Are you traveling for the holidays? If so, you will be joining 90 million other Americans who will travel sometime between Dec. 23 and Jan. 2. Most people will travel by car, and with the average trip being a little more than 700 miles, there will be several meals eaten on the road.
Eating healthy while traveling can be a challenge. You can bet you will be eating more calories, fat and sodium than you would have eaten at home. The average fast food value meal has about 900 calories. Think you can do better at a sit-down restaurant? Not likely. The average entree will set you back around 1,100 calories — more than half of what you should eat in an entire day. And, that doesn’t count any calories from drinks, appetizers or other extras you may eat.
Instead of giving into the “it’s vacation” mentality, a little planning ahead can help keep your diet on track. Pack a cooler and stock it with some staples, like bottled water, string cheese and yogurt. Add snacks, like fresh fruit, protein bars, individual peanut butter cups, or portioned baggies of whole grain cereals, nuts or pretzels. If you have snacks with you, you’ll be less likely to grab a snack at the convenience store when you stop for gas. As a bonus, you’ll save some money.
Most chain restaurants now post nutrition information either on the menu board or on their websites. Previewing this information gives you a better idea of what you should order. There are free apps for your phone that can help you find healthier choices, too. Give Healthy Out or Restaurant Nutrition a try. Boost nutrition whenever possible at fast food restaurants by adding veggies to sandwiches, ordering whole-grain bread if offered, and avoiding breaded meats and high-fat toppings. Consider a supermarket stop for lunch. Delis often offer lower-calorie choices, like rotisserie chicken, salads and fruit.
If you opt for a sit-down restaurant that doesn’t offer nutrition information, check their menu for healthy options. Choose items with descriptions like: steamed, broiled, roasted, poached, grilled, braised, or baked. Avoid: fried, battered, buttered, creamed, crispy, breaded, stuffed, double, dunked or glazed.
Start your meal with a broth-based soup or a salad to help fill you up with fewer calories. If the restaurant has a buffet or salad bar, limit yourself to two plates. The first plate should be just vegetables and salads, but watch out for items that have mayonnaise or cheese. Ask the server not to bring the bread, cracker or chip basket until the meal is served. It’s way too easy to mindlessly munch on these and add several hundred calories.
Portion size is a big part of the reason restaurant meals have so many calories. Consider splitting a meal with your partner, choosing an appetizer as a meal, selecting from the kid’s menu if allowed, or even simply asking if you could get smaller portions. You could ask that half your meal be put in a to-go box before it is served if you have a cooler or will be able to store the food safely until the next meal.
Page 2 of 2 - Most restaurants will accommodate special requests, as long as they aren’t too involved and you ask nicely. Perhaps the chef could avoid adding salt to your food or butter to your steak. You might be able to get a double serving of steamed vegetables or have olive oil, instead of butter, with the bread if you request it. Ask for sauces and dressings to be served on the side so you can control the amounts. Ask for high-calorie additions, like bacon, mayonnaise, butter, or cheese, to be held. See if there are substitutions available; maybe a baked potato, salad, or vegetable instead of fries or chips. If you must have dessert, split it with the table. Many restaurants now offer small, bite-size dessert options.
Have you heard of “secret menus”? Some restaurants offer choices that are not on their regular menus but may be on their websites or Facebook pages. Although most secret menu options are high-calorie, mega-food options, some chains do have healthier choices.
At Panera, they have a whole secret “power foods” menu that includes lean proteins, complex carbs and veggies. Examples include a Power Steak Lettuce Wrap or a Power Chicken Hummus Bowl. At Burger King, you can ask for a Veggie Whopper to get a vegetable patty, instead of beef. If you eat at Popeye’s, ask for the meat to come naked or without the breading. At Chik-Fil-A, fruit cups can be substituted for fries, and you can ask for an unbuttered, whole-wheat bun. Red Robin offers a petite burger that isn’t on the menu and has about half the calories of their regular (900 + calorie) cheeseburger. A Starbucks small cup is 12 ounces, but if you ask for a “short” you will get an 8 ounce cup. Subway offers a chicken marinara, instead of meatball, or you could get an ultimate veggie with spinach and avocado.
Although eating on the road isn’t ideal for sticking to a healthy diet, it can be done with a little forethought and effort. Just think how nice it will be not to have to lose those extra pounds when you get home.
Anita Marlay, R.D., L.D., is a dietitian in the cardiac rehab department at Lake Regional Health System in Osage Beach, Mo.