The easiest way to eat healthy is to cook for yourself…all the time. But let’s face it, that ain’t happening, especially this time of year, when the holidays have nearly half of the country hitting the roads or the skies to visit family. Combine the indulgences of the holiday season with the fact that America’s travel plazas aren’t exactly known for health food, and you’ve got a double-whammy, gut-busting dilemma. But here are two not-so-secret secrets that food companies don’t want you to know: You can take food with you on airplanes, and the drive-thru isn’t the only option for dinner in the car. Before your next trip, load up on these seven staples you should always have with you when you’re traveling.
Why they’re good for traveling: Nuts are the perfect portable travel food. Not only are they easy to toss into your carry-on; they’re rich in belly-filling fiber, protein, and monounsaturated fat that will carry you through a long flight or at least to the next highway pit stop.
Eat this: All nuts are good for you, but the most nutrient-dense are almonds, walnuts, pecans, peanuts, and pistachios. Another bonus? You can usually find raw nuts at convenience stores or airport food stands, in the event you didn’t get to pack your own. Just read ingredients lists to avoid nuts coated in genetically modified vegetable oils or sugar.
Why they’re good for traveling: Neither qualifies as a liquid or a gel, and neither bruises easily in your luggage. Plus, they both contain fiber, which provides slow-releasing energy to keep you alert.
Eat this: Most airports, and even gas stations, now sell fresh fruit, but here’s why you should always bring your own: Chances are, that fruit isn’t organic, and according to the Environmental Working Group’s annual pesticide-data studies, apples have some of the highest pesticide residues of any fruit.
Or that: In a pinch, fruit leather can stand in for fresh whole fruits. Look for the certified-organic Clif Kid Z Fruit Rope, which contains organic fruit and little else and is sold at a growing number of chains, including Starbucks and Jamba Juice, and in some airport convenience stores.
Why it’s good for traveling: It’s full of satiating protein and, as long as it comes from grass-fed cows, a great source of omega-3 fatty acids. Beef jerky also doesn’t raise your level of insulin, a hormone that signals your body to store fat—something you don’t need during long periods of inactivity.
Eat this: We’re not talking about Slim Jims here. You want a brand that’s not preserved with synthetic nitrates or nitrites or loaded down with sodium, as most commercial brands are. If you can make it to a farmers’ market on your vacay, ask the meat purveyors there if they have any. Or order an 8-ounce bag from Rain Crow Ranch ($15.95/bag), which meats the strict standards of the American Grassfed Association and Animal Welfare Approved certifications.
Why they’re good for traveling: Chewy fruit-filled energy or protein bars are great for an on-the-go breakfast during early morning flights, or for a portable snack.
Eat this: The problem is that most “energy” bars on the market are nothing more than glorified candy bars, glued together with sugar and lacking in any real nutritional value. But they’re not all bad. We like Equal Exchange Apricot Geobars ($5/6 bars), which have just 12 grams of sugar (compared to 23 grams in other popular brands) and just 120 calories per bar. You’ll get slow-burning fuel from the fiber in the oats and rice and from the vitamin C in apricots and raisins.
Or that: If you can’t find a low-sugar energy bar, grab a handful of peppermints. Studies have shown they’re as stimulating as caffeine and you won’t wind up crashing later in the day.
Why they’re good for traveling: Their fiber provides you with energy while keeping your blood-sugar levels stable (read: no midafternoon crash). The carbohydrates will provide your brain with the fuel it needs to function at its peak.
Eat this: Slice up some celery or bell peppers before you leave home, or grab a bag of baby carrots at the grocery store on your way to the airport (or anytime you find a town along the highway with a grocery store).
Why you need one while traveling: You always need a healthy breakfast, but even more so when traveling, with all its diet-killing pitfalls. Research has also found that people who skip out on breakfast are more likely to succumb to the temptation of high-calorie foods later in the day. There are lots of those at highway junk stops and in airports.
Eat this: If you’re staying at a hotel with a free breakfast, your three healthiest options are plain yogurt with almonds and berries, a toasted English muffin with butter, or some scrambled eggs (or any combo of the above)—with a glass of milk, not OJ, on the side. All are healthy and minimally processed, unlike the iffy breads, processed boxed cereals, and waffles tempting you from the other end of the breakfast bar.
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When you’ll need one: If you’ve never, ever been delayed at an airport, gotten trapped in a huge traffic jam, or found yourself unexpectedly sidelined while traveling, you don’t exist, because travel is unpredictable. No matter how hard you try, at some point you’ll find yourself stuck in a health-food desert with a grumbling stomach.
Eat this: Fortunately, America’s airports and chain fast-food joints are waking up to the fact that people don’t want junk. The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, which publishes a yearly ranking of the healthfulness of America’s airport food offerings, is noticing a good trend: Ten of the 15 airports they surveyed in their 2011 report saw an increase in healthy food options over the prior year. And 83 percent of airport restaurants now offer at least one low-fat, high-fiber, cholesterol-free entrée.
Here are some safer bets on those occasions when a long layover or other travel disaster catches you off guard:
Au Bon Pain: This chain has outposts in nearly all major airports, and its wide selection of healthier soups and sandwiches makes it a good place to hang out for lunch. The Black Angus Roast Beef & Cheddar Sandwich has 480 calories, 17 g fat (8 g saturated), and 32 g protein.
Chili’s: As sit-down restaurants move into airports, they bring with them their huge selection of 800-calorie-plus entrees. The Chili’s Classic Sirloin Dinner, with a side of corn on the cob and steamed broccoli, checks in at just 500 calories and 22 g fat. Another good bet? Their Caribbean Chicken Salad, with 610 calories and 25 g fat.
Moe’s Southwest Grill: Vegetarian options are a good way to cut back on fat (and avoid factory-farmed meat), and Mexican or Southwestern restaurants are a good place to start for those. Moe’s Art Vandalay veggie burrito with black beans, rice, salsa, and grilled veggies clocks in at 599 calories and just 17 g fat.