By Suzanne Watkins, MS, RD, LD, CNSC, Samaritan Albany General Hospital
It’s finally summer, and nothing quite says summer like a road trip. Not keen on breaking that healthy meal plan you’ve adopted? That’s ok. A road trip does not mean you have to cut corners on eating healthful foods, though it does take some planning ahead. Whether you bring your own food or are relying on food along the way, there are ways you can stay healthy and feel good during your road trip.
Bring Your Own Food
If you have time to prepare for your trip, the healthiest (and likely most cost-effective) option is to pack your own meals and snacks. This requires some meal planning and problem solving to keep your cold foods cold. Remember, to prevent food-borne illness, foods need to be stored at temperatures less than 40 degrees Fahrenheit. Foods like cheese, yogurt, mayonnaise, milk, eggs, meat and fish are especially important to keep cool – pack those right next to the ice. Veggies and fruit can be around the perimeter since being in a cooler will help them last longer, but aren’t as essential to keep cold.
Buy a cheap refrigerator thermometer to keep in your cooler and monitor the temperature. Food in a cooler with adequate ice can generally stay cold about two days before you need to replace the ice. Keep ice in a sealed bag so the moisture doesn’t get into your food as the ice melts, which can spoil the food. You can also try a plug-in cooler that is designed for using in the car. However, these can be less effective when the car is off so you’ll likely need to take everything into your hotel room fridge each night.
Meal Ideas to Pack
Having regular, structured meals during the day will help you plan for a day of healthful eating.
Start the day right with some healthy and filling options. Choose foods that have a high nutrient profile, high protein and don’t require a lot of cleanup.
- Hard boiled eggs. Leave these in their shell until the day you’re ready to eat them.
- Homemade egg bites.
- Homemade whole wheat blueberry muffins.
- Bagels and cream cheese.
- Overnight oats. These don’t require any cooking and can be topped with chopped apples, nuts, berries or cinnamon.
- Fresh fruit like oranges, bananas, apples or grapes. Buy applesauce packs for kids if it’s easier.
Lunch & Dinner
Keep it simple – it’s ok to lean into sandwiches and wraps. If you’ll be on the road multiple days, precut veggie fillings and keep them in separate containers, and pack small jars of peanut butter and jelly to make your lunch fresh each morning.
- Cheese, crackers and veggies.
- Classic sandwich. Peanut butter and jelly or ham and cheese, pick your favorite.
- Wraps. You can think of them like an updated sandwich or a hearty salad that’s easy to eat while driving since it’s wrapped in a tortilla. Cold rotisserie chicken or sliced deli meat, hummus, cheese, lettuce, veggies, and a little ranch or vinaigrette dressing make a filling meal. Try a cilantro lime tuna wrap or a grown-up almond butter and banana wrap (trust me on this).
- Pita and hummus. Pitas and wraps are great on a multi-day road trip because they are sturdier and less likely to be squished than bread.
Let’s admit it, road trips are all about the snacks. Eating while you drive can help keep you awake, but that also means you want to have healthy snacks on hand so it’s easy to make healthful decisions.
- Pack snack bags with fresh veggies: carrots, cucumber, cherry tomatoes, baby carrots or sugar snap peas. You can buy single-serving ranch or hummus dippers, too.
- Trail mix and nuts. Caution here – overeating these are so easy. Prepare ½ cup portions of nuts and trail mix into snack baggies so you know when to slow down.
- Popcorn. Air pop your own and add whatever seasonings you want. Try smoked paprika, nutritional yeast or cinnamon.
- Granola bars or energy balls. Some store-bought granola bars are more like candy bars, so be mindful of that nutrition label. You can also make your own.
- Cheese and meat sticks.
- Chickpea “nuts.”
Keep plenty of water on hand. To spice it up, bring sparkling water. Try and limit sugar-sweetened beverages like gas station cooler ice teas to avoid those empty calories. Drinks with caffeine like cola and coffee can make you have to stop to use the bathroom more often. Water is a good choice for kids, too. They tend to drink juice quickly, which can increase the number of bathroom stops you’ll need to make.
Eating Along the Way
Planning on stopping by some restaurants, or picking up food on the way? Your healthy meal plan is not lost.
The biggest thing you can do to ensure you choose healthy food choices at restaurants is to plan ahead. Lucky for us, it’s the 21st century. Menus and nutrition facts are posted online for most establishments, including fast food restaurants. Look at the menu online and plan your meal before you are hungry to minimize impulsive decisions at the restaurant.
If you have time to spare, choose to eat in the restaurant rather than go through the drive through. This will allow you to not only be more mindful of your hunger levels while you are eating, but also enjoy your food more. Taking a break to stretch your legs and sit at a different angle can also help with the fatigue of a long drive, so don’t feel like your time at the restaurant is wasted.
If you are planning on picking up some food at a store, try and find a grocery store rather than a convenience store. Grocery stores have a wider range of fresh produce and will give you greater opportunities to purchase healthful foods. You’ll find that if you shop the perimeter of the grocery store you’ll find the fresher, generally less processed foods that will easily fit into a healthful meal plan.
Unfortunately, it is often difficult to find fresh foods at convenience store – but not entirely impossible. Look for options like fresh fruit, hard-boiled eggs, cheese sticks and whole wheat crackers.
Eating in the car can be messy, and not just for kids. Keep a stash of wet wipes in the glove compartment for sticky fingers. A small hand towel over your lap can catch crumbs or wipe up spills and be shaken out at the next gas station. A plastic bag is good to keep on hand for collecting orange peels or grape stems, eggshells, used wipes and other trash.
Remember, You’re on Vacation!
All this said, it’s worth mentioning that it’s ok to treat yourself to a meal that may not be your idea of “healthy.” Remember that life is a balance. Surround yourself with healthy food options, and don’t feel guilty for indulging once in a while.
Find more healthy recipes from Samaritan’s dietitians
If you have questions about nutrition, ask your primary care clinician for a referral for nutrition counseling.