street vendors grilling meat on a stick. I ate a lot of that – it was fast, cheap (usually between $1-$3), and delicious! Sure, it’s not a full meal. You can always add a salad or some fruit or something. But that amount of meat… is actually closer to an actual, FDA-defined “serving” of meat than the portions you’d get in a restaurant.
I also shared several “homemade” meals with Ticos. A pretty typical meal for them consists of canned tuna with vegetables (it’s kind of cool – the veggies come mixed in with the fish) and crackers; fresh fruit; and iced tea. Sometimes, they grill meat to serve with rice and beans, and perhaps a small salad (they’d call this a casada).
If they catch a fish, they’ll slice it up with citrus and some veggies and make cerviche. And it is to die for.
I modeled a lot of my meals after what I saw locals eating – and I ate at the restaurants and street vendors where they went. It saved me money and opened my eyes to cool new food ideas.
4. Bring your own pot/pan.
I know that sounds crazy. But if you are determined to cook regularly without ingesting Teflon, there are plenty of small and lightweight pots and pans you could consider.
I brought an Outop Backpacking Pot and Pan ($12.45) with me on my trip to Chile – though, admittedly, I spent half of that trip in the backcountry, so I didn't bring them to avoid teflon so much as prepare hot food in the wilderness.
5. Take advantage of grilling and open fire cooking opportunities.
Not all hostels have grills, but some do. You can also keep your eyes open in local parks and recreation areas, as these often have BBQs for public use. Bring a kite, Frisbee or travel guitar. If there aren’t any picnic tables, pack a sarong and eat in the grass or sand.
(Side note: some travelers recommend bringing a sarong instead of a towel or even quick-dry microfiber towels. I get why -- they're pretty, they pack small, and they dry reasonably quickly. However, I prefer having my microfiber towel. I'm in and out of the water a lot, and I need something that will dry me off efficiently. Plus, microfiber cuts the wind like whoa, so these towels can double as a blanket when it's chilly.)
Or! If you’re traveling someplace beachy, make una fogata! You can use skewers to cook over the fire – or make the best fajitas in the world by wrapping veggies and spices in aluminum foil and throwing them in the fire. (See also: The Best and Most Beautiful Resort in Mexico is Free – Beach Camping in Baja).
Readers: do you have a favorite travel meal – or tip about eating well on a budget? Share it in the comments, or find me on Facebook or Twitter!
Or, if you want to learn more about food, check out: