Megan O. Steintrager
The last time I went on a major road trip, the food along the way was pretty much a horror show for anyone trying to eat nutritiously. So when Epicurious asked me to investigate the healthiest foods you can find at gas stations and convenience stores, I was skeptical, though intrigued. Turns out things have gotten a lot better over the last few years. I did most of my legwork at gas stations between NYC and Montauk, with the bulk of my research at the 7-Eleven in Montauk, where I was easily able to put together the makings for a nutritious and tasty snack that could serve as a meal in a pinch. Sure, the healthy stuff was displayed alongside the hot-pink Sno Balls, shiny pizza slices, hot dogs, taquitos on a roller, and sodium-laden burritos, but it was there. Here are my top picks for healthy foods that’re now widely available at many gas stations and convenience stores (not just those that are down the road from the Hamptons). These are good choices whether you’re trying to fuel an all-day drive someplace fun or just trying to grab a bite on your way to or from the office.
Fresh Fruit: The 7-Eleven I visited had apples, oranges, and bananas. True, none of it was organic, but as nutritionist Monica Reinagel pointed out in perhaps the most controversial blog I’ve ever posted, eating produce with pesticides from time to time is better than not eating produce at all.
Trail Mix: Rifle through the bags that are filled with questionable stuff like ”yogurt-covered” raisins, and you can usually find a trail mix that’s made of mostly heart-healthy nuts and fiber-rich dried fruit, a combination that’s satiating enough to get you through to real meal.
Cheese: In addition to kiddie fave string cheese, individually-wrapped sharp Cheddar slices have begun popping up at more and more gas stations. Sure, cheese has saturated fat, but it also has protein and calcium, and it’s meal-like enough to help you steer clear of the “cheese-flavored” snacks. Besides, it turns out saturated fat might not be as bad as we thought... this week, at least.
SEE MORE: 15 Food That Are Better Frozen
Hard-Boiled Eggs: When I was growing up in North Carolina, you could find salty pickled eggs at any gas station, but you’d have been hard-pressed to find a regular old hard-boiled egg. These days, they seem to be everywhere, ready to provide a handy source of protein, vitamin D, and other nutrients. The 7-Eleven had them in packs of two (with salt and pepper) for $1.29, perfect for sharing so your road trip companion can’t complain about the smell of eggs in the car.
Peanut Butter: Like trail mix, cheese, and eggs, peanut butter is a great source of protein, as well as healthy fat, plus fiber, all of which helps youfeel full. Consider keeping a pocket knife or spoon in your car, or look for individual squeeze packets of PB.
Whole-Grain Crackers and Bread: For something to pair with your peanut butter, look for 100 percent whole-grain crackers or bread. “Whole” should be the first word on the label. I was happy to learn that Triscuits, one of my favorite stand-ins for potato chips, are made with 100 percent whole wheat.
Cereal and Milk: As with crackers and bread, if you follow the whole-grain rule and keep an eye on added sugar, cereal with milk is a much better breakfast choice than the doughnuts and muffins you’ll find at convenience stores. You can usually find individual servings of many types of cereal at gas stations, and while they’re not generally as economical as buying a whole box, they’re convenient and have built-in portion control. The best choice at my 7-Eleven was Cheerios.
Yogurt: I hesitated a bit before including one of my favorite healthy foods on this list because it’s hard to find plain yogurt at convenience stores (there weren’t any plains at my 7-Eleven) and flavored yogurts tend to be loaded with sugar or artificial sweeteners. If you can’t find plain, read the labels and choose the one lowest in sugar, or buy a brand with sweetener on the side or bottom and only use some of it.
Hummus: It’s available everywhere these days, and hummus is yet another great source of satiating protein and fiber. My 7-Eleven had full-sized tubs, as well as handy individual servings with pretzels included.
Prepared Fruit and 100 Percent Fruit Juice: While fresh, whole fruit is healthiest, prepared fruit cups with minimal added sugar and 100 percent fruit juice are decent bets.
Honorable Mention - Jerky: Here’s another instance in which you’ll want to read the label, but if it’s just not a road trip without jerky, you’ll be glad to know there are some made with higher quality meats (e.g. grass-fed beef) and without preservatives or a ton of sodium. The Montauk 7-Eleven had turkey jerky without added nitrates or other preservatives.