Tips to Live By

Tips for Eating Healthy While Traveling

May 22, 2024 - Katie McCallum

Eating a healthy diet can feel challenging as it is. Keeping it up while traveling might seem next to impossible.

But whether you're vacationing, on a business trip or just traveling between cities, there's light at the end of the tunnel if your goal is to keep your meals as healthy as possible.

"Rather than good or bad, I like to think of food as being for fuel or for fun," says Kristen Wright, a dietitian at Houston Methodist. "When we remove the comparison mentality and use terms like fuel food and fun food, things not only become more positive but the options available to us become more intertwined, so we can more easily find balance."

With this in mind, here are Wright's tips for eating healthy while traveling.

Know how to differentiate fuel foods and fun foods

Striking a balance between fuel and fun food starts with being able to recognize which foods fall on either end.

Fuel foods include:

  • Non-starchy vegetables and fruits – the more variety of color you can include, the better
  • Lean protein – chicken breast, turkey breast, fish, tofu, Greek yogurt and eggs
  • Complex carbohydrates – whole grains, beans and legumes, such as whole wheat flour, quinoa, faro, bulgur, black beans, chickpeas, lentils, edamame and oatmeal
  • Healthy fats – nuts, seeds, avocado, eggs and peanut butter, though these should be eaten in moderation

"These fuel foods contain the nutrients, vitamins and minerals our bodies need to function, and they help keep us feeling full and satisfied," explains Wright. "Whereas fun foods are ones that don't contain meaningful nutrition and are often full of refined ingredients and unhealthy additives."

Examples of fun foods include:

  • Candy, cookies and pastries
  • Sodas and sweetened drinks
  • Chips, crackers and sugary breakfast cereals
  • French fries, chicken nuggets, fish sticks and other fried foods
  • Frozen TV dinners, pizzas and burger patties


"If you want to enjoy a fun food, that is totally OK," says Wright. "It doesn't define you in any type of way, nor should it. Knowing it's a fun food just helps as you work to find that balance."

Balance fun foods with fuel foods

The all-or-nothing mentality is an easy trap to fall into with food, especially on vacation.

"We either want to eat fun foods all the time or we go overboard trying to avoid them altogether," says Wright. "Neither serves us well. Instead, we should be well equipped to recognize what's a fuel food, what's a fun food and balance them together at meals. This way we're not overdoing a certain type of food and we're taking control of the psychological aspect of enjoying fun foods."

What does this look like when put into practice? Eat that burger and fries! But try to incorporate whole foods in your meal. Tomato, onion, lettuce, maybe even peppers — top that patty with plenty of veggies. And maybe you don't eat all of the fries, swapping some for a side salad or veggie sticks.

"This way we're getting the nutrients, vitamins and minerals that fuel us while still allowing ourselves to enjoy something fun," adds Wright. "I personally love jalapeno cheese kolaches, but instead of eating a couple of these for breakfast on a road trip, I get a one kolache and pair it with a veggie cup."

Go whole or less processed at convenience stores

Traveling can often mean stopping at a gas station or two. While they're great for fueling up your car, you might be unsure how to make sense of the food-for-fuel options inside a gas station food mart. One way is to identify and avoid ultra-processed foods — generally speaking, the less processed something is, the better.

"The fewer the ingredients and the more words you understand, the less processed a food item is," explains Wright. "If the ingredient list stretches on and on, that means the food is highly processed."

If you see words you can't pronounce, that's likely an additive — some type of processed sugar, salt, fiber or alternative sweetener. To make matters worse, Wright adds that some of these additives, such as sucralose, sorbitol, erythritol and psyllium, can be very upsetting to the digestive tract, leading to bloating, constipation and more. Definitely not something you want to deal with while traveling. (Related: 10 Things That Lead to Digestive Problems While Traveling)

Standing in a gas station and not sure what to pick? Here are some ideas:

  • Corn chips with bean dip
  • Pretzels with peanut butter
  • Tuna with crackers
  • Hummus with pita chips
  • Mixed nuts or trail mix
  • Fruit cups

"A lot of times, the choices we find in a convenience store will still have a lot of sodium, but at least you're going to get a balance of filling nutrients — fiber, protein, healthy fats — out of options like these," adds Wright.

Depending on where you stop — a pharmacy with a larger food market, for instance — you might even find some whole or lightly processed food options, like nuts and seeds, veggie cups, dried fruit, to-go salads, boiled eggs or cheese cubes. These are fueling choices.

Mind your portions at fast food restaurants

Sometimes fast food is the only option while traveling. Or maybe you consider it to be a treat when on a road trip. No foods should be off limits, but Wright does recommend trying to optimize a meal heavy on fun foods if you can.

"Everything is super-sized these days," says Wright. "Perhaps we just portion control ourselves by ordering the smaller size instead. You may even be able to make some fuel-based swaps."

Not all salads are created equal, and a fast food salad may not have as many health benefits as one you make at home, but Wright points out that getting some type of whole vegetable is always better than not getting vegetables at all. Reason enough to swap even just some of those fries for a side salad, veggie sticks or fruit cup, if available. And if there's not a vegetable in sight, consider options that help you cut down on unhealthy fats and added sugars — swapping fried chicken for grilled or baked or getting unsweetened instead of sweetened iced tea.

"It's all about trying to find some fuel within a fun space," says Wright. "Most everything will be a fun food at a fast food restaurant, but that doesn't mean we can't try to make decisions that help balance the meal out."

Watch out for "healthy" ultra-processed food options

Key to eating fuel foods is knowing how to avoid the fun-food traps set by the food manufacturing industry. "Keto Friendly," "Gluten Free," "Organic" — these claims don't automatically mean a food is healthy. In fact, they're often highly processed.

For instance, the carbohydrates left out of gluten-free products have to be replaced with something, usually added fibers or fats. The same goes for keto items. And, no, those "organic" gummy bears aren't any less processed than the "real" ones they're sitting next to.

"Everything taken away must be replaced, and 9 times out of 10 it's going to be replaced with something ultra-processed," Wright points out. "This creates a situation where we're giving our body more of those processed foods, all the while thinking that we're making a healthy choice."

The bottom line: Not all "healthy" foods are fuel foods. Be sure to do your own fact checking by taking a look at the ingredients list. Do you see any sign of the fuel foods mentioned above? (Related: 5 Nutrition Misconceptions Debunked by a Dietitian)

B.Y.O.S. (Bring Your Own Snacks!)

If you know your food options will be a limited on a trip, Wright recommends packing your own fuel-based snacks, like:

  • Nuts
  • Boiled eggs
  • Popcorn
  • Veggie stalks
  • Fruit cups
  • Nut and fruit bars
  • Cheese sticks

"Some of these are still processed, but since you're getting to select them ahead of time you can be more choosy," says Wright. "And you're not as likely to find these more nutrient-packed options at a gas station convenience store."

(Related: Snack Makeover: Healthy Homemade Trail Mix)

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Categories: Tips to Live By