One question I get asked often is for tips how to maintain healthy eating habits while traveling. For many, there is the worry that being outside of a routine or not having access to their go-to foods will derail them. Another concern many express is how to find balance between enjoying food-related experiences that arise with traveling to places with unique culinary opportunities and not going overboard. It is one thing to pass up something you can get any time, but it can be hard to feel like you might miss out on trying something that only comes around every few years, or even once in a lifetime. If you don't continue to practice most of your usual healthy habits even while you are on vacation, it can be difficult to resume the usual routine once you are home. We want to be able to enjoy these once-in-a-lifetime experiences, but without feeling like we have lost valuable ground in our healthy living journey as a result.
Over the years, I have tried to become a little bit more flexible without allowing it to derail me. I knew I needed to grow a healthier mindset—one which was not so rigid about the control aspect of what I eat being "perfectly healthy" all the time. I used to stress over packing everything I might possibly need for trips and would constantly worry about what I might not know about the food I'd be served... As if a few variables would undo everything. When I say I tried to plan everything, I mean not just in such a way that would keep me on track, but past that to the point that I couldn't even enjoy the food, the event, or myself.
There is also a tendency for us to go into "vacation mode." You know, that mindset where it "doesn't count" because we're on vacation? There's even scientific research that demonstrates how being outside of our usual routine will cause us to make all kinds of choices we would not normally make!! This is because being in a new situation creates a scenario for open possibilities. When we're outside of what were used to, the rules which typically apply somehow seem to lose their application. As long as you are aware of this, you can make sure to guard your heart and mind from any foothold Satan could gain in these ways.
At some point, we want to get to the place where we can trust ourselves to make the best choice possible given what is available. We should also be able navigate the situation without using it as an excuse to deviate from what we know will make us feel our best physically, emotionally, and spiritually. That being said, I still think it is wise to be at least a little bit prepared, especially in the beginning part of your journey, as this is when getting “thrown off track” is much easier to do, and getting back to routine is much less easy to do. I found that being on vacation was one of the times in my early journey of healthy eating changes which would throw me off track if I wasn't careful to approach it with a good mindset and come prepared with at least a few basics.
Also, for those who have food allergies / sensitivities which require dietary restrictions, coming prepared is critical. Especially if you are planning for kids who have these concerns.
With these things in mind, here are my best ideas, tips, strategies, as well as practical information for planning to stay healthy while you travel!
- If there’s something that is truly worth enjoying, go ahead and enjoy it. I try to view these decisions when travelling the same as I do at holidays like Christmas and Thanksgiving. For example, I have no reason to eat a store bought dinner roll at Thanksgiving, because those are not anything special to me and I would much rather have a serving of mom's home made stuffing. The same concept holds true with food while on vacation. If there is something you can get any day of the year, it’s likely not worth the splurge. Reminding yourself of this will keep you from feeling deprived or eating things just because they are there.
- Try not to tell yourself any food is off-limits, but that you are choosing not to eat it for a specific reason. Making this mental shift allowed me to not obsess as much over the things that I was trying to avoid eating or choosing to limit to rare occasions. If you call to mind the reason why you would want to pass on a certain food, it will also help you to view that choice as positive, rather than restrictive. For example, if you have an early day full of exciting activities planned, then it may be worth it to pass on the high-sugar ice cream that you know would make you feel tired and sluggish the next day.
- When I go on trips and we are driving (as opposed to flying), I will normally take a cooler with things which I will eat for breakfast and / or snacks in the event that there is not anything available to keep me on track. Most gas stations and large convenience stores offer more than the typical "road food" these days. You can usually find healthier options like fresh fruit, raw veggies, protein bars, Smart Sweets, Bada Beans, nuts, boiled eggs, turkey jerky, Greek yogurt, etc., so that a cooler might not be necessary.
- If you have a cooler, you can bring things like Dashing Dish protein muffins or bars, no bake bites, Greek yogurt cups, chicken salad, boiled eggs, deli meat, overnight oats, fruit, etc.
- In the event you don't have the ability to bring a cooler, you can bring things like non-perishable protein bars, beef or chicken jerky type bars (I like DNX and Chomps), tuna or chicken pouches, brown rice cakes, quinoa cakes, or flavored rice cakes, apples, oranges, grapes, bananas, and PB2 / protein powder. I try not to rely on packaged protein bars for snacks during the day if I can help it, especially when I have real food available. That's only because of my sweet tooth—I can tend to start eating them instead of whole foods (fruit, veggies, protein). So for me, if I incorporate bars like that, I do it at strategic times. Like as a late night treat, rather than a daytime snack—unless I absolutely have nothing else available.
- Think ahead of time and plan around when you will stop for meals. If you know what city you will be close to, you can scope out restaurants in that area ahead of time so that you can choose one with healthy options before you get super hungry.
- Also, don't forget water!! Make sure to bring plenty of bottles of water so you don't have to buy it along the way since it's so expensive at gas stations. Often times we think we are hungry when we are simply just thirsty!
- Airlines have really started to cut back on what they serve on planes, but even what they do are very unhealthy options. I was so surprised at how they still didn't include healthy options when we flew this past January. I thought by now they would be "on board" (see what I did there 😂) with people wanting better options. Larger airports do have a very good selection with lots of healthy options for purchase after you get through your check-in point, but the prices are ridiculous! It is better for your wallet to bring your own food than to purchase in the airport stores, and you definitely don't want to rely on what's on the plane in terms of healthy options.
- Check with your airline's rules through their site, but most will allow food in your carry-on bag as long as it is not liquid. I like freezing homemade protein cookies. I take them out right when we leave the house and then by the time I board, they are starting to thaw. Other non-perishable things (like what you can bring in the car without a cooler) work well, as long as they aren't liquid! Things like nuts, jerky, protein bars, fruit, raw veggies, etc. I would stay away from tuna packs or boiled eggs, unless you are ok with dirty looks from other passengers!
- I mentioned before how hydration is always important to remember when you travel. I have no problem staying hydrated at home, but if I don't plan ahead, I slack on it when I travel. Bring an EMPTY water bottle through check-in and then you can fill it up when you are through and you'll be allowed to carry it on.
- If you know where you will be eating, check out the menu and decide ahead of time what you order.
- Build a meal template that keeps you on track. This will help to eliminate the menu scoping and the "Hmmmm… what do I feel like?" mindset that can lead to less healthy choices. For me, I choose pretty much the same type of meal that I would enjoy if I were planning it at home. I have a general idea of what the meal I would choose would consist of, and can find something that meets that at almost any restaurant. Option 1 is a lean protein source and veggies, and Option 2 is a huge salad (or a salad bar) with a lean protein and one of the healthier dressing choices (on the side so you can control the amount). You may prefer a meal that is slightly different, like a soup and salad. The key is to find the type of meal that you enjoy and will keep you on track.
- Prioritize protein and healthy carbs (especially fibrous veggies) at meals. Then add in a bit of healthy fat and starchy carbs. That will keep you full and satisfied.
- Stick to lean, healthy meat options, but make it more fun by ordering one you might not usually choose. Grilled shrimp, fish, raw oysters, or lean steak are my favorites. Instead of viewing the dining out meal(s) as a reason to splurge, I reframe it. For me, ordering a type of meat that is more expensive (like one of the above items) than I would normally buy at the grocery store for my routine meals feels like a treat. Spending a little extra on the high-quality meal becomes my splurge. That itself becomes the focus, rather than looking for an excuse to order anything and everything.
- For sides, choose grilled or roasted veggies. When they are prepared well, you will truly enjoy the quality and simplicity flavors over the need for something fried or doused in calorie-laden sauces. Some places still use butter and oil for their grilled or steamed veggies. Ask if they can prepare without, or with less if possible.
- Look for salads that have flavorful additions, but try not to go overboard on things that have tons of calories. You can always ask for half the amount of things that are higher in calories, or remove some of them from your plate. For example, it is worth it for me to have flavorful cheeses like blue cheese or goat cheese, as they increase the satisfaction of my salad, but if there is a cheese on the salad that you can’t really taste once everything is mixed together, it makes more sense for me to ask for them to leave it off. Also, most places tend to go overboard with nuts, so depending on how many are included I will remove some, but still allow myself to enjoy them since they do add flavor and healthy fats. Things like fried onion straws or fried rice noodles and a fun crunch, but if they aren't worth it, you can leave them off and save a lot of fat and empty calories!
- Don’t be afraid to ask for details on how things are cooked and if they can be modified to suit your needs (like less oil or butter, etc.). It is common now for people to ask regarding food sensitivities or allergies, and I feel that accommodating other dietary needs and preferences is becoming just as widely acceptable for restaurants to cater to. Remind yourself that they don't know if you are asking about things like cream sauces or butter because you are dairy-sensitive or just health-conscious!
Staying at Hotels:
- If I stay at a hotel for several days in a row, I try to make sure there is a microwave and a mini fridge when I book it. If you have a room with a fridge / freezer, you can bring things like pre-made baked oatmeal cups or protein muffins from the Dashing Dish site. My husband and I both bring popcorn for a snack in case the munchies strike!
- If you are traveling via plane, you can shop for the perishable items once you arrive. If traveling by car, you can bring a cooler of food to transfer to the fridge.
- If the hotel I am staying at does not have rooms with microwaves or refrigeration available (or if it is an unreasonable up-charge for that kind of room) then I try to come prepared with some things that are not going to require refrigeration. Things like bananas or apples and PB2, protein bars, nuts, beef jerky, boiled eggs, Smart Sweets, Bada Beans, etc.
- If you don't have a microwave, you can still make cold oats (similar to overnight oats) by soaking quick cook in water an hour or so before you’re ready to eat them. You can then add in fruit, nuts, yogurt, protein powder and / or PB2!
- Many hotels have healthy options on the breakfast bar or room service menu. I look for things like boiled or poached eggs, fresh fruit, Canadian or turkey bacon, plain oatmeal (then add my own mix-ins), etc. I love when places have an omelet bar where I can load up on veggies and protein! One word of caution--watch out for omelet bars if you are gluten-sensitive! Many places add pancake mix to the eggs so that they are fluffier! If you see them using a pre-made egg mix, ask. If they have fresh eggs that are being cracked on order, then it is unlikely you have to worry about that.
- Some hotels don't have a full breakfast bar or room service, but they still usually have a continental breakfast. If so, they will often offer individual yogurts in a little fridge with their continental breakfast. Sometimes they’re not the healthiest options, but most hotels will have a light yogurt or even Greek yogurt. Just check them for added sugars. Again, if you have access to a fridge, you can bring your own exactly how you would want it. Things like overnight oats would be a great breakfast option if you do have a fridge. You can add protein powder or Greek yogurt to make sure that you have the protein and healthy carbs in balance for your breakfast. You can even mix in fruit or cinnamon if you want to get fancy! There was even one hotel that I stayed at which had everything for me to make a microwave mug cake type breakfast from their continental breakfast options. I mixed a packet of oatmeal with diced up apple, added some PB2 that I brought, and added water to make a muffin-like batter. Then I spread it on a microwave safe plate and cooked it until it was set! I sprinkled it with cinnamon and half a chopped up banana. Delicious!
Staying At Other's Homes:
- Bring your non-perishable staples and even ask if you can use some fridge or freezer space, then plan accordingly. Most hosts plan to buy things with you in mind, so bringing your own saves them time and money. You can either pack a cooler, or go grocery shopping to stock up once there.
- Don't be afraid to communicate ahead of time about meal plans while there. This is fairly easy at a close friend or family member's home. As the guest, you can let the host know about your intention to eat healthy, but that you are also not wanting to put them out in any way. You may even be able to offer to cook for them a night or two! Most hosts are happy to know you have plans for things like breakfast and snacks so that they aren't needing to plan everything.
- Don’t be afraid to think outside the box! If you have a fridge, you can have some of your leftover meat and veggies from dinner for breakfast or a snack the next day.
- If you are going to be eating at an event that is catered and you don’t really have the option to choose or to know in advance what will be served, just do the best that you can! Understand that you can pick what is best from what is available. For example, sometimes there are things like casseroles and you can pick out the meat and the veggies and leave the pasta and heavy sauces on your plate. I also like to have a healthy snack that fits in my purse for times like this, just in case! Something like a protein bar, almonds, or jerky. If your meal time ends up being later than expected, this stash can keep you from getting hangry, which we all know can lead to less-healthy choices!
- Depending on where you’re staying, you may have access to something like a waffle iron or even a stove. You can bring your own protein waffle or pancake mix and just make it once you’re there and use the equipment available to cook it.
- Plan for your known temptations. For me, it's having something sweet after dinner. I love having PB2 (reconstituted to peanut butter texture) on an apple or banana as a little dessert treat at night. Quest Bars, Rx Bars, or Smart Sweets also make great little nighttime dessert treats. Building these into my plan helps me to keep my sweet tooth under control and not be tempted to splurge on dessert every night while on vacation. For others it may be something salty or snacky that needs to be planned for. Whatever it is, don't try to avoid it, but include it so you don't feel deprived!
I hope that this has given you lots of ideas which you can use for various types of trips in the future!
One final word of encouragement for those who are still in a place where they are struggling with self-trust, stress surrounding food, or doubt in their ability to make good choices:
Prepare your mindset first in prayer. Ask the Lord to empower you to make decisions which honor Him and for the wisdom in viewing things from a place of freedom. Sometimes stressing over what is the healthiest thing is actually more harmful to our health and mindset than any choice we would actually make. That said, remember that every choice you make adds up. Each time you have the option to choose one thing over another, simply decide in that you will make the best choice you can given all options, knowing the rest is outside of your control and not something to stress about. The process gets easier the more you practice it! <3