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Two grocery bags hanging off bicycle handlebars

I didn’t grow up learning how to cook. Between my mother’s home-cooked meals, dining at restaurants, and McDonald’s, I never had to learn how to prepare my own food. The college dining hall didn’t prepare me any better for fending for myself. As a result, I became an adult with very limited skills in the kitchen, with exactly two meals I knew how to prepare that were worthy of serving to guests. Somewhere on my laptop’s hard drive is an aged spreadsheet where I recorded which meal I served to whom and when, so that if I should ever host them again, I wouldn’t feed them the same meal.

Then I started graduate school while working full-time. The long days of going right from my day job to night school meant packing a lot of meals. I knew I couldn’t rely on the same limited options every semester, so I set myself a New Year’s resolution: I would make at least one new recipe every week for the entire year with no repeats. I successfully completed that resolution, making seventy new dishes that year — but more important, I broke myself out of the rut of relying on the same recipes. Now I’m just as likely to buy random ingredients and Google what to do with them as I am to reproduce an old standby.

This was good news for me and for my friends, as I love feeding people. Whether I’m hosting Friendsgiving or baking brownies to share with co-workers, I enjoy this simple act of sharing something personal and ephemeral.

Food is meant to be prepared and shared at home!

On the road

Dining as a digital nomad isn’t quite the same. I’m not hosting many dinner parties these days: not all Airbnbs are suited for the occasion, and I’m not always in the company of friends to feed. In the first nine months of my journeys, I fed Andy and Debra in Syracuse in December, and Karen and Mark in Havre in June — that’s it.

But even when alone, I still need to eat! So what do I do for food on the road?

When I abandoned my residence in Massachusetts, I took nothing from my pantry with me: no canned goods, no spices, nothing. Nor did I take any kitchenware. It was impossible to predict what I’d need or what my Airbnbs would have.

Over the last nine months, here’s what I’ve needed, accumulated, and tried along the way.

Essential foodstuffs

The longer I stay in one place, the more food I acquire. And when I have an Airbnb to myself, I’m able to build a little pantry, which is comforting and makes me feel less transient. The only downside is I have to take it with me when I move to my next destination. It’s not uncommon for me to load my car with bags of flour, granola, olive oil, and pasta, with ice packs for my vegetables, cheeses, eggs, and butter. I can usually get from one Airbnb to the next in one long day of driving, though, so it’s not burdensome.

One thing I always planned to carry with me: spices. They’re expensive! And small. As I started cooking on the road, I bought what I needed. I’m now up to 24 spices, all of which fit neatly in a tote bag. For sources of spices, I like the corporate philosophy Penzeys, and I hear Badia is affordable, but usually I get whatever I can find locally.

A spice rack hanging off the inside of a cabinet door
Wars have been fought over these.

Having now been in Montana for almost three months, I’ve found the biggest challenge has been not having access to Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods, of which there are neither in the entire state. (In Massachusetts, I was a ten-minute drive from three Whole Foods and two Trader Joe’s.) But the absence of the familiar has pushed me to explore local stores and farmers’ markets, both of which are delightful. I may never have otherwise revisited my favorite strawberry-rhubarb pie recipe this week!

Still, I look forward to driving to Arizona later this month, which will take me through Salt Lake City, home of a Trader Joe’s. I plan to stock up on brand-name non-perishable essentials, including some sustainably produced toilet paper.

Cookware

When I first started nomading, if I needed some basic cookware, I would buy it then leave it at the Airbnb; I figured it’d be easier to rebuy it later than to travel with it in the meantime. But after a few stops, I got a sense for what I could expect Airbnbs to have as standard equipment, and repeatedly filling the same gaps became expensive. I now travel with an 8″ x 8″ baking pan, a glass pie plate, a loaf pan, and a cookie sheet.

Strawberry pie with ice cream
Pie > cake. Don’t @ me.
Photo by Jennifer Pallian on Unsplash

I wanted to keep this inventory to a minimum, but when the pandemic struck and dining out was no longer viable, I indulgently invested in a slow cooker. Many of my recipes call for this appliance, which lets me start a meal in the morning and have it ready when I finish work — or start breakfast before I go to bed and wake up to the smell of warm apples and cinnamon.

Word of mouth is that crockpots are so yesterday and that the new hot thing is the Instapot. But my research suggests that Instapots are more expensive, are more complicated to use, and cook faster — with that last point being exactly the opposite reason I wanted a crockpot!

Thrift stores

I spent three weeks in Durham, North Carolina, in a spare room hosted by a married couple who lived on-site. One night, I was preparing a dinner that called for specific measurements. I scoured their kitchen drawers but could not find any measuring cups or tablespoons. Wanting to get it right, I put the recipe off until the next night.

The next morning, I visited the local thrift store. These second-hand shops have almost every kitchen utensil imaginable: forks, knives, pots, pans, bowls, sheets. I bought a few basics for a fraction of the cost of getting them from the supermarket or from Amazon.

Finally, I was ready to cook my meal. I surveyed everything I’d set out: vegetables, cutting board, spices, pot — canned beans.

But no can opener.

I asked the Airbnb proprietor where they kept their can opener.

“Oh, we don’t eat any processed foods,” they disdainfully informed me.

Back to the thrift store I went. And now I travel with measuring cups, tablespoons, and a can opener.

(The next night, packaging from a frozen lasagna dinner was sitting atop their trash. Lies!)

College Accuse GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY

AnyList

I go shopping with my iPhone, equipped with the app AnyList, recommended via Twitter by my friend Sean. It has multiple features I rely on:

  • It has a complete database of grocery items, whether I’ve bought them before or not; I type “tom”, and it lists a dozen kinds of tomatoes (cherry, diced, sauce, sun-dried), all categorized into where I’ll find them in the grocery store (produce, canned foods, pasta).
  • Specific items can be marked as being found at certain stores (I like the crackers from Trader Joe’s, but the pickles from Whole Foods).
  • I can import any recipe from any website into its database, creating a personalized cookbook.
  • These local copies of those recipes can be adjusted based on my own experiences (more cayenne but less cook time, for example).
  • I can add those recipes to a calendar, helping me plan my week and reminding me what I bought those ingredients for in the first place!

It’s a pretty great app. I recommend it!

Restaurants

I thought I might find myself at restaurants more often, wanting to sample the local cuisine. Even before the pandemic, I found the contrary to be true. While I’m not opposed to treating myself to a dinner out, dining is often a social experience; and with no one to share my food with or even to show me which restaurants to go to, I didn’t dine out often.

Takeout has never been part of my routine, and it hasn’t become a regular one, even now that it’s no longer safe to eat in a restaurant. While I’ll sometimes get a pizza or tacos to go, or will grab a veggie burger from a food truck, I’m more likely to use the website Give Local to find restaurants that sell online gift cards I can send to friends. That way, I can support both the food service industry and my friends (especially single/working parents) without changing my eating habits.

A food truck with chalkboard menu
Streatery of Havre, Montana

But bakeries, I’ll always make an exception for. Fresh bread, blueberry scones, and maybe the occasional raspberry danish? Yes, please!

A bakery display of cookies
The Infinity Bake Shop of Havre, Montana

Meal kits

I’ve tried HelloFresh, Green Chef, Daily Harvest, Blue Apron, and other meal-delivery services. While I won’t say no to a free trial (especially during a pandemic), I overall can’t justify the expense or packaging.

Prepackaged meals from Daily Harvest
Tiny expensive food

Staying fed

While there was a definite learning curve, now I find myself shopping, cooking, and eating just like I did in my own home. The brands I buy and the shelves I put them on may vary city to city, but I’m still cooking new and familiar recipes. Wherever I go, I don’t go hungry.

(Photo by Guus Baggermans on Unsplash)

How have your eating habits changed during the pandemic? Let me know in the comments!

Ken Gagne

Digital nomad, Apple II geek, vegetarian, teacher, cyclist, feminist, Automattician.

2 Replies to “Food for the digital nomad”

  1. If I had to choose just one cooking appliance, it would be my Instant Pot; only because of its versatility. However, I’d also have to adjust my cooking to accommodate it. Since it isn’t all that big, cooking sometimes has to be done in stages, so temporary storage bowls are a must, too. I wouldn’t plan on cooking for a banquet, but for a small number of people the Instant Pot can work. That being said, I don’t think I’d travel too far without a good skillet/frying pan.

    Maybe what you really need is a more nomad-friendly vehicle that has some storage space for cooking supplies. And, if it’s big enough, it could also serve as an emergency overnight shelter, too!

    1. Fortunately, my Airbnbs have provided good pans and skillets… though where I am now, I did need to buy a blender, colander, and mixing bowls!

      I’ve considered a larger vehicle, but it wouldn’t be economical. What I could do is add some Thule storage to my roof — it wouldn’t serve as an emergency shelter, but it would empower me to travel with more cooking staples.

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