Spring and summer are often the busiest travel seasons, with many families planning road trips and flights to sought-after destinations.
But in the midst of all that adventure, it can be hard to stay healthy if your meals come from airport lounges or convenience stores along the way.
How do you keep nutrition high when you grab on-the-go snacks?
Or eat every meal in a restaurant?
Most people get in trouble when they’re gone for a week and they throw the diet out the window completely, said Kristi Veltkamp, RDN, registered dietitian-nutritionist at Spectrum Health.
“We always consider eating out a special treat,” she said. “So we tend to order what sounds good. But we can’t do that every day or every time we eat out.”
She recommends making smart choices to avoid going overboard at every meal on vacation.
Make a plan
When dining out, it’s important to think ahead about what you might order.
Check menus online before going to a restaurant and make sure they have healthy, delicious options.
“Focus on lean proteins, seafood and vegetables as side dishes rather than fried foods,” Veltkamp said. “Save a special meal a few times during your trip — and limit deserts for a special occasion.”
If you’re on vacation and you’re like, “Oh, I don’t care — I’ll eat what I want when I’m gone,” it can be hard to get back on track when you get home.
“I tell people when they go to the gym, they always feel better afterwards,” Veltkamp said. “The same goes for healthy eating. When you come out of a situation where you passed the burger or fries or even skipped desert, you’ll never think, ‘Oh, I wish I had eaten too much.’”
In short: you will always feel better if you make a good decision.
Remind yourself how you feel if you don’t stay on track. And recognize that your health is important.
“But also keep in mind that you’re on vacation, and even maintaining your weight is a great goal,” she said. “Keep your expectations realistic and don’t be too restrictive.”
Fast food finesse
If you spend hours in the car, you’ll probably stop at a fast food chain along the highway. Let’s face it, there aren’t many options along highway overpasses.
But you can always find a decent option wherever you go, Veltkamp said.
“You just have to find it,” he said. “Most fast food restaurants have salads and offer sliced apples instead of chips. Try grilled chicken sandwiches instead of a cheeseburger or deli sandwich, versus something fried.
Also think about your side dishes, toppings and drinks.
“It’s harder to get veggies at a fast-food restaurant, so I always try to include a salad or a broth-based soup if available,” she said.
Chinese restaurants offer many options with lots of vegetables and rice.
“A chicken and veggie stir-fry with brown rice is a great way to get some veggies in, and it’ll make you feel full, too,” she said. “You’re not going to avoid sodium wherever you go when you’re on the go.”
Convenience store rate
Most things you find at gas stations can be pre-purchased at stores near your home. Take them on a trip.
Think of trail mix, nuts, seeds or popcorn.
“I look for nut and fruit-based options that contain less chocolate and less sugar,” Veltkamp said.
Nuts and seeds are a mainstay of convenience stores, but many locations also offer fresh fruits such as bananas and apples. If you have to stop to buy something, look for these items.
Hummus cups with pretzel chips are also a good option, Veltkamp said.
Some gas stations even have sliced veggies like carrots and celery, all ready to grab and go.
“These are all better options than other snacks you might find at the gas station,” Veltkamp said.
She also recommends single-serving yogurt or lightly salted popcorn.
The Cooler Dilemma
We’ve all been there. You get out of the car, stretch out and walk into the gas station to look for a nice cold drink.
But the choices are endless — cooler after cooler with a variety of drink colors and bottle sizes, with varying amounts of sugar and calories.
Juices, teas, sodas, sports drinks and flavored waters. Which is the best?
Sports drinks offer many sugar-free options, but most people don’t even need them, Veltkamp said. They are made for athletes and are packed with extra sodium.
“I try to tell my patients to avoid artificial sweeteners if possible,” she said. “They can be an option for cutting yourself off sugary, sweetened drinks, but aren’t good in the long run.”
When in doubt, water is always best.
“Take a water bottle with a filter on it and fill your bottle as you go,” she said. “It’s much cheaper than packing plastic water bottles and it’s better for the environment.”
She also suggests infusing your water.
“Bring some lemons, limes or cucumbers to make your water more interesting,” she said. “Fizzy water and unsweetened tea are nice too, because they come in so many flavors.”
battle of the bars
If you thought choosing a healthy drink was a challenge, wait until you get to the energy bar section.
“You may feel like you’re making a healthy choice because the packaging claims extra protein or grains, but take a moment to read the actual nutrition label,” Veltkamp said.
Aim for less than 6 grams of sugar and at least 3 grams of fiber in a healthy energy bar.
Most muesli bars provide a nice portion of grains. However, some are full of dried fruit — or have sweet candy woven into them.
“People think: ‘Oh a muesli bar, it must be healthy,’” said Veltkamp. “But some have as much sugar as a candy bar.”
Many of these items are also made for athletes. Read the nutrition label carefully and look for added sugars and calories.
Ready for success
Let’s face it: packing a cooler and having a plan for a long road trip is the best option.
You can refill ice at the hotel or gas station along the way.
Some of Veltkamp’s favorite road trip snacks:
- String cheese
- Hard boiled eggs
- Apples, oranges, carrots and celery
- Low-fat cottage cheese cups
- Tuna bags
- Peanut butter or almond butter with fruit
- Roasted chickpeas or chickpea chips
For additional inspiration, check out the healthy snack recipes offered by Spectrum Health Lifestyle Medicine.
“The challenge of being on the road is holding on to balance,” Veltkamp said. “It’s easy to switch to carbohydrates. I try to mix protein and fiber so as not to eat just one type of food. Fruits and vegetables are the most important.”
These snacks can also work for busy schedules.
Veltkamp advises her patients to pack some of these healthy snacks ahead of time and make a plan for the week.
“Most success with diet and nutrition comes down to planning,” she said. “People tend to make bad decisions at the moment if they are not prepared. So don’t put yourself in that place.”