I know what you’re thinking right now. “Sarah, this better not be the same boring shit like every other article about how to eat when you’re on the road.”
Trust me, I’m going to give you some solutions, my impatient friend. Stick with me for a minute.
Whether you’re planning a road trip this spring break or summer vacation, or you spend a good deal of your day in a vehicle because of work, you likely struggle with finding good quality foods to eat on the road.
Food options may seem limited in gas stations and convenience stores, but with a little planning ahead and a bit of creativity, you can find plenty of food options to keep you on track.
Protein is probably one of the hardest food sources to pack ahead and bring with you because many healthy proteins spoil rapidly when not kept refrigerated.
And unless you have a mini-fridge in your car, this poses a problem for people who spend all day driving.
Getting your protein from a variety of sources throughout the day is probably easier than relying on large amounts of just one or two foods. Try combining many different proteins to avoid food boredom.
Jerky is dried meat, usually with some spices or marinade added before the drying process. It does not spoil because it has no moisture left in it. Jerky can be made of any animal meat. If you can, find a jerky brand with minimal ingredients (meat, salt, spices).
Protein powder is a super easy-to-find supplement that won’t spoil as long as you keep it dry. Leave it separate from the liquid you mix it with until just before you plan to drink it. You can also buy pre-packaged protein shakes at many convenience stores.
Peanut butter or peanut butter powder:
Peanut butter, while not a pure protein, does provide some protein and a healthy source of fat. It also keeps you full for several hours after eating. If you find powdered protein, such as PB2, this is the protein portion of the peanut with most of the fat removed.
The refrigerated section of gas stations and convenience stores can either be a treasure trove of various proteins or a source of dubious unidentifiable food stuffs. One thing that has a pretty long shelf life and is usually safe in the refrigerated section is cheese. Be sure to read expiration dates.
Along with cheese, yogurt can be a source of protein at convenience stores and gas stations. Look for yogurt that has at least 8 grams of protein per container, but if you can find Greek yogurt, you can get up to 20 grams of protein per serving.
These aren’t always available at all convenience stores, but many carry a few options for pre-packaged deli salads that contain some kind of pre-cooked meat and/or hardboiled eggs. Most fast food restaurants also offer a salad menu.
Sunflower seeds are the most common ones you’ll find in convenience stores, but you can also sometimes find roasted pumpkin seeds or flax seeds. In addition to some protein, seeds usually contain a nice amount of healthy fat and a high dose of fiber.
It’s much easier to carry and find carbohydrates while on the road, which makes them incredibly convenient and valuable nutrient sources.
Most pieces of fruit that have a rind or thick outer skin will last for up to a week. Not only are they easy to pack in a lunch bag for the day, but many gas stations now carry fresh fruit. Fruit cups are another option you can choose, but look for those without added syrup, which adds mostly empty calories.
Whether you bring this from home or purchase it on the road, it usually only requires added water and a microwave, both of which you can find at most gas stations. Oats pack a healthy source of fiber, as well as a small amount of protein.
Whole grains can come in the form of bread, snack bars, crackers or chips. Many products labeled ‘whole grain’ are actually very high in empty calories from sugar. Look for products that have less than 5 grams of sugar total and at least 5 grams of fiber per serving.
Fat is a nutrient dense food and contains more calories per gram than protein and carbohydrates. This can be a good thing when you have limited time or fewer food options.
You can eat smaller servings of fat and still remain full after eating for a prolonged time.
Because olives are pickled in the manufacturing process, they can be stored at room temperature. They are a very healthy source of monounsaturated fat. They do need to be kept refrigerated after you open them, however.
Nuts and Nut Butters:
Nuts are mostly fat, with a bit of protein and carbohydrates (mostly as fiber). The fat in nuts is similar to the fat in olives, because it is also mostly monounsaturated. You can purchase these in bulk, as well, or buy individual packets at most convenience stores.
These fruits are actually a very healthy fat, and because their rind is so thick, they generally travel well. You can pack several along for the week and they’ll ripen along the way.
What Do You Actually Do With This?
Okay, now you have this list of foods and it’s magically going to transform your busy work day spent driving, right?
Not really. Now what you need to do is actually be realistic and apply some simple concepts and probably purchase some portable cold food storage.
If it were me doing this, I would invest in a good quality durable cooler than I can take with me daily or for several days.
It is almost completely unrealistic to expect someone traveling on the road to eat these few things routinely and never slip.
So here is how I would approach this and plan for meals on the road:
- Buy an Rtic cooler. These are made by a guy who used to work for Yeti; he improved on the technology and made them more affordable. They can keep ice frozen for 10 DAYS. So, they can keep your food cold for days, too.
- Pack a few hard-boiled eggs for protein snacks or breakfast.
- Pack pre-cooked meats from home or your local grocery store. They can be stored in your cooler and re-heated in gas stations. This adds valuable taste and variety to your protein.
- Pack 3-5 pieces of fruit for each day. Fruit is easy to eat for snacks, but also high in fiber. When you’re driving and sedentary, fiber makes a big difference. Fruit is also low calorie.
- Pack a container or bag of pre-washed spinach/leafy greens and a bottle of some kind of dressing. Whatever you’ll tolerate, but preferably of the mostly olive oil-based variety. (Think vinaigrettes)
- Pack at least one serving per day of chopped veggies that you can either eat raw or steam in a gas station microwave.
- Pack a baggie of nuts/seeds to munch on if the urge to snack arises. Portion this beforehand so that you don’t over consume calories.
- Plan on drinking at least one protein shake per day, in case other sources of protein are limited on the road, or as a snack to keep you from wanting to snack on junk.
- Pack several large bottles of filtered water. Drink at least 1 1/2 per day, but use the other ones for mixing protein shakes in case there aren’t any non-sketchy sources of water with which to mix those.
What If You Want to Eat in a Restaurant?
If you’re someone that spends days at a time on the road, there’s really nothing wrong with eating from restaurants if you do it right. Even fast food places can have some options to fit your needs.
- Look for high protein salads, as these typically have the lowest calories (not including dressing). Ask for dressing on the side and only use half of it (or less if you can).
- Next best would be to order a good quality burger (1/4- 1/2 lb) without the bun and without the condiments other than ketchup and mustard. This cuts calories pretty drastically and allows for the addition of something more nutritious like a side salad (remember dressing is pretty high in calories) or a fruit side.
- If you’re at a nicer sit-down restaurant, order something protein based (steak, chicken breast, fish filet, etc), without breading (fried foods come with lots more calories) and double the veggie side or add a salad.
- Don’t drink your calories other than from protein shakes. Added calories from drinks on the road can easily exceed an extra 1000+ calories per day from soda, frapuccinos and energy drinks.
Planning meals for travel doesn’t have to be really complicated. I try to remember to include at least one food that I will look forward to eating each day. That keeps me motivated to follow my plan.
Remember, the more you prepare and plan your own food, the more control you have over what goes into to it (and what ultimately goes into your body).