Food Budgets for China

14 Nov 2007

Friends planning to visit China always ask me how much they should budget per day for food, and I always give them the same very helpful answer: “it depends.” It depends mostly on: (1) how you want to eat, and (2) where you’ll be.

“How you want to eat” includes not only price range, but also type of food. If you’re in Shanghai (expensive!) and you want to eat good Western food (expensive!), you’re going to end up paying a lot (expensive + expensive). If you can eat all Chinese food (cheap!), and your vacation is to the forgotten corners of Shanxi Province (cheap!), you won’t spend much at all. Most travelers can manage a balance between the two. So with these two factors in mind, I give you my three simple budgets (the numbers are per person):

The Shoestring Budget

– 5 RMB breakfast
– 10 RMB lunch
– 20 RMB dinner

On this budget you’ll eat fine if you stick to cheap Chinese food. Shanghai will be a little tough, but you can still do it. You don’t have to eat street food all the time, but you can’t afford fancy restaurants. As for Western food, you can afford a McDonalds value meal for dinner, or maybe a cheap Taiwanese chain’s version of Western food, but not much else. You can also afford the cheapest cup of Starbucks coffee… for dinner.

For breakfast you’ll probably be eating at one of the little stands on the street. Just notice what Chinese people eat. Lunch is probably going to be some kind of cafeteria or small restaurant (look for the meals ending in , because they come with rice). Dinner will be a similar small restaurant.

The Modest Budget

– 10 RMB breakfast
– 20 RMB lunch
– 50 RMB dinner

This is not a hard budget to do. You can buy bread and juice and yogurt for breakfast. You can afford McDonalds for lunch if you must, and you can eat better dinners. You can also have a few cheap dinners to save up for a more lavish meal. (Obviously, eating Chinese is the way to go.)

This budget is also nice because it works out to a little over US$10 (damn you, falling US dollar!). I actually loosely follow this budget in my daily life here in Shanghai.

The Comfortable Budget

– 10 RMB breakfast
– 40 RMB lunch
– 100 RMB dinner

If you find everything in China “so cheap” and you have the money to spend, this should do it. You can’t afford all-you-can-eat buffets at the Radisson on 100 RMB, but if you eat cheap for several nights you can. If there are two of you, you can afford to eat at most places (even in Shanghai), provided you don’t go crazy (especially with the alcohol). If there are four of you eating Chinese-style (sharing the dishes), you can definitely have some really great dinners on this budget.

This only works out to about US$20.

A few final notes:

– If you’re planning on drinking a lot at these meals, that is not taken into account
– Eating in larger groups, especially for dinner, will get you more for your money
– I’m assuming a pretty modest breakfast, so if you eat a lot in the morning, you might have to adjust the figures

Enjoy!

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John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.

Comments

  1. What about the fat hedonist on expenses budget?

  2. Here in Beijing it’s very easy to have great quality meals for 25 or 30 rmb per person, not including alcohol. Unless you stick to Western food, trendy restaurants, or drink a lot, eating out is very affordable.

    Another thing about eating family-style Chinese: Usually the serving sizes are so abundant that you’ll have plenty of leftovers.

    And for the big spenders out there, even if you dine at top places like Jean-Georges or Whampoa Club, it’s still a fraction of what you would spend at similar places in the US or Europe.

  3. Woah, Shanghai really is expensive.

    In Chengdu, on a shoestring budget, dinner is probably 10-15RMB a person, but you could easily get an individual dish for just 6 or 7. Breakfast is 2-3rmb at most.

    And its all Sichuan food, too. So, it’s, like, better than the stuff in Shanghai and Beijing.

  4. Things get even cheaper if you’re willing to dip to the level of Chinese kuai4 can1, the stuff in those buffet plates that sits out before you eat it…it’s definitely an aquired taste, no pun intended, and you can get by for around 10 RMB a day……
    The other thing I should add to John’s breakdown of Chinese budgets, is that you will often pay more (for food which isn’t necessarily as good) if you are eating only at restaurants which have English menus and cater towards Westerners. Most of the cheap dives, don’t have English menus, and are thus somewhat unaccessible to those new to China, or inexperienced traveling. If you’re interested in trying out more of the local restaurants, and want be able to order the food, check out my site http://www.howtoorderchinesefood.com.

  5. very practical!

  6. It’s worth noting that if you regularly eat meals that cost 10 kuai or less, this blog will taunt you as an “I am so 老百姓” snob. So it’s probably worth moving up to at least a Modest food budget, just to avoid any potential humiliations.

  7. Good numbers – although I think the breakfast doesnt move on as much of a sliding scale as the rest – if you eat a “chinese” breakfast its pretty hard to get above 5 kuai even in shanghai, since bao-zi, hun-dun, jian-bing, and such just dont get that expensive, whether you eat in the street or a small restaraunt – since there aren’t any lavish places open for breakfast.

    But once you start looking at “western” breakfasts the prices jump, probably with the lowest above 10 kuai for something at one of the fast food chains (ugh) followed by 30 or so for a western style restaraunt and then anywheere north of that in a hotel – so the price scale for breakfast is rather different than for the rest of the means

  8. I don’t really like meat before noon, so breakfast means a lot of oatmeal. You can use it to “cut” a big box of $$$ cornflakes and make it last for ages.

  9. Street food also isn’t a bad choice for lunch or dinner. In Beijing I can get a very filling ròujiāmó, spilling over with pork, for 3.5 yuan. Or baozi, or jiānbǐng, or dumplings, for cheap.

  10. Very useful info. I really like the idea of trying a lot of street food. Are there any dos-and-don’ts with regards to avoiding any bad experiences with street-side snack vendors?

  11. shanxi or shanxi?
    I only eat egg rolls, fried rice and fortune cookies in China!Yikes!

  12. Ben
    Nice blog man!

  13. In Western China those numbers drop significantly. In my Gansu town (which doesn’t draw huge numbers of travelers but is in the Lonely Planet and sees tourists) me and foreign friends might spend 10-20 RMB each on an awesome Chinese dinner at a nice restaurant. A budget, and still quite good and certainly filling, meal would be more like 5 RMB per person or even less. I often eat Beef Noodles for lunch for 2.5 RMB. While traveling in Xinjiang for four weeks (which is more likely than Gansu to draw international visitors and is well worth the visit) I spent perhaps 20-30 RMB per day on food, total.

    To be honest I have not been impressed with the Chinese food in big cities. When my father and brother visited for two weeks they loved the food in Gansu, and became progressively disappointed as we moved further south or east and the food became more expensive.

  14. Liuzhou Laowai,

    I’ve never had the pleasure of being on the “fat hedonist on expenses budget” in China, so I can’t really talk about that…

  15. Jeffrey D,

    It’s worth noting that if you regularly eat meals that cost 10 kuai or less, this blog will taunt you as an “I am so 老百姓” snob. So it’s probably worth moving up to at least a Modest food budget, just to avoid any potential humiliations.

    So true (although not “this blog” necessarily…).

  16. Marco,

    Yes, I meant Shanxi, not Shaanxi.

  17. To clarify… I know you can eat really cheaply in many places in China, especially if you stick to street food, but the whole point of this was to give guidelines to visitors to China, many of whom are willing to be a little adventurous in their eating, but still pretty terrified of street food.

    Let’s face it, not every Westerner can just jump right into China’s 3 RMB noodles and meat-on-a-stick off the street three meals a day.

  18. I’ll add that working at a college, you can get cafeteria food — which is safe AND as cheap as street food. I spend about 3 RMB on breakfast, 5 on lunch and 7 on dinner here when I eat at the cafeteria. My full food cost is usually a bit more than that ’cause I make myself pasta dinners with cheese and eat a fair number of local desserts. But I’m sending most of my pay back to the US so I can keep my place there. I don’t especially feel like I’m slumming; my cost-of-living affords me the chance to go out from time to time, and buy nice bottles of imported wine and drink them in my pretty gargantuan apartment. In short, roughly the standard of living I enjoyed at home.

  19. I’ve met visitors who weren’t afraid of trying street food, especially those who come from street food-dominated places like NYC.

    Brendan, crowds of locals around a vendor is usually a good sign. Order what other people are ordering, even if there’s an extensive menu on display. Avoid touristy street food spots…usually way overpriced and have poor quality.

  20. People in the backwaters have lower food budgets, not just because the eating is cheaper, but because they don’t have access to the range of options that you have here in Shanghai. So yeah, you can eat in Chengdu for 10-15RMB, but you’ll be eating Chinese 24-7-365.

    And suggesting that ròujiāmó can be lunch or dinner… please, I know Beijing is full of starving artists but that’s going a little too far.

  21. Actually, Western food can be bought cheap here in Chengdu–some places a burger goes for as little as 8 or 10 rmb, and one place sells huge ones for just 15rmb. The better places are of course more expensive than (as are things other than burgers or sandwiches) but it is supposed to be a shoestring budget, after all.

  22. Ditto Kunming- an entree at a Western style cafe/restaurant near the university will set you back at most only 25 to 30 RMB per person, not including beer. A decent Chinese meal with a party of five or greater usually comes out to 10 RMB per person (including beer). There are also a lot of good little 会饭 joints offering a square meal for less than 10 (sans pijou) for solo travelers looking for decent Chinese food on the cheap.

  23. AppetiteforChina,

    Chinese people are always applying the “crowd” rule as a gauge for a restaurant’s deliciousness, but I think it’s a pretty sketchy metric. How do new restaurants break in? Maybe I’m just more of a rick-taker than the average Chinese person, but I like to try to be an early adopter for a good new restaurant.

  24. Totally true!
    I can say that even in cities like Beijing on a budget you may spend 10-15 RMB a day. And yes as others stated in remote areas 10-15 day can be enough for normal meals.
    And I absolutely adore Sichuan cousine, Yunnan food, Qinghai and Tibetan dishes!

  25. […] a dollar per meal. (For those interested, John at Sinosplice has a nice post that covers the costs of dining out in China with more […]

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