How to eat on a budget in French cities

Update 6/3/2019: I spent about 8 weeks in Lyon summer and fall of 2018, and I do stand by what I’ve written below with the note that you have to be very organized to stay within this budget. I got a little out of control…

Though I still don’t feel like it, sometime within the last few years, I became a traveler (a little baby amateur traveler, but I’m growing!). Looking around at other people’s Instas, it’s easy to feel like I never go anywhere—or hardly ever so, but the last time I went through customs, the officer looked over my passport entries and declared, “You’ve been some places!” Glorious validation.

So it’s with this awesome authority as a Traveler that I pass on a few ideas for eating cheap, or at least making your meal budget stretch, while abroad. I’m focusing this article on Paris and Lyon as that’s where I was last, but a lot of these tips can easily be used elsewhere in Europe and beyond.

First and foremost, the best rule of thumb for eating affordably anywhere is to eat like a local, and, yes, this does mean you will have to do a moderate amount of cooking/preparing yourself. Do a little research ahead of time to see where locals prefer to shop (super market vs grocery vs open air markets), and head there to check out the selection. In Paris and Lyon, you are more likely to find smaller grocery markets, like Carrefour and Franprix, than the supermarchés, and there are tons of independent shops with a more than adequate selection for travelers. Monoprix is a chain similar to Target that has also has smaller versions called Monop’ (and sells my favorite pocket tissues—they are so cheap and good!).

Side note:  If you are in Lyon, you have to go to Les Halles, non-negotiable. Along with the overwhelming amount of delicious specialty food stalls, you can also find high-quality restaurants perfect for trying traditional French dishes like escargot and quenelle. Not a cheap option, but it’s worth the splurge, and I feel like I’ll be in big trouble if I don’t mention it.

Ok, getting back on track, here’s what I’ve done to save money, broken down by meal.

Breakfast

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Photo by Olia Gozha on Unsplash

Breakfast is so easy. A typical French breakfast consists of baguette, butter, and a little confiture (jam) or honey, and that’s it. I need a little more protein/stable energy to start my day, so I also pick up a four-pack of plain yogurt and bananas.

Alternatively, one of the treats/advantages to being in Paris/Lyon is that you can have breakfast to-go at a patisserie! I like to find patisseries where you can sit and sip your café au lait and look at all the beautiful, buttery pastries in the case while you tear into a flaky croissant, but these seem to be on the rarer side, so plan on having a nice morning walk if you want to do the same.

Shopping list:

  • Baguette
  • Butter
  • Confiture
  • Honey
  • Yogurt, 4-pack
  • Bananas or seasonal fruit

À la patisserie:

  • Café (espresso)
  • Croissant

Budget:  Around €10-13 invested up front, but the butter and confiture/honey will probably last you your whole trip of 10-14 days, and you will only need to buy more yogurt twice-ish. If you are using the baguette for lunch and dinner, as you should, you will probably go through a whole loaf each day or every other day depending on the size you buy. If you live on the excessive side, you’re looking at spending a around €3 daily at home or €4 daily in patisseries over 14 days.

Lunch

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Photo by petradr on Unsplash

You may have read elsewhere that a great way to maximize your food budget is to eat your fancy meal at lunch instead of dinner because it’s the same food at a lower, “lunch” cost. This sounds reasonable, but I haven’t found it to be the case in Paris or Lyon. Also, you will probably be out at museums or sites around lunch, and, frankly, the food is generally not great or cheap around tourist attractions–and you definitely don’t want to be wandering around looking for a decent place while you’re starving from all your touristing, only to be turned away because you don’t have a reservation.

Pack your lunch instead. You already have a baguette from breakfast, so fill what’s left of it with some ham, cheese, and cornichons (pickles), and take that baby on the road. Wrap it up well in case you’re going to a museum, where they may not let you bring in food—and they will definitely check your bag, 100%. You can also pick up an apple and chips at any market to round things out.

For the days when you just can’t be bothered to prep, you can usually find somewhat reasonable to-go sandwiches in boulangeries, and I would recommend picking it up in the morning on your way to wherever you’re headed for later. Salads, while a little pricier at around €10-11, are quite substantial and delicious in France, and you can easily make a meal out of just that at most cafés.

Shopping list:

  • Ham
  • Cheese
  • Pickles
  • Apple
  • Chips

Boulangerie or café:

  • Sandwich
  • Salad

Budget:  If you are the type of person who doesn’t get bored eating sandwiches everyday, you can probably get away with spending around €5/day (less if you’re a good shopper) preparing your own lunch. If you’re consistently eating out, you’re looking at something closer to €7-11/day, which is still not outrageous for vacation.

Dinner

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Photo by Nirzar Pangarkar on Unsplash

This will easily be the most difficult meal to stay on budget for, if that’s something you’re really attached to doing. Being a tourist is hard work! And Paris and Lyon are both extremely walkable, meaning you’ll probably be logging some serious miles on your health tracker. Indulging in a good dinner in France is a tourist experience in and of itself, so try to work this in at least a couple of times if you can, but for all the other nights, you can’t go wrong with a good salad and simple pasta and seasonal veggies. French meals generally consist of salad course, main course, cheese course, and dessert course, so finish off that baguette with your cheese, and pick up some seasonal fruit or chocolate from the market for dessert.

When you don’t feel like cooking, pizza is a great budget dinner you can do for usually under €10. As a note, leftovers aren’t much of a thing, but if you’re a light eater, you could conceivably make some of your restaurant dinners stretch—I just wouldn’t count on this as a strategy.

Shopping list:

  • Lettuce/greens
  • Walnuts
  • Pasta
  • Tomatoes
  • Seasonal Vegetables
  • Olive oil
  • Seasonal fruit
  • Chocolate

Budget:  Probably around €5-12, depending on how expensive your tastes are. Dinner will be tough, but I believe in you!

All of these projected meal budgets are aggressive, to say the least, so you may want to add a little padding when planning out your trip, especially if you’re new to traveling. You may decide that the prep required just isn’t worth so many of your vacation minutes, and that’s totally fine–everything’s a trade off! Keep in mind that museums are much less expensive in Europe than in the US, parks are free, and some of your best experiences will be the ones you wander upon, unplanned.

Bonus Shoutout – Snacks!

From what I’ve observed, snacking isn’t really a thing in France the way it is in the US–you might even be shamed for it. But these are the same people that eat hamburgers with a knife and fork, so, you know.

If you know me as a real human person, you are probably already aware that I am in love with the junk food sections of foreign grocery stores and OBSESSED with international potato chip flavors. My friends, France does not disappoint. From comte and emmentaler to rotisserie chicken, the potato chip selection is très fancy. I especially recommend checking out the paprika Pringles (thanks, Esther!).

Grocery store chocolate is also very decent, and though it initially felt wrong to buy something I can get at home, I would even go so far as to say that they do Snickers better than we do. You should probably test that theory just to be safe. Be sure to also pick up the store-brand bars, or tablette de chocolat.

Bon appetite!

Bonus recipe

Not into sandwiches? Here’s a recipe for a quick and budget-friendly French-style salad that you can make anywhere, easily adapt to your own tastes, and will yield lots of leftovers. Great for lunch or dinner!


Simple French-ish Salad

  • Servings: 6 to 8
  • Difficulty: Easy
  • Print


Adapted from real life French people

Ingredients

    For dressing:
  • 3 TBSP vinegar of choice (balsamic or red wine recommended)
  • 1 TBSP dijon mustard
  • 1 cup extra virgin olive oil
  • (optional) 1-2 cloves minced garlic
  • Note: you can make this in smaller amounts if preferred using the ratio 1 part vinegar to 3 parts oil. For salad:
  • 1 can tuna or 1 small package tofu
  • 2 medium/large cucumbers, diced (sub zucchini if you don’t like cucumbers)
  • 1 medium red bell pepper, diced
  • 1/2 small/medium red onion, finely chopped
  • 1-2 medium/large tomato, diced
  • any additional vegetables of choice

Directions

  1. In a small bowl, mix dressing ingredients; set aside.
  2. Wash vegetables, chop or dice, and place in a large mixing bowl.
  3. Add in protein.
  4. Add in dressing in preferred amount (you will make more than you need) and toss.
  5. Store in refrigerator for up to 5-7 days.

We’d love to hear your suggestions, tips, and tricks for eating abroad on a budget in the comments sections!

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