These simple strategies will help you find balance in your nutrition and still enjoy your vacation.
Making food choices that support your goals is hard enough when you’re home and can control what and when you eat. But eating healthy when you’re traveling is even more challenging. A delayed flight could leave you hungry in an airport with limited meal choices or a long road trip might mean miles of fast-food options.
Tonal coach Tim Landicho, a certified Precision Nutrition Level 1 nutrition coach, says it’s possible to eat healthy without feeling restricted whether you’re on a family vacation or a business trip. “Ultimately, it all comes down to a balance between what kind of experience you want to have on this trip and what kind of tradeoffs you are okay with making in regards to your goals,” he says.
The type of trip you’re going on matters, too. If it’s a once-in-a-lifetime vacation to a culinary destination, you might understandably be more lax with your nutrition. But if work travel is a regular part of your life, or you are really focused on your fitness goals, you’ll want to find ways to stay on track.
Before diving into specific advice for managing your nutrition when you’re away, it’s worth pointing out that there’s no single definition of “eating healthy.” As Landicho explains, “Healthy eating is eating that meets your specific nutritional needs based on your goals, context, physiology, experience, and relationship with food—and it’s done in a way that you can enjoy and sustain.” The “best” diet is always the one you can adhere to long-term, during travel and beyond.
Below, Landicho and three nutrition experts share their tips for finding healthy food no matter where your travels take you.
1. Pack Snacks
According to Stephanie Hnatiuk, a registered dietitian and fitness coach, one of the biggest challenges of eating healthy while traveling is not always having control over when you eat. Hunger in between meals can lead to overeating when it’s actually time for food.
To prevent this “hangry” feeling, she recommends packing snacks like whole or dried fruit, nuts and trail mix, pretzels or crackers with hummus or nut butter, or protein/granola bars. “A lot of brands make small snack pack-sized nut butters, hummus, apple sauce, or other foods that don’t need to be refrigerated so they’re great to throw in a bag or suitcase,” she says. “I also love roasted edamame or chickpeas for a high-protein and high-fiber salty snack.”
2. Fill a Cooler
If you’re taking a road trip, Hnatiuk recommends bringing a cooler full of healthy meal options as an alternative to fast food at rest stops. “This way you can bring lunches such as sandwiches or wraps, cheese, yogurt, or fresh fruits and vegetables,” she says. “Even just planning a few pre-made meals along the way versus eating everything from a restaurant can make a big difference.” If you’re flying, an insulated lunch bag with some reusable frozen gel packs will keep your healthy food fresh without taking up too much space.
3. Use Smart Storage
Hnatiuk explains you’ll have the best chance of making it through airport security if you carry your food in pre-portioned, labeled, and sealed packaging. Monbento makes a variety of packaging, including small containers under 3.4 ounces that will get non-solid foods through TSA. For the rest of your snacks, Amy Shapiro, a registered dietitian and nutritionist, prefers reusable Stasher bags over disposable plastic ones. “They wash well and are sustainable,” she says.
4. Prioritize Protein
Protein keeps you satisfied, so it’s a must for warding off hunger while traveling. Getting your fill of protein will help you find nutritional balance, even when you’re reaching for that extra cocktail or dessert. “If people can center around protein plus fruits and veggies, then they have a buffer to eat the other things, knowing that their appetite is more regulated and that they are getting the nutrients they need,” Landicho says. “It feels less restrictive.”
He suggests packing protein powder, Greek yogurt, nuts, or beef jerky to ensure you’ll have protein-rich snacks, and to seek out protein-centric menu items such as eggs, grilled chicken, or steak when dining out. If you’re packing protein powder, make sure to bring a blender bottle to easily make shakes on-the-go.
Gabbi Berkow, a registered dietitian and certified personal trainer, recommends including at least 20 grams of protein in each meal or snack along with fresh produce and fiber. Here are some easy options to assemble or find wherever you go:
- One cup plain nonfat Greek yogurt, one piece of fruit, and a single serve pack of nut butter or seed butter
- Three low-fat string cheeses, one serving whole grain crackers, and one piece of fruit
- Four slices of turkey breast, one low fat string cheese, one serving whole grain crackers, and raw veggies.
- Sandwich made with two slices of whole grain bread, four slices of deli turkey, one low-fat string cheese, and side of raw veggies
5. Stock Your Fridge and Pantry
Whether you have a full kitchen in your Airbnb or a mini-fridge in your hotel room, take advantage of the opportunity to stock it with healthy foods. Stopping at a grocery store will give you more choices—often at lower prices—than restaurants or airport shops. “Purchase leaner cuts of meat like chicken or turkey, choose whole-wheat options when you can, and include a variety of fruits and vegetables,” Hnatiuk says.
Berkow adds that her recommended grocery haul typically includes whole grain, low sugar cereal (like plain Cheerios, rice Chex, or bran flakes), whole grain crackers and bread, granola bars with less than 10 grams of sugar, popcorn, chunk lite tuna or salmon packets, low-fat string cheese, and salad mixes. If you are keeping an eye on your portion sizes, Berkow says you can also pack measuring cups.
6. Have a Restaurant Plan
Traveling usually involves eating out more frequently than you normally do. Our experts say it’s still possible to eat healthy when dining out, though, as long as you know what to order. Berkow suggests checking out the menu at any restaurants you plan on visiting during your trip to plan out meals in advance. “You can pretty much get a salad with lean protein, like grilled chicken, anywhere—just get the dressing on the side,” she says. “A sandwich on whole-wheat bread with lean protein plus a side salad is also a good option.”
Because restaurant portions tend to be large, Hnatiuk likes to order with leftovers in mind—especially ones you can keep in your fridge or cooler. “I pick something I know I can turn into two meals so I’m more likely to save half for later,” she says.
7. Don’t Fear Fast Food
No matter how carefully you plan your travel eating strategy, there’s always a chance you’ll end up at an airport or rest stop with only fast-food restaurants. Shaprio says this doesn’t mean all is lost. “Wendy’s has baked potatoes with broccoli—just skip the cheese sauce—and most fast food restaurants have a salad. I just tell clients to watch the dressing and the croutons because that is where excess calories come in,” she says. “If you’re in a pinch, get a grilled chicken sandwich and take off the top bun or even get a single burger with extra pickles, lettuce, and tomato. Skip the fries and soda, and you’ll be in pretty good shape.”
She’s also a fan of Starbucks for quick, nutritious breakfast and snacks.“They have healthy food options including protein boxes with hard boiled eggs, oatmeal, and egg bites—my personal favorite,” says Shapiro. “I recommend skipping the fancy coffee drinks and just getting regular coffee or tea.”
8. Eat Mindfully
Even if you can’t choose what’s on your plate at a client dinner or prix fixe restaurant meal, Landicho says you can still be mindful of your hunger levels. “When you sit down at the table, pause and think: On a scale of one to 10, how hungry am I?” he says. “Put a number to that hunger, and let that inform your eating even if you don’t have control over the food options themselves.” By simply eating mindfully instead of going on autopilot when your meal arrives, you’re practicing a skill that’ll have a big impact on your goals.
This strategy allows you to enjoy cocktails or restaurant meals that you’ve been looking forward to, while balancing that out with nutritious options the rest of the time.
Tuning in to your hunger cues is also important when you’re traveling across time zones. By becoming more aware of how different hunger levels feel, Landicho says you can make better choices about when to eat, even if your meals don’t align with the times you think you should be eating. “Your body is this really intelligent thing,” he says, and you can learn how to honor it by listening to its signals.