Nutrition Articles

Healthy Eating Away from Home

Tips to eating healthy when you’re on-the-go

By Jennifer Nelson

At a roadside diner I asked if the chicken salad could be made with low-fat mayo. The waitress stared at me blankly. "Nah," she said in a hushed tone. "It’s coated with the real thing and served alongside greasy fries."

Trying to eat healthy on the road is no Sunday drive. In fact, it’s a challenge even for the nutrition-savvy among us. Whether you’re heading off by car, train or plane—for business or pleasure—or you can’t keep your tokens out of the office vending machine, Energy has some take-away tips to take along..

On the road

Consider the glove box for more than registration and insurance papers. Instead, it’s a cool, compact, crush-free zone to stash fruit, trail mix or nutrition bars. Remember, you don’t necessarily need to bring snacks on trips less than two hours. Otherwise, you’re probably eating out of boredom more than hunger. "I like to avoid chips and pretzels in the car—things that come out of a big bag," says Joan Carter, M.B.A., R.D., an instructor at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston and an American Dietetic Association (ADA) spokeswoman. "It’s too easy to mindlessly munch." Instead, take along an ice chest or one of those new thermo electric coolers that plug into the car lighter, packed with healthier options. A substantial food, like a tuna or turkey sandwich, will contain sufficient calories, carbohydrates and protein to keep you content. "Ultimately, to feel satisfied and to stay alert for your trip, you should have 15 to 20 percent protein, 20 to 30 percent fat and whatever’s left in carbs," says Carter. "Those are the building blocks for satiety."

Stopping along the route? Many gas stations today pump more than just high octane. "Gas stations are basically mini shops that offer prepared sandwiches, fruits and other healthy snacks," says Claudia Gonzalez, R.D., an ADA spokeswoman in private practice in Miami, Fla. "We sometimes forget this and reach for junk." If you’re heading for a sit-down meal, most places offer salads. Try squeezing the juice from fruits over the greens instead of using a calorie-loaded dressing. A survey by the Center for Science in the Public Interest rated some popular restaurant chains and reported that when you order from the "lite," "guiltless" and "fit" menus, you really are consuming less fat and fewer calories. Ethnic food and sandwich shops are also good because those dishes generally include vegetables. Fruit and vegetable consumption usually goes out the window on the road only because they are harder to come by. A cup of veggies has about 25 calories versus 120 to 150 for the same cup of rice or pasta.

Also, women don’t generally drink milk on the go. It’s not a drink you typically request away from home. Results from a recent study at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, determined that overweight people who increased their daily dose of calcium to 1,000 milligrams lost nearly 11 pounds in a year. Seems calcium plays a role in storing and burning fat. "A calcium supplement is a good idea to use when traveling," says Carter. Even a multivitamin is a plus since you probably won’t consume as healthy a diet as you would at home.

On the plane

Airlines offer a variety of special foods for flights over four hours as long as you pre-order when you book your reservation. Options include low-fat meals, fruit trays and vegetarian plates. If you bring along some healthy snacks (i.e., dry cereal, raisins or other dried fruits, unsalted nuts or baby carrots), you may skip the meal altogether. "Most importantly, stay well-hydrated and don’t let over four to five hours go by without eating something," says Cynthia Sass, M.A., R.D., an ADA spokeswoman and educator at the University of South Florida. Waiting too long to eat can cause a drop in blood sugar, which can affect your mood, energy level and ability to handle travel stress. It might also lead to rebound eating later that day. Skip caffeine and alcohol—they strip fluids from your body. And avoid heavy or greasy foods (country fried chicken entrees, for example). "These cause a lot of blood flow to go to your digestive system, which diverts oxygen and nutrient-rich blood away from your brain and extremities," says Sass. The very organs that need it. Instead, aim for nutrient-loaded foods with B vitamins, like whole grain cereal versus a cookie. And pass up sugar fests, like regular cola, which will cause a quick surge in blood sugar followed by a killer energy slump later.

At airport kiosks, look for fresh fruit, soft pretzels with mustard dip, plain cheese or vegetable-topped pizza or even a veggie burger. Make sure the patty isn’t cooked alongside the beef burgers in the same grease. Ask for it heated in the microwave instead. Take advantage of the variety at the airport. "Cruise all the vendor’s offerings before settling in to order," says Carter. It’s fine to order steamed rice from one kiosk and a salad or sandwich from another.

On the train

"Trains can be a nutrition disaster, " says Carter. The dining cart generally contains hotdogs, chips, chocolates and other fatty selections. Ditto for train station rest stops. The key is a first-class plan. "Come ready for travel after eating a good breakfast or lunch before you board," says Gonzalez. Bring along your water bottle and an insulated bag packed with healthier options: nutrition bars, gorp, and bags of cut-up vegetables or yogurt. Have the cart hotdog if you really want it, but pair it with your banana or celery sticks instead of purchasing fries or chips. "I don’t think it’s necessary to avoid certain things, but rather look at it like a budget," says Sass. "If you have `spent’ fat on something already, such as mayo in tuna or chicken salad, `save’ by skipping the chips and opting for veggies."

At the hotel

Can you say mini bar blues? "Turn in the key to the mini bar," says Carter. It’s full of temptations like M&Ms and alcohol. Instead, find the local market and buy some prepackaged fruit or pre-cut vegetables. Reserve rooms with a fridge or a microwave, or better yet, a kitchenette that will allow you to prepare a few meals in your room—saving both your caloric bank and your piggy bank. Stock up on bottled water and avoid hitting the soda machines to quench thirst. Skip the gift shop where the candy rack may entice you too. When dining out, assess hunger before you scan the menu. Try asking yourself questions when you sit down about how hungry you are so you’ll order accordingly. Your appetite may spell appetizer instead of huge entree. Eat until you’re satisfied, not full. "You shouldn’t be cleaning the plate just to clean it," says Carter.

Watch for signs of fullness. Eat slowly, putting your fork down between bites, drink plenty of water and take in the sunset or the restaurant’s ambience. Are you still hungry halfway through, or are you mindlessly downing twice the portion size you eat at home? "People who skip their exercise eat lots of foods they don’t usually, and come back from travel feeling lethargic and thinking all their clothes have shrunk," says Carter. Avoid this by opting for exercise: hit up the hotel pool or gym or get out for a walk. On a recent cruise, where food is available all but about one hour a day, Carter says she ate plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables, splurged only occasionally and walked around the deck often. "I came home fitting into all my clothes and feeling great," she says.

At the office

"At least three days a week bring your lunch from home," says Gonzalez. This way you’ve planned and eaten a healthy lunch most of the week. If Fridays are the day everyone heads out to eat, you can take part too. When you do hit the road, frequent familiar places where you have some control in how things are prepped. Tell them how many slices of turkey, what kind of cheese and to skip the oil. "I think of healthy meals as puzzles that I piece together," says Sass. "My puzzle always includes two or more servings of veggies or salad, protein, carbs and a bit of fat. Having little to no fat in a meal can create an unsatisfied feeling afterward and cause you to be hungry again quickly. A piece of low-fat cheese, a golf-ball-size handful of almonds or a tablespoon of reduced-fat peanut butter on a few crackers should fit the fat bill. Downing a nutritious breakfast and your brown bag lunch will help stave off cravings for the tempting treats that show up on your desk occasionally too.

As for the 3:00 p.m. vending machine blahs, keep change locked in your car or at home, not at work. Stash desk-friendly snacks like nutrition bars and low-fat microwave popcorn. And if you must walk over to the machines, all’s not lost. Choose wisely: a mini bag of pretzels, baked chips, a bag of pistachios for some heart-healthy monosaturated fat or even a king size peppermint patty. Any of these can be had for less than 200 calories.

Scouting roadside healthy fare? Order-up:
  • Plain baked potato topped with low-fat salad dressing

  • Small burger or grilled chicken sandwich (skip mayo)

  • Taco salad (leave the fried bowl behind)

  • Chicken, shrimp or tofu with steamed rice and veggies

Glove box/carry-on goodies:
  • Fresh/dried fruit

  • Yogurt

  • Low-fat string cheese

  • Red peppers or zucchini strips

Brown bag it: (Courtesy of Cynthia Sass, M.A., R.D.)
  • Cold macaroni and tuna Salad
    Mix one cup cooked elbow macaroni and 3 ounces tuna with 1 tablespoon reduced-fat mayo. Add chopped celery, onion and peppers. Prepare the night before for best blend of ingredients.

  • Ham and cheese melt
    Stuff 3 ounces turkey breast, one slice Swiss cheese and romaine lettuce leaves, tomato and onion slices into a whole-wheat pita. Heat in microwave until cheese melts.

  • Cranberry turkey roll-up
    Spread non-fat cream cheese on whole-wheat tortilla. Add 3 ounces thinly sliced turkey breast, one-fourth cup dried cranberries, lettuce leaves and chopped red onion. Enjoy cold or warmed.
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