Trying to follow a meal plan and eat healthy when you’re living abroad is a whole different beast. In this post, I’m going to show you how meal planning can help you overcome a lot of the obstacles you’ll face abroad so you can eat healthy and save money.
Whether you’re a digital nomad who works for yourself, are on sabbatical, are working abroad on assignment or are going on an extended executive retreat, this post will help you manage your food when you’re on an extended trip of several weeks or months so you can eat healthy while avoiding waste and excessive spending.
We take for granted how easy it is in the US to get the food we want anywhere and at any time of year. When living abroad you’ll quickly notice that your options are much more limited.
Here are some obstacles you might experience:
You can’t find what you’re used to. You may think that some ingredients are commonplace until you encounter a food culture that is completely different from your own. What may seem like a basic staple to you may be unavailable while you’re living abroad. And do you really want to spend your free time hunting down something you can’t live without? No, you should be off exploring.
The food you prefer is more expensive. Maybe you will find the food you’re used to from home, but in some cases importing it to your new temporary home will come at a higher cost so you’ll have to pay much more for it.
You don’t have a fully-stocked kitchen. If you’re great at cooking from scratch you may think it won’t be a problem if I can’t find something, I’ll just make it. Keep in mind your AirBnB or hotel kitchen isn’t as fully stocked with tools and pantry staples as your kitchen at home. You’ll have to make do and make simpler meals since you won’t have everything you need. In some cases, your refrigerator will also be much smaller than what you’re used to, so you’ll have to adjust.
You’re limited on what you can carry. Backpacking? Moving from place to place? Then you’ll have to only buy what you can eat quickly or that’s easy to move from place to place.
You don’t want to buy food you won’t have time to eat because you’ll be on to the next place. Forget buying in bulk. If you buy a lot of different ingredients and you don’t use them all up, then you’ll have to throw a lot of it away when you move back or to the next place.
Help! I Can’t Cook
If you’re not a good cook, prepare yourself, because when you’re living abroad, there are not as many convenience food options. Drive-thrus, frozen foods, pre-packaged foods with all the ingredients inside may be scarce or completely absent.
In order to prepare, you should practice making some simple meals from scratch so you’ll be able to make yourself something.
Meal Planning When Living Abroad
For the last few weeks, I’ve been living in Costa Rica with my husband our dog. I didn’t plan on meal planning for the 10 weeks that we were here. I was optimistic and I figured we’d just make it up as we went along.
Now that it has been a few weeks, I’m back on the meal planning bandwagon because it simply is one of the best tools for managing your food intake while reducing waste and excessive spending. I can buy what we need as we need it instead of guess and try to make do with a lot of random ingredients.
You can avoid a lot of the problems you may experience abroad with a good plan that takes these issues into account. But meal planning takes time and effort and you can’t always print a meal planning worksheet in a third-world country can you?
Enter Plan to Eat
Plan to Eat is a digital meal planning tool that makes it easy to organize your meals. It has a place where you can enter in your favorite recipes and the ingredients you need to make each one. You’ll then be able to drag-and-drop these recipes into a calendar so you can see what you’re going to eat for breakfast, lunch and dinner in one place. Then it generates a shopping list for you so you can stay on budget and only buy what you need.
How to Plan Your Meals When You’re in a Different Country
Prepare Your Recipes
The first thing you need to do, and you can do this before you leave, is collect some recipes for some easy-to-make recipes that don’t require specialized kitchen tools that you can make from scratch from basic ingredients.
If you’re not a good cook, practice making your chosen recipes at home beforehand. You don’t want to try to make something for the first time, screw it up and be screwed because you don’t have something else to eat. There are a lot of variables (a different stove, different pots and pans) that will present additional challenges, so if you have some experience cooking the recipe beforehand, that will hep you know what to expect.
If you already have a collection of recipes that you use, see if you can modify them to make them simpler or enter possible substitutions in the recipe.
If you are going to be using a tool like Plan to Eat, enter your recipes into the app. Otherwise, write them down in a notebook or write each recipe on a notecard so you can take it with you. If you might not have reliable internet abroad, then writing them down is best.
As soon as you arrive head to your local grocery store and survey your options:
- Are all the ingredients you need available?
- Do you know how to cook the grains that are available?
- Are certain items not available because of the season?
Once you know for sure what is available to you, modify your recipes and determine which ones are actually feasible.
Determine how often you can visit the grocery store. Maybe transportation is limited or you can’t carry large quantities. This will tell you how long your meal plan has to cover.
In most cases, 4-7 days at a time works best. Each week, choose several different recipes and determine when you will make them and eat them. Make sure to plan snacks and drinks too.
If you want to do this manually, create a grid with 7 colmns (one for each day of the week) and 5 rows (one for breakfast, lunch, dinner, snacks, drinks). Then in each spot write what you will eat for each meal. You can just write the name of the recipe. Plan to Eat has a calendar where you can drag and drop your recipes into different slots.
As an example, for our little family, I meal plan weekly. We usually eat last night’s dinner for lunch the day after so I choose 3-4 recipes that we will make and add them to the meal plan.
If you want to prevent waste, leave some meals open. You can eat out if you run out of food. If you are staying longer, don’t have options for eating out or don’t mind having some leftover ingredients, you should plan all the meals on your calendar.
Check out my meal planning tips post for more helpful tips.
Create a Grocery List
Now that you know what you’re making and when, you can look at the ingredients in each recipe and create a shopping list. Write a master list of all the ingredients that the recipes call for. Then see what you have on hand and cross things off the list if you already have it or if one item can substitute for another.
What remains will be your focused shopping list. What is amazing about this approach is that items you thought were staples, might not be necessary.
For instance, sugar is something I use on a regular basis at home, but if my meal plan doesn’t have a recipe that calls for sugar for that week, I can avoid buying it. Instead of sugar, a bottle of honey and a bottle of maple syrup, maybe just the honey can satisfy my sweet tooth so I don’t have to buy all three. It also increases the likelihood that I’ll be able to finish the bottle before it’s time to leave.
Because you’re buying what you know you’ll need instead of what you think you’ll need, you’ll be more likely to not buy things that you won’t use.
How to Eat Healthy While Traveling
Meal planning has allowed us to lose some weight and save money without even trying while living abroad. Since we have to cook more for ourselves and use whole foods since convenience foods aren’t available, we are forced to eat healthy.
I love meal planning, but without a tool like Plan to Eat, I can’t stick with it long term especially by how much our life has changed since moving to a new country. I don’t have a car here and the grocery store is far away since we’re in the countryside so I have to be organized.
It’s a good thing in a way. We’ve gotten back into a healthier routine cooking for ourselves, so it will be easier to stick with once we get back home.
If you’ve never meal planned before, now is the best time to get started, especially if you’re living abroad. You’ll be able to make your trip a lot more pleasant and less stressful.