Posted May 23, 2013 by Steve McDonald in Backpackology 101

Travel Tip #3: Saving Money on Food Costs & The Tupperware Gamble

OBLIGATORY DISCLAIMER: This week I’m going to bestow you with a controversial travel tip that will allow you to eat better while spending less, however it might also potentially kill you, maybe sort of a little.

Why would I encourage you, my beloved reader, to do something that might kill you? How could I be so horrendously negligent?

I don’t know, but if I were a levelheaded person with common sense, you probably wouldn’t find me very entertaining.


After the sixteenth bowl of Japanese miso ramen soup, something snaps in the wiring of your brain and henceforth your behavior becomes erratic and unpredictable. For budget backpackers in Japan, this dreadful fate is as inalienable as it is inescapable; restaurants meals are prohibitively expensive and so there is practically nothing else to eat.

When the mama-san handed me my twentieth miso ramen of the week, I nearly shot up in my chair and let out a blood-curdling scream. I fantasized slamming my face into the searing broth, until I drowned in its mundaneness or the skin of my face boiled off, in which case I’d happily eat that for breakfast with soy sauce instead.

But then I recalled a travel tip I’d been told by a friend years ago, when I was but a wee backpacker.

At 27 years old, my friend Rachel had already explored most of the globe. Instead of flaunting wealth, she earned her mileage by becoming a shrewd and thrifty traveler, cultivating a repertoire of creative money-saving tricks. I remembered her telling me a strategy for expensive destinations like Japan or Europe, where a single lunch bill might set you back three or four days worth of budget in India. We’ll refer to this strategy as “The Tupperware Gamble.”

It’s a simple concept, requiring no more than a small Tupperware box stashed into your daypack.

How it works is that, instead of pondering suicide over cheap bowls of miso ramen, you’re able to order more expensive, substantial, and decadent meals, eat half of them for lunch, and then save the other half for dinner in the Tupperware. These two half-meals are supplemented by cheap and rampant snacking (fruit, street food, etc.). It works wonderfully; you spend less and feel like you’re eating better.

The only downside is that it could potentially kill you…

If you try to run a Google search for “how long can food be left unrefrigerated,” brace yourself for an Internet avalanche of fear. You’ll come across sensational terms like “The Danger Zone” (the range between 41-135°F wherein bacteria flourishes) or “The Four Hour Golden Rule,” which warns that at the stroke of the fourth hour, the pumpkin pie sitting on your counter will transform into a festering mound of rat poison and botulism.

It’s an undeniable fact that food left at room temperature is susceptible to dangerous bacteria (especially in warmer climates). Health bloggers love bringing up the story of “the kid in Japan who died after eating day-old rice.”

But this is clearly an isolated instance. How many people in Japan do you think ate day-old rice on that same day without issue? How many people have eaten day-old rice since? And why would they keep citing that same story if this isn’t an extremely rare occurrence?

Again, it’s true that eating unrefrigerated food from a tupperware carries risk, but it might also be true that we live in a big, paranoid, bed-wetting circle jerk of pussy-fisted wussies. The Four Hour FDA rule is a very conservative number by any stretch of the imagination, with an additional safety margin added for precaution. If you’ve ever enjoyed street food in Asia, a pre-packed lunch from the grocery store, or anything from a Subway franchise: congratulations! You’ve probably eaten food that’s been left out for 8+ hours and you’ve lived to tell the tale.

However, health bloggers and FDA officials are practically shitting their pants over the thought of cold pizza.  I suspect they’re being overly cautious, or perhaps every contributing writer to every single food and lifestyle website has hardcore AIDS or an autoimmune issue.

My personal threshold for the Tupperware Gamble is fifteen hours, though this is shortened for some foods (especially meat, fish, and dairy) and stretched for others. If I only learned one thing in college it’s that pizza never goes bad, ever. On the contrary, it’s like wine—it gets better and better the longer it’s been peeking at you from the counter. If you want to know if pizza has gone bad, you just hit it against the counter and see if it shatters into tiny pizza fractals. Otherwise, it’s fair breakfast. I don’t know what the microbial pathogens are doing to my body, but it sure is tasty.

But anywho. You probably won’t die from eating cold food out of a Tupperware.  Just use your best judgment. Or you can trust mine. I am a doctor.

For more indispensible advice, head on over to the Backpackology 101 page, or hit the Travel Advice tab in the menu above.


For another solid budgeting tool, feast your eyes on my extra fancy “Budgetometer

For a foodie’s guide to eating in India on the cheap, check out “Inhaling India (A Diarrhea Adventure): A Foodie’s Guide to India on a Budget

To learn why traveling on a shoestring is often more rewarding and enriching than traveling with cushy budget, read “The Backpacker’s Manifesto


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Steve McDonald

Writer and photographer. Adventurer and didactic prick. Guru of globetrotting, sensei of savings. PhD in ADHD. Staunch opponent of the mundane. Avid fan of sunrises, playing with fire, and pretending to know what I’m talking about. Casual existentialist. Bus stop gypsy. Dirty jeans, plastic sunglasses, whimsical death wish. Rudyard Kipling on mushrooms. Smells of goat.