Summer vacation is just around the corner! For many families, it’s the start of camping trips and vacations, many of which we do on the road. For military families, like mine, this is the transfer season, which means packing up your life and moving on to your next adventure. Eating healthy on the road can be a challenge for everyone, and I’ve learned some things I think can help you. At the end of this post, you’ll find an easy-to-use checklist for what to pack in your car and a tips list for healthier restaurant dining.
Last summer, my family embarked on a 2900-mile move cross-country due to military transfer. We spent 12 days on the road, my husband and son (plus our cat, pet lizard, and a bucket of pet fish!) in the U-haul loaded with all our belongings, my daughter and I in our truck. I learned some things during that trip, and even more on much shorter road trips since – about how food affects my energy and everyone’s mood, how frustrating it is when everyone in the car is ‘starving’ and there’s no sign of relief (restaurant or grocery store) in sight, and how common it is for truck-stop restaurants in the Middle of Nowhere, USA to offer nothing but greasy/processed foods. One I recall vividly, somewhere in Texas (though honestly, I can’t remember exactly where in that enormous state, which seemed we would NEVER get through!). The only thing on their menu that wasn’t fatty & fried was oatmeal, and the only thing they had to put on it was brown sugar. There was no fruit, not even raisins, anywhere in that place. Luckily, I had stash in the truck which I brought in to add to our breakfast!
I’ve also learned how easy it is to pack on the pounds while driving and living on restaurant food for nearly 2 weeks, even when I made every effort to make healthy food choices during our trip.* Restaurants seem to use some type of sick magic to pack way more fat, sugar, sodium, and calories into their dishes than you’d ever expect to find lurking there. Many hotels offer the ‘value’ of free breakfasts, but they often provide nothing more than sugary, super-refined pastries and cereals. In the past, we’ve found that when we relied solely on these, we’ve had to stop within a couple of hours to eat again, because we hit the sugar crash and empty-gut feeling these foods cause.
Usually, we’ll take advantage of hotel breakfasts when they offer real oatmeal & fruit, eggs, and/or yogurt, and we supplement with our own supply of whole grain muffins or pancakes (see ‘Cooler’ below). For lunch, we’ll stop at a ‘Rest Stop’ and have sandwiches, fruit, veggies, pasta salad, etc. We try to limit our restaurant meals to once a day at dinner. An added bonus to eating lunch at rest stops is that instead of being confined to a restaurant chair after just escaping the confines of their car seats, the kids can run around and play in the grass while we get lunch put together, and we all get some fresh air and a much needed break from sitting! Even with playing and making our own lunch, it doesn’t take any longer than getting off the freeway, deciding on a restaurant, waiting to order, waiting for our food, eating, waiting to pay, etc. – sometimes it’s actually faster!
On a trip longer than 4-5 days, plan on stopping at a grocery store to restock fruits, veggies, etc., or take advantage of roadside produce stands. Obviously, at the point where your homemade foods have run out (pancakes, muffins, pasta salad, etc.), adjustments need to be made, like relying more on whole grain bagels, yogurt, fruit or hotel/restaurants for breakfast & sandwiches, wraps, veggies, green salad for lunch.
Now that I’ve learned how to save lots of money and tons of time, in addition to eating even healthier while we’re on the road, I’m sharing these tips in the hopes they can help you out during your next road trip adventure, wherever it may be! Feel free to use as many or few as you need, and remember, these lists are not exhaustive! I’m sure there are more helpful items I haven’t mentioned here, and I’d love to hear from you! Do you have a favorite travel healthy eating tip to share? Let’s help each other out with our knowledge and experience!
For the Car/Hotel:
-Cutting board & sharp knife
-Paper plates, plastic utensils
-Reusable plastic cups (1 per person, rinse with water after use & wash at rest stop or hotel)
-Paper towels or napkins
-Peanut butter & whole wheat bread
-Trail mix (mixed nuts and dried fruit – raisins, cranberries, cherries, apricots, cranberries, etc.) – avoid chocolate as it can create a melty mess inside the bag or on kids’ hands
-Protein bars or granola bars
-Whole wheat crackers
-Granola (click here for info and a link to my e-book “Eat to Beat Stress” which includes my favorite granola recipe)
-Fruit leather (100% fruit)
-Microwave popcorn (fun nighttime snack in the hotel)
-Bottled water & 100% juice pouches or cans (V8 or V8 Fusion; Capri Sun Super-V or 100% juice) – avoid juice boxes, which get mushy when the ice starts to melt
-Fruit – apples, oranges, grapes, or Ziploc baggies of cut melon, mango, kiwi, etc.
-Veggies – carrot & celery sticks, mini bell peppers (or bell pepper strips)
-Yogurt cups or squeeze tubes (Stonyfield Farm has no HFCS or artificial flavors/sweeteners)
-100% fruit jelly or preserves
-Pasta salad (make 1-2 days ahead and keep in sealed container in cooler up to 4 days)
-Ziploc baggies of frozen pancakes, muffins, or quick breads (click the links for free recipes on this website you can try now, or click here for info about my e-book “The Family Table Cookbook- Whole Grain Pancake & Baking Mix: 30+ Recipes/ONE Easy Mix”)
Make ahead, then throw frozen foods into cooler right before you leave – these will thaw in the first 1-2 days and need to be used within the first 4-5 days of your trip)
More often than not, full service restaurants have items that are not listed on the menu and staff is happy to accommodate your requests, so don’t be afraid to ASK! I promise, I worked as a waitress for a number of years, and people do this all the time. Your server should be happy to help you!
-Avoid fried or nutritionally void ‘kid menu’ items. Instead, order a meal from the regular menu and split it for the kids or an ala cart item with a couple of sides, like veggies, salad, soup, half sandwich, etc. (This seemed more expensive to my husband and I at first, until we realized that for about the same price as 2 kids meals, we could get one adult meal and a side (like an extra salad or fruit cup) AND because the adult menu portions are bigger and the items we choose are more nutritious, they’re also more filling, alleviating the kids’ want to eat again within the hour after we get back into the car, so less time/money spent on stopping or munching snacks!)
-If you do order from the kids menu, request grilled chicken or fish instead of fried
-Choose steamed veggies, salad, fruit, baked sweet potato, or cottage cheese instead of fries
-Go for complex carbs over fried foods and simple carbs (Examples: Oatmeal or whole grain pancakes with fruit instead of hash browns or white-bread French toast with syrup – breakfast; Brown rice, beans, or sweet potato instead of French fries or chips – lunch or dinner)
-Choose lean protein over fried/fatty meats (Example: grilled chicken or fish instead of bacon, cheeseburgers, or chicken strips)
-Request to have dressings and sauces served on the side
-At fast-food restaurants, choose from their healthier options, like fruit/yogurt/granola parfaits, salads, grilled chicken (on salad or in a sandwich), and fruit cups.
*For info about the super convenient, easy-mix nutritional supplement/meal replacement shake that I now take on the road with me to help avoid weight gain and minimize cravings, e-mail me at info@LeahBorski.com
Please remember to comment below and share your favorite tips for eating healthy on the road!