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Spring and summer are often the busiest travel seasons, with many families planning road trips and flights to sought-after destinations.
But amid all that adventure, it can be difficult to stay healthy if your meals come from airport lounges or roadside convenience stores.
How do you keep nutrition top of mind if you’re grabbing on-the-go snacks?
Or eating every meal at a restaurant?
Most people get in trouble when they’re gone for a week and they completely throw the diet out the window, said Kristi Veltkamp, RDN, registered dietitian nutritionist at Spectrum Health.
“We always think of eating out as a special treat,” she said. “So we tend to order whatever 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
If you’re eating out, it’s important to think ahead about what you might order.
Check menus online before committing to a restaurant and make sure they have healthy, delicious options.
“Focus on lean proteins, seafood and vegetables as sides as opposed to fried food,” Veltkamp said. “Save a special meal for a couple times on your trip—and limit deserts for a special occasion.”
If you’re on vacation and you think, “Oh, I don’t care—I’ll eat what I want when I’m away,” 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 holds true for healthy eating. If you come out of a situation where you passed on the burger or fries or even skipped desert, you’ll never think, ‘Oh, I wish I had overeaten.’”
Bottom line: You’ll always feel better if you make a good decision.
Remind yourself how you feel when 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 overly restrictive.”
If you’re in the car for hours on end, you’ll likely be stopping at a fast-food chain off the expressway. Let’s face it, there aren’t many options along highway overpasses.
But you can always find a decent option no matter where you go, Veltkamp said.
“You just need to look for it,” he said. “Most fast-food places have salads and offer sliced apples instead of French fries. Try grilled chicken sandwiches instead of a cheeseburger or a deli sandwich, versus something fried.”
Think about your sides, toppings and drinks, too.
“It is harder to get vegetables at a fast-food restaurant, so I always try to do a salad on the side or a broth-based soup if available,” she said.
Chinese restaurants offer many options with lots of vegetables and rice.
“A chicken and vegetable stir-fry with brown rice is a great way to get in some vegetables, and you’ll feel full, too,” she said. “You’re not going to avoid sodium no matter where you go when you’re on the road.”
Most of the things you find at gas stations can actually be purchased ahead of time at stores near your home. Bring them along for the trip.
Think trail mix, nuts, seeds or popcorn.
“I look for nut- and fruit-based options that have 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 and buy something, look for these items.
Hummus cups with pretzel chips are also a great option, Veltkamp said.
Some gas stations will even have cut vegetables like carrots and celery, all ready to grab and go.
“These will all be better options than other snacks you might run into at the gas station,” Veltkamp said.
She also recommends single-serving yogurt or lightly salted popcorn.
The cooler quandary
We’ve all been there. You step out of the car, stretch and wander into the gas station to find a nice cold drink.
But the choices are infinite—cooler after cooler featuring a variety of drink colors and bottle sizes, with varying amounts of sugar and calories.
Juices, teas, soda, sports drinks, and flavored waters. Which one is best?
Sports drinks offer many sugar-free options, but most people don’t even need them, Veltkamp said. They’re made for athletes and they come packed with extra sodium.
“I try to tell my patients to avoid artificial sweeteners if possible,” she said. “They can be an option to wean yourself off of sugary sweetened beverages, but are not good in the long run.”
When in doubt, water is always best.
“Bring a water bottle with a filter on it and refill 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. “Sparkling water and unsweetened teas are also fun, as they come in so many flavors.”
Battle of the bars
If you thought picking out a healthy drink was a challenge, wait until you get to the energy bar section.
“You might feel like you are making a healthy choice because the packaging claims extra protein or grains, but take a minute 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 granola bars will provide a nice serving of grains. Some, however, are full of dried fruit—or they have sweet candy weaved in.
“People think, ‘Oh a granola bar, it must be healthy,’” Veltkamp said. “But some have just as much sugar as a candy bar.”
Many of these items are also created for athletes. Read the nutrition label carefully and watch for added sugar and calories.
Set for success
Let’s face it—packing a cooler and having a plan before a long road trip is the best option.
You can restock 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
- Pouches of tuna
- Peanut butter or almond butter with fruit
- Roasted chickpeas or chickpea crisps
“The challenge of being on the road is sticking with balance,” Veltkamp said. “It’s easy to turn to carbs. I try to mix in protein and fiber to not just eat one type of food. Fruits and vegetables are the most important.”
These snacks can work for busy schedules, too.
Veltkamp recommends her patients try and pack some of these healthy snacks ahead of time and have a plan for the week.
“Most success with diet and nutrition comes down to planning,” she said. “People tend to make poor decisions in the moment if they are not prepared. So just don’t put yourself in that spot.”