How to Road Trip on a Budget: Part II – Food

How to Road Trip on a Budget: Part II – Food

I lived off of $420 a month while living for three years on the road. This covered my car insurance (~$80/month), food, gas, outdoor permits and fees, and splurges every now and again — like a ready-made hot meal.

In this series, I share how I squeezed every penny out of my dollar and ended up stepping foot in some spectacular places. I’ll go over travel and lodging, food planning, and staying clean (yes, solo travelers, you can even drive yourself crazy with lazy hygiene practices).  

And no, you don’t have to buy a van. I did all of this from a 4-door, non-hatchback Mazda 3.

But before we dig into healthy, budget-conscious eating on the road, make sure to check out Part I of the series: Cutting back on Road-related Expenses.

Eat Like a (Healthy) Pauper on the Road


How to Road Trip on a Budget: Food

Go easy

My meals and snacks were boiled-down-to-basics routines. Over time, I settled on just a few staples that met my nutrition needs and fit within my budget. For example: the crunch of almonds and the tangy bite of craisins or grape tomatoes were helpful in keeping me awake on long drives. Seaweed sheets (used for sushi) taste great and work as greens. Almond milk, cocoa powder, peanut butter and meal shakes (shop around for truly healthy ones) are perfect for breakfast and lunch or dinner — just stick it all in a BlenderBottle and shake, shake…drink.

Not only do none of these have to be refrigerated, but they provide everything I needed to fuel skiing, climbing, mountain biking and trail running.

Ditch the 3 squares

Breakfast, lunch and dinner are constructs of the working world. Before that, we were grazers. And if you live on the road, you should be, too. Eating three big meals is more expensive than feeding yourself throughout the day. That’s because traditionally, meals are more complex (requiring more ingredients) while snacking is simple (one or two ingredients). The mindset of eating a meal also conjures up a big plate full of more food than you need. With snacking, you eat until you are satiated rather than feeling the need to clear a big plate. Cha-ching: more pennies in your pocket.

Forget food safety

How to Road Trip on a Budget: Food

Well, kinda forget them. Some U.S. food guidelines are unique to our overprotective culture and can be disregarded (with some common sense; see below). Take eggs, for example. These fill you up, are cheap, and don’t need refrigeration — ask any farmer. Cheese? Same thing (up to several days). Some cultures even let raw meat sit out at room temp to let the flavor heighten. Neither I nor my travel companion got sick from raw meat that was out for 24 hours at room temp; we just made sure to cook it well.

Common sense tip: Make sure you’re not in Alabama in August when applying these trick and always strive to keep food as cool as possible and out of the sun; the trunk is a good spot or your car while you the air conditioning is on.

Rock Bottom Pricing

If you can find a dollar store that carries food, you can luck out with even lower prices by checking their closeout food section. These foods are still good but are nearing expiration.

To score the best prices in grocery stores, ask where their closeout items are (usually in a lower level of the refrigerated section and in racks in the back of the store. Outside of closeout, items on the lowest level in a store’s aisles are usually home to bargain brands.

And there’s no shame in dumpster diving. (Okay, there’s shame, but being on a budget demands pride sacrifices for the sake of bigger experiences.) My college buddies used to raid the Hostess Cupcake outlet bin on expiration day and kept on eating for a couple of weeks beyond the “Best by” date. And while I realize this isn’t a healthy example, you can replace Hostess with your non-perishable — and packaged — healthier food of choice.

Just keep in mind: Dumpster diving gets iffy real fast when you’re hoping for “fresh” produce.

Drink water.

You hear it all the time, but it’s easy to let a number of hours go by without drinking water when you’re on the road. Sometimes this is due to having stretches of rural road with no place to refill, or maybe the fast food chain you’re stopping at doesn’t take kindly to someone filling up on free water (I’ve been yelled at for taking water even after making a purchase. Stingy!).

Make life easy and get yourself a couple of large-capacity water storage containers so you always have hydration on hand. Trust me; on extended trips you’re gonna love ’em — especially on those never-ending desert sections of road. Look for containers that have a screw on lid (or at least are reversible to avoid spills) and that are puncture resistant (hard plastic).

Ready for more? Head over to read Part III of the series: Stay Clean on the Road

Have more suggestions on eating healthy on a budget from the road? Lemme hear ‘em on Twitter via @ginabegin.

About the Author


Gina Begin

Although she’s a Florida girl, exploration called her away after the final bell of her high school career. Over the years, she has been consumed with skiing, climbing, kayaking, mountain biking and getting lost on back roads. When she's not playing the part of a photojournalist, Gina can be found collaborating with women worldwide through her nonprofit, Outdoor Women's Alliance, and working to improve her outdoor skills and wilderness safety certifications.