One of the biggest challenges of being on the road is eating healthy. Budgeting, goes hand in hand with that. Living large on tour can set you back or put the brakes on things. You can't spend like its a vacation if you have bills to pay (newsflash - we are not the Rolling Stones). And eating fatty, sugary, nutrient devoid junk food every day isn't only a bad idea, it's a recipe for disaster when combined with sedentary days, irregular sleep, and alcohol that flows like the mighty Mississippi at night. Diet restrictions complicate things, and a vegetarian diet is next to impossible unless you rely on processed foods. Self-control and discipline are paramount.
Beignets and Cafe Au Lait at Cafe Du Monde in New Orleans - an affordable splurge we've been lucky to experience a couple times a year.
It's a mistake to assume there will be anything an hour or two down the road, let alone fresh food options. There's a lot of long, open road out there. Bad choices are abundant. Then, there is delicious regional cuisine you will want to splurge on. My solution to the road food challenge is a work in progress that involves "healthiest choice available", carrying a lunch cooler, and taking advantage of what is provided. We stay at hotels that provide breakfasts, venues/events typically offer a meal, and we often stay in lodging or band houses that have a kitchen or at least a microwave. We are occasionally treated to a delicious home-cooked meal. (If you've ever prepared a meal for us, it means the world to sit at a table and eat with "family" while on the road <3 Thank You!).
There are a lot of bad choices on the road. Some are better left alone.
Hotel Breakfasts aka Odin's Bounty
I'm not a big breakfast person but I never miss it on the road and I feel better for it. Most of the hotels we stay at have plenty of good options like plain oatmeal and toppings, gluten free bagels if you ask, dairy free milk, sometimes plain yogurt. I do a plate full of fruit, sprinkled with almond slices, eggs for protein, coffee, and sometimes a muffin or biscuit. Even if you aren't concerned with eating healthy there are always waffles, pastries, sausage, bacon, sometimes cheese omelets, Fruitloops or something worth putting in your belly. And there's stuff you can take to go. I use my viking skills and grab an apple or banana and a yogurt or hard boiled egg to put in my lunch cooler for later. Single servings of peanut butter come in handy, too and I never turn down a complimentary bottled water.
Most incredible breakfast I've had on the road - I passed on the buffet and used my food voucher on a lox plate in San Antonio, TX. Most often its fruit and yogurt.
Truck Stops and Fast Food
Sometimes all you have to work with is a truck stop when you are on long stretch of highway or in a time crunch. Most have some kind of fast food and in many cases healthier choices. I keep an eye on sodium and try to avoid fatty and fried snacks. Here is a list of things more likely to be available.
Wendy's Power Mediterranean Chicken Salad (best fast food invention ever). I could eat it everyday and don't even need the dressing it comes with as its topped with a hummus style sauce and feta. A half size is under $5, loaded with leafy greens, veggies, chicken and its only 650 mg of sodium.
Wendy's Chili, Small. Its filling and the lesser of many evils.
Subway 6 inch Subway Club, oven roasted chicken or rotisserie sub, Turkey sub with ALL the veggies. They're lower in bad fat and sodium than most subs and other fast food.
A Junior/single hamburger often has the lowest sodium and fat content on a fast food menu and enough protein to keep you satisfied for a while.
Pilot and Flying J Hot foods. They have soups that taste and look fresh, include veggies and are filling, however the sodium is high. The minestrone is vegetarian. Their cheese pizza is lower in sodium and has less fat than many other truck stop options.
Fruits and Veggies- Pilot carries fruit cups, bananas, apples, and pre-made salads if you don't have any in your cooler. I personally steer clear of bottled juices and smoothies due to high sugar content (and I'd rather eat a whole piece of fruit). But if you are a vegan it is likely one of your best options.
Smart Food Delite popcorn is way better than just about any other snack food at a gas station. Its not everywhere though. I'll settle for the regular version which is at least high in fiber and more filling than chips.
Single serving package of mixed nuts - nuts in moderation are great for you and the protein is satisfying!
Kind bars - I am not a fan of most nutrition bars. They're often high in sugar and strange ingredients. Energy bars are for people that are active, and I'm sitting on my butt ALL DAY. Protein bars make me feel like there's a lump of coal in my stomach. But Kind bars are mostly nuts and grains, gluten free, lower in sugar and can be found at a lot of truck stops. Eat one with an apple and you're not hungry or craving junk for hours.
Grocery Store Top Ten for Travel
These are the most portable and useful items I grab for my cooler when we can visit a store:
#1 - Fresh fruit - I go straight to the ugly/mark down fruit to see what's up first. It's $1 a bag and usually not ugly.
#2 - Veggies - Carrot Chips and Sugar Snap Peas keep the best. I also do grape tomatoes and sometimes a cucumber or avocado. Salad kits or baby spinach both store better than other lettuce options in a small cooler.
#3 - Canned Albacore, Tuna Salad Kits, Canned chicken
#4 - Hummus
#5 - Sunflower seeds
#6 - Tortillas (corn if you have gluten issues)
#7 - Processed/Packaged foods - Rice-a-Roni, Ramen and Bear Creek soup cups and Miso soup packets are higher in sodium but they are around $1 each and beat a late night Whataburger binge.
#8 - Microwave popcorn - 3 packs can be found for around a dollar.
#9 - Frozen foods - If I'm headed straight to a hotel with a microwave and have time, i look at frozen veggies, Boca Chik'n and Birdseye Protein Blends. Big chains offer frozen meals for the vegan/dairy free/gluten free.
#10 - Deli Food - grilled chicken breast, to go salads or a sub to eat, share & save - some are big enough for 4 servings and usually better than any fast food.
Peanut Butter and Banana Taco
Van Life Chef De Cuisine
If we are somewhere for over a day, we can do a legit grocery store visit to stock a fridge with snacks and items for band meals, incorporating gifts we get like venison, bbq, etc. The greater challenge is better eating in the van, where we spend most of our time. Here are my favorite van and hotel prepared meals and snacks:
Mama Didn't Raise No Fool Sandwich - Peanut Butter and Banana Taco ala Best Western.
Hummus and Veggie Wrap - Make sure your cooler is equipped with a small knife for veggies that aren't pre-cut. I like it so much, at home I add feta and tzatziki sauce.
Backseat Driver Salad - Salad mix, sunflower seeds, veggies or fruit, canned chicken/tuna, or a hard boiled egg. If there's a Sonic around you can do a mini order of popcorn chicken. I keep spare dressing packets in my cooler.
Salad I made in the van with items from my little lunch cooler.
Tacos - Thank you for sending us off with delicious pulled pork, Toni and Fifi! I heated it on our hotel stove in Austin and topped it with cilantro, tomatoes, and Herdez Salsa Verde ($1-ish). Tacos for days!
Tuna or Chicken wrap w veggies - I keep single servings of Mayo in my cooler for the tuna, use hummus as a spread for Chicken.
Frozen Food Feast - My favorite frozen food microwave meal I've done is Birdseye Protein Blends and grilled deli chicken breast over riced cauliflower.
Leftovers - it's why you bring a cooler. Repeat after me; "Yes, I would love to take some with me"!
Graze - its not a meal, but grazing all day on veggies and hummus, yogurt, fruit and nuts will keep your from resorting to junk food and spending lots of money. Drink lots of water, too.
The reward for thinking ahead and choosing healthier options is that you feel a lot better. And you can enjoy yourself when a splurge on Texas BBQ, Crawfish Pie, or Gus's Fried Chicken comes along.
There is nothing like eating at Gus's in Memphis. A splurge we plan for.