Healthy Holiday Eating on the Road

The holidays and travel are two factors that can each make healthy eating a challenge. Put them together, and you have a perfect recipe for highly processed meals grabbed on the go and loaded with salt, calories, unhealthy fats, and refined grains.

This is the season for indulging a bit, but it’s important to maintain a balanced approach and not go overboard giving into temptation or to convenience (airport vending machines, anyone?). Fortunately, with a little bit of advance planning, you can make room for holiday treats when you’re on the road and visiting loved ones and keep your healthy eating goals on track. 

Understanding holiday eating challenges

When you’re hitting the road for a holiday trip, food traps seem to be waiting everywhere. On your way, fast food joints will sing their siren song from thruway rest stops, train and bus stations, and airport terminals. Vending machines will tempt with their quick and portable snacks. And once you reach your destination, you’re likely to be bombarded with all sorts of home-baked goodies and course after course at various festive gatherings.

Indeed, food seems to be everywhere, and whether you’re sampling some baked goods that were made “just for you” to avoid hurting Aunt Millie’s feelings, mindlessly munching on the offerings from a cheese plate while watching the game, or trying to make the most of a brief window in the year to enjoy some holiday favorites, it can be hard to maintain a balanced approach to mealtime.

Pre-trip planning for healthy eating

A bit of planning before you set off can be the first line of defense for keeping your dietary goals on track during the holidays. 

Embrace your identity as a healthy eater.

One simple suggestion from the Duke University Health System? Tell yourself you’re a healthy eater. Studies indicate that imagining yourself as someone who eats healthy results in greater intentions to follow through. Thinking of times in the past when you’ve made healthy choices can help provide motivation to continue the trend.

Pack healthy meals and snacks.

Taking the time to gather some portable foods prior to your travels can help you avoid the temptation and convenience factor of fast-food establishments (and is particularly helpful for those with dietary restrictions, who may struggle to find safe and suitable options at transit hubs). If your method of travel will allow, the Cleveland Clinic recommends bringing a small cooler with ice packs and filling it with items such as fresh vegetables (e.g., baby carrots, celery sticks, mini cucumbers), portable fresh fruits (e.g., bananas, apples, grapes), low-fat string cheese or cheese slices, single-serving containers of hummus or guacamole, and whole-grain wraps with chicken or turkey. Also be sure to bring plenty of water.

If you can’t accommodate a cooler (or want to supplement what’s on offer), consider nonperishable items such as applesauce, single-serving containers of tuna, single-serving bags of veggie chips, packets of nuts or trail mix, air-popped popcorn, low-sugar protein bars, and peanut butter sandwiches on whole-grain bread. (Check this list from the Transportation Security Administration [TSA] to determine what food items are allowed on planes, trains, and ships.)

Look into dining options along your route.

Research what options will be available along the roads you’ll be traveling or at the air, rail, or bus terminals you’ll be passing through. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) notes that chain restaurants and similar establishments with 20 or more locations must post nutrition information on their menus. Many of these menus are available online, so you can plot out your meals in advance.

Request a mini-fridge in your hotel room.

If you’ll be staying in a hotel at your destination, request a mini-fridge in your room or select a suite that has kitchen facilities so you can prepare your own food. And if your method of transportation will allow, pack some small kitchen utensils and appliances, such as a can opener, reusable containers, and a travel blender, suggests the Duke University Health System.

Navigating transit hubs and in-flight dining

If the food establishments at an airport food court or other transit hub or on a plane will be your best or only option, there are steps you can take to make the healthiest selections possible.

According to Kaiser Permanente, it is important not to go to restaurants overly hungry, which can lead to overeating or making unhealthy selections. To keep portion sizes in check, avoid super-sizing at fast-food restaurants and consider splitting a meal with one of your dining companions. Alternatively, if you will have access to a refrigerator, consider asking for a to-go box and packing up half your meal before you start eating.

To keep your meals lower in fat, opt for dishes that are prepared via boiling, poaching, grilling, baking, or steaming. Ask to have butter, sour cream, sauces, and dressings served on the side, and avoid high-fat extras such as cheese or bacon on burgers. 

Whenever possible, opt for extra vegetables, including having them added as toppings on pizzas or substituted in place of sides such as french fries, or try going with vegetarian dishes. And opt for whole grains, such as brown rice or whole wheat, over refined or highly processed options such as white rice or white bread. 

When it comes to beverages, choose water, fruit-flavored sparkling water, or unsweetened iced tea over soft drinks or cocktails.

For healthy in-flight selections, website Expatica recommends steering clear of options covered in sauce (which is often high in fat and sugar); avoiding white bread, white rice, and refined pasta; skipping the in-flight drink; and selecting a meal that’s high in lean protein (such as white meat chicken or turkey, sirloin steak, or beans).

Healthy choices at holiday feasts

Arrived at your destination and ready to partake of some holiday fun and food? According to Marci Gluck, PhD, FAED, a psychologist with the National Institutes of Health (NIH), it’s important to maintain a flexible mindset and not take an all-or-nothing approach to your holiday meals. “Celebrations don’t have to derail your lifestyle. You’ll have plenty of opportunities to follow your plan and eat healthy,” she says. Jody Engel, MA, RD, a registered dietitian with the NIH, recommends eating foods you love in moderation and choosing special treats that are unique to the season instead of items you can have any time. It’s also important to eat mindfully — paying attention to and savoring each bite of food instead of munching away while distracted can help you feel satisfied with less.

Staying hydrated and avoiding excess alcohol

When it comes to beverages, there are a couple of rules that hold no matter where you are. First, make sure you stay hydrated. According to the National Council on Aging, among the many other benefits, drinking plenty of water can help improve energy levels and aid in weight management. Maintaining adequate hydration can also prevent sickness and speed recovery — an important consideration during peak cold and flu season. According to the U.S. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, this is about 15.5 cups (3.7 liters) of fluids each day for men and 11.5 cups (2.7 liters) of fluids each day for women from both food and beverages. 

During this festive season, it’s also crucial to enjoy alcohol in moderation only (if you decide to imbibe at all). According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), moderate drinking is considered to be 2 drinks or less a day for men and 1 drink or less a day for women. (A drink is defined as 12 ounces [oz] of beer, 5 oz of wine, or 1.5 oz of 80-proof distilled spirits.) And if you have any health conditions, it’s worth discussing with your doctor if any amount of alcohol is safe.

A toast to health and joy on your holiday journey

As you navigate the bustling airports and gather around tables laden with tempting treats, it’s important to remember that the greatest gift you can give yourself this season is the gift of health. With a sprinkle of planning, a dash of self-control, and a hearty appetite for adventure, you can savor the flavors of the holidays without sidelining your wellness goals.

So, here’s to holiday journeys filled with cheer, to plates balanced like the scales of culinary justice, and to toasts raised in honor of health and happiness. May your travels be merry, your feasts be fulfilling, and your holidays glow with the warmth of good health. Bon voyage and bon appétit!

Disclaimer of Medical Advice: This information does not constitute medical advice or recommendation of any kind, and you should not rely on any information contained in such posts or comments to replace consultations with your qualified healthcare professionals to meet your individual needs.

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