Here’s how international travel taught me to save money on food

That’s me, escaping to Hogwarts because America is on some BS right now.

I’ve traveled a lot during the past few years, thanks to a surprising number of technology and appliances trade shows that I cover for CNET. But don’t let the increased number of stamps on my passport fool you: I’m still cheap AF. Hunting for food on an international level has made me double down on my “filet mignon taste, dollar menu budget” motto, especially when I’m in places where that dollar doesn’t stretch as far as I’d like.

What’s fascinating about food culture on an international level is that a lot of the same tricks you can use to find good, cheap food in the US apply to other countries. Here are some tips to take along with you on your next vacay:

Trust the locals. Last year in Berlin, one of my co-workers walked up to some strangers on the street while we were on the hunt for dinner.

“Do you speak English?” Andrew asked.

“Yes,” they said.

“Where’s a good place to eat around here?”

Burgermeister ranks in the top 5 best burgers I’ve ever had. So simple, so great.

That bold-to-me/natural-to-Andrew exchange led us to Burgermeister, a former public toilet that’s been converted to one of the best damn hamburger joints I’ve ever encountered. Sure, we might’ve eventually found Burgermeister on the internets, but having a local co-sign on the deliciousness affirms food choices. Don’t feel like you have to walk up to random folks on the street, though (notice it was Andrew, not me). Ask around on your social networks to see if you know someone who knows someone who lives in your travel destination.

It’s OK to deviate from your original plans. While I was in Berlin this year for IFA, I told Jon, a colleague from CNET’s London office, that I was about to visit his city soon. His advice when it came to food was to find a pub in which to have a Sunday roast and make sure the meal comes with Yorkshire pudding. Unbeknownst to him, I’d already made reservations for a Sunday roast at a restaurant that looked like it would be right at home on East Market Street here in Louisville. “Any pub worth its salt will have a proper Sunday roast,” he said.

My British Sunday roast — half a chicken, veggies, a Yorkshire pudding and gravy. Lots and lots of gravy.

Taking my own advice to trust the locals, I canceled the reservation at the fancy restaurant and found a pub. The meal was simple, hearty and delicious, and it came with a cheaper price tag than my first option.

Hole-in-the-walls are the best. We all know there’s a difference between a place that’s a little shabby versus a place that looks to be violating about a dozen or more health codes. Some of the best food I’ve had on international trips have been in pubs, out-of-the-way cafés and family-owned restaurants that I would’ve missed if I’d been staring at my phone.

Carry snacks to fight off hanger. Listen: Hanger is real, and it is vicious. That’s why I always pack snacks. Yes, I have the purse of a much older woman, but you better believe I keep an emergency Snickers bar on hand. This will save you if it takes a little longer to get to your next meal than you anticipated, and it will keep you from biting the head off your travel partner.

Save money by eating breakfast in your hotel or rental. My husband had the foresight to buy a box of Kellogg’s Fruit ‘n Fibre (two of my favorite things) and milk to keep in our Airbnb. This kept us fed on the days when we weren’t ready to head out super early to find food. Consider some light grocery shopping so you can eat a few meals back at your spot during your trip.

Don’t feel guilty for eating McDonald’s. Sometimes, you’re going to find yourself in a pickle, specifically, hungry and snack-depleted. It’s OK to pop into an American fast-food restaurant for something to hold you over.

Bits and pieces: Happy Meals, colorful cauliflower and other food news from the web, 8.1.11

  • Starting in September, McDonald’s will add a serving of fruit or vegetable and reduce the portion of french fries in Happy Meals. The company is making the changes in response to criticism from health groups and parent organizations about the nutritional value of Happy Meals. When I was a tike, I had a cardboard box full of Happy Meal toys from all the Happy Meals I ate. Yes, I was a chubby kid. (LA Times)
  • A group of scientists say that drinking wine could help prevent sunburn. Like I needed another reason to make a pitcher of sangria. (The Telegraph)
  • One in six people change their order when a fast-food restaurant menu includes calorie count. But folks only reduce their intake by about 44 calories, the equivalent of one McNugget. (MSNBC)
  • A supermarket chain in the United Kingdom is selling cauliflower in colors like purple, yellow and green to get kids to eat more veggies. I don’t care what color you make it — I am a cauliflower hater. Yuck. (Daily Mail)

Bits and pieces: Ronald McDonald, coffee and other food news from the web, 5.23.11

  • Is Ronald McDonald a nice ol’ clown representing a big company, or is he just an example of predatory marketing that encourages kids to eat unhealthy food? Some people thinks it’s time to retire Ronald, but McDonald’s has decided to stand by its man. (NPR)
  • Coffee (or nectar of the gods, as I like to call it) can actually make you healthier. Where’s my cup? (The Atlantic)
  • I’m all for taking risks with fashion, but I’m not sure about a pizza beret. (Best Week Ever)
  • A cat-food brand has created iPad games for cats. Let the cuteness commence. (Gizmodo)
  • Chefs Eric Ripert and Tom Colicchio made a cameo on HBO’s Treme last night. I don’t have the channel, but I hear the show is fantastic. (Eater)

McDonald’s has made oatmeal a hot topic. Here’s how to make your own.

Photo courtesy of nate steiner via Flickr.

It took two minutes and three ingredients for my fiancé to change the way I look at breakfast.

It was a cool February morning. We were hungry and chilly and needed some food that would stick to our bones.

Rob removed a carton of Aldi-brand oatmeal from my cabinet. Then he showed me how real grown ups eat a proper breakfast.

Oatmeal has had its place on my kitchen shelves in every apartment in which I’ve lived. But oatmeal was just an item I needed on hand to whip up a batch of oatmeal-raisin cookies when the mood struck me. Occasionally I would by bags of the pre-flavored oatmeal that’s quick and easy to prepare when you’re in a hurry. But I never looked at those rolled oats in the cardboard carton as food with which I could satisfy my urges to get creative in the kitchen.

Rob got to pouring and measuring and stirring. Less than five minutes later, I was eating a bowl of hot oatmeal with raisins, cinnamon and brown sugar. This humble bowl of oatmeal was the beginning of my adoration of this bastion of fiber.

Oatmeal has become my go-to breakfast. It’s a blank canvas that waits for your personal touches. It’s easy, quick and cheap. It keeps you full until lunch. In a word, oatmeal is wonderful.

Recently, McDonald’s and a couple of oat-loving food writers have brought oatmeal to the front of internet food conversation.

Food columnist Mark Bittman just wrote a widely read article for the New York Times condemning McDonald’s oatmeal, which he said has been altered so much by the fast-food giant that the dish has more sugar than a Snickers candy bar. Bittman’s piece prompted a response from Tom Chiarella at Esquire Magazine based on his own experiences at the restaurant that defends the chain’s oatmeal.

While you decide if McDonald’s has bastardized oatmeal or brought a healthier option to the masses, why not make your own? It takes only two steps:

  1. Follow the directions on the carton of oatmeal. If you use milk instead of water (which is what I do), watch your oatmeal closely and stir often because it can easily bubble over the pot or bowl.
  2. Add your favorite ingredients.

Here’s a breakdown of some possible additions to oatmeal. Choose something from each category and make your own combinations.

  • Something sweet: Sugar, brown sugar, sugar substitute, honey, syrup
  • Something crunchy: Nuts (walnuts, pecans, etc.)
  • Something fruity: Dried fruit (raisins, golden raisins, Craisins, etc.), mashed banana, chopped apple, applesauce
  • Something flavorful: Cinnamon, nutmeg

Do you have your own oatmeal combination? Share the knowledge in the comments.

Can government take away my Happy Meal?


As a Star Wars fan, I'm digging this Happy Meal. Photo courtesy of jasonippolito via Flickr.

I spent years collecting the toys from McDonald’s Happy Meals in a cardboard box.

It was no coincidence that I was also a chubby child.

Now, one city has taken action to curb the McDonald’s tradition of including toys in Happy Meals to market fast food to kids.

San Francisco’s board of supervisors gave final approval this week to an ordinance that will ban fast-food restaurants from including toys with children’s meals that do not meet nutritional guidelines, which puts McDonald’s Happy Meals in the crosshairs, according to an article in the San Francisco Chronicle.

From the article:

The ordinance, which would go into effect in December of next year, prohibits toy giveaways in fast-food children’s meals that have more than 640 milligrams of sodium, 600 calories or 35 percent of their calories from fat. The law also would limit saturated fats and trans fats and require fruits or vegetables to be served with each meal with a toy.
Health advocates are thrilled that this ordinance will help fight childhood obesity. Other folks, including San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom and McDonald’s franchise owners, object to the board regulating what children eat.
My view? Bravo to the board for calling McDonald’s out for peddling junk to kids. I’ve seen parents (mine included) buckle under tantrums from their kids and buy burgers and fries for the family. But the city needs to lead some efforts to teach parents about healthy eating and ensure that families have access to affordable, healthy food. I work in an area where it’s easier to get a Happy Meal than an orange. Something has got to change on both ends to make this ordinance work.
What do you think? Should a government group be allowed to regulate what a fast-food restaurant can offer kids? Take it to the comments.

Bits and pieces: McDonald’s weddings, hangover cures and other food news from the web, 10.26.10

  • Can honey help a hangover? How about rubbing lemon on your armpit? The Chicago Tribune provides a handy-dandy slideshow that debunks and confirms alleged remedies to hangovers. After a weekend of hanging with photographers at Mountain Workshops in Elizabethtown, I learned the best cure for a hangover is just not to drink at all. I’m still reeling.


  • As a kid, I enjoyed spaghetti sandwiches – a pile of Mama Eats’ spaghetti smashed between two slices of white bread. Now spaghetti tacos are a hit among the kid crowd, according to an article in the New York Times. The dish was featured on the show iCarly and sent tweens into a tizzy to recreate it.


  • Love McDonald’s as much as your significant other? If you live in Hong Kong, you can get married in the fast-food restaurant. According to an article in The Independent of London, Hong Kong McDonald’s locations will begin offering on-site wedding packages next year that include your choice of a wedding cake, made of apple pie or burgers. “People said they’d dated here, or met here, and wanted to get married here … We see this as a business chance,” said Helen Cheung Yuen-ling, McDonald’s Hong Kong director of corporate communications and relations.


  • Halloween has become good business for American farmers, according to an article in the Wall Street Journal. From the article:

Looking to diversify their sources of income, small farmers are expanding their “agritourism” or “agri-tainment” operations beyond the traditional pumpkin-picking, hayride and petting zoo. They’re erecting haunted mansions, dizzying corn mazes and other elaborate attractions on their properties. In some cases, they convert them into holiday spectacles and other themed exhibits to keep visitors coming for a longer season.