Traveling almost always means eating on the road or in the air. And that can mean making some nutritional sacrifices. But when the only option for lunch is a random gas station, it doesn’t have to mean that a balanced meal is completely off the table. In fact, it’s possible to find nutritious food options at airports, bodegas, fast food restaurants, and yes, even gas stations.
A few basic guidelines can help you stay on track: Go crazy with the veggies whenever possible. Try to achieve a stay-full-longer balance of protein and fiber. And keep an eye on portion sizes, especially at sit-down restaurants. Still need some guidance? Here are my favorite picks to have a healthy meal wherever you are.
With even the major hamburger chains selling decent veggie burgers and salads these days, it’s easier than ever to find reasonably nutritious fast food. My favorite combo: a small, no-frills burger or chicken sandwich with veggie toppings like lettuce, tomato, and pickles, plus a side salad. At joints like Taco Bell, I’ll go for a bean-and-cheese burrito, and at places like Panda Express I’ll get a rice bowl with veggies and chicken. These choices have a good combination of protein and fiber to keep you full longer.
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Most bodegas have deli counters and can make surprisingly well-balanced sandwiches. While you may not be able to find whole-grain bread everywhere, you can generally get a full serving of veggies — just ask for a nice big handful of lettuce and tomato, plus any pickles or other vegetable toppings that look good to you. And if they don’t pile the meat and cheese too high (two to three thin deli slices and one piece of cheese is typically enough to satisfy), you won’t be OD'ing on sodium. If the best option is a baguette or long roll, I aim for about a 6-inch sandwich.
While it can still sometimes be tough to find anything resembling a fruit or vegetable at some gas stations, increasing numbers of them have refrigerator cases stocked with fresh food, including some halfway decent salads. On a recent road trip, I assembled a surprisingly satisfying, high-fiber lunch from a gas station, including a single-serving hummus-and-pretzel cup, a fruit salad cup, and some not-overly-processed beef jerky. Other gas stations have nice selections of dried fruit, jarred salsa, and high-fiber multigrain chips — not to mention the usual standbys of nuts, trail mix, and granola bars.
Compared to some of the other places on this list, grocery stores are a piece of cake. Many have prepared food buffets, where you can find a variety of raw and cooked veggies, meat and vegetarian protein options, and grain-based salads. A good rule of thumb for portioning at these buffets: Fill half the container with veggies, then top with a serving of protein about the size of your palm, and a serving of grain/starch about the size of your fist. If your grocery store only has a deli counter, you can apply the same guidelines as you would in a bodega: a pile of veggies, and a few slices of meat and cheese. I also love a DIY picnic — try fresh-baked bread, a nice piece of cheese, some easy-to-eat fruit, and cut veggies with salsa or hummus for dipping.
Like gas stations, many of the major pharmacy chains now also have refrigerator cases selling sandwiches and salads. Look for a balance of protein, veggies, and starch (say, for example, a salad with chicken, a colorful mix of greens and tomatoes, and a handful of croutons). If it’s breakfast time you can usually find yogurt, a fruit-and-nut bar, or a smoothie. Even pharmacies that don’t have refrigerator cases will usually still have a small grocery section where you can find nuts and other snacks as you would in gas stations and bodegas, but one unique thing about pharmacies is the nutritional supplement shakes, which are great for breakfast or a snack in a pinch. I stick to the varieties sweetened with sugar instead of artificial sweeteners, which have been shown to alter the normal makeup of the intestinal microbiome. It’s best to keep your daily consumption of added sugars under about 25-30g, but these shakes can fit in nicely if you think of them as your main sweet treat for the day.
Many of these types of restaurants serve portions big enough for two to three meals, and if you’re not supremely attuned to your hunger and fullness cues, it can be pretty overwhelming. But here’s an easy trick to get a good serving size for one meal: Ask for an extra plate, and serve yourself a portion of starch that’s about the size of your fist, a portion of veggies that’s twice that size, and a portion of protein that’s about the size of your palm. Eat that extra-plate meal first, taking breaks to talk with your tablemates and sip some water, and then see how you feel. If you’re satisfied, box up the leftovers to take home; if not, serve yourself a second, smaller portion and then check in with your fullness again.
By Christy Harrison, MHP, RD, CDN