Ready to hit the road again? It’s been a long haul, but COVID-19 restrictions are easing quickly and a steadily-growing percentage of the U.S. population has been vaccinated — meaning people are getting excited about vacation plans.

But if you’re trying to eat healthy, dining away from home can derail even the best intentions. From endless cruise ship buffets to fast food joints along highways, the open road can feel more like an obstacle course than an escape. What are hungry people – with one eye on their health – to do?

Samantha "Sam" Spain
Samantha "Sam" Spain

Well, to begin with, keep your perspective, said Samantha “Sam” Spain, a registered dietitian at Novant Health Bariatric Solutions in Kernersville, North Carolina.

“Nutrition doesn't have to be perfect to be successful. Most of us aren’t going to lose weight while traveling,” she conceded. But we can at least try to keep things balanced.

Spain also encourages clients to change their outlook, from “I have to eat healthily” to “I get to eat healthily.”

“Focusing on foods that make you feel your best can be a driving factor in developing that mindset,” she says. “This is especially helpful when you’re traveling, because if you feel well, you’ll enjoy your vacation so much more.”

To that end, Spain offered the following tips for eating well on the road:

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1. Look for healthier options that are popping up in unexpected places.

“Convenience foods are quick and easy, they’re cheap and they taste good,” Spain says, “so we tend to forget about more nutritious options when we travel.” But even convenience stores and airports are starting to offer a wider range of healthy snacks, like yogurt with granola, cheese plates and salads.

2. Stick with regular mealtimes, and fill your plate wisely.

To offset temptation, Spain encourages clients to be mindful of portion sizes, avoid heavy sauces and maintain a normal eating schedule, especially when faced with extensive buffets. “Cruise ships have a lot of opportunities for indulgence,” she says, “but they usually offer healthier options, too, like lean proteins, fruits, vegetables and whole grains.”

3. Bring plenty of high-fiber, high-protein snacks.

If you’re driving, pack a cooler where you can store hard-boiled eggs, yogurt, and fresh produce. When traveling by plane, train or ship, check the TSA website or contact your cruise line to learn which foods you’re allowed to carry on. Bring extra, if possible, so you can avoid vending machines and other temptations at your hotel.

4. Stay hydrated.

Drinking water not only replenishes the fluids in your body, it keeps your skin hydrated, reduces junk-food cravings and helps fend off that bloated feeling from fluid retention. If you use a refillable bottle, you’ll reap all these benefits while also helping the environment.

5. Eat mindfully and savor your food.

“One of the best things people can do for themselves is to take time to eat, to sit down and enjoy meals rather than skipping them or eating on the go,” Spain said. Slowing down and eating mindfully allows you to fully enjoy new dishes and local flavors. “I also encourage folks to consider what they need to feel satisfied,” Spain says. “Do you really need the whole banana split? Or would one scoop of ice cream be enough?”

6. Choose a special treat once a day, and otherwise opt for healthy foods.

Eating out often feels like a special treat, but when we’re traveling, it becomes an everyday occasion. That means, instead of indulging at every meal, consider eating fiber- and nutrient-rich vegetables and lean proteins at mealtime, and enjoying a special indulgence, like a mouthwatering dessert, once a day.

7. Harness technology to help you find healthy options.

There’s an app for everything — including finding restaurants that serve healthy food. Food Tripping, Happy Cow (HappyCow.net) and Vegan Finder (vegan-finder.com) can help you find fast-food alternatives and restaurants with plant-based options. You can also use filters on sites like Yelp, Door Dash and Grub Hub to find nutritious meals on the road.

8. Fend off jet-lag and travel fatigue by eating foods associated with better sleep.

Reach for foods that contain tryptophan, magnesium, melatonin and other nutrients that may help improve your sleep:

  • Poultry, fatty fish like salmon or tuna, and dairy products.
  • Almonds, cashews and other nuts.
  • Oatmeal, bran flakes, whole grain crackers and other relatively unprocessed carbs.
  • Tart Montmorency cherries or tart-cherry juice without added sugar.
  • Bananas and kiwis.
  • Limiting processed or sugary foods and cutting back on caffeine and alcohol can also help ensure you rest easy and wake refreshed.

    If you do go a little overboard...

    Try to go easy on yourself. Success, according to Spain, is all about creating a sense of balance instead of having an all-or- nothing attitude.

    “We don’t need to say ‘I can never again have cake on my birthday, or indulge when I travel,’” she said. “A birthday is just one day, and a vacation lasts maybe a week or two. So, just proceed at a reasonable pace and get back to your normal healthy routine as soon as possible.”

    Ideas for healthy, portable snacks

    • Celery or sliced apples spread with peanut butter (rub lemon juice on apples to prevent browning).

    • Fresh fruit (bananas, grapes, strawberries and oranges are easy to carry along).

    • Sliced veggies (baby carrots, cauliflower florets, bell peppers and snap peas are easy to eat).

    • Single-serving containers of almond butter, hummus or guacamole for dipping.

    • Dried fruit, like raisins, cranberries, bananas, apples, apricots.

    • Nuts and seeds (almonds, walnuts, pumpkin seeds, etc.) or homemade trail mix.

    • Protein bars, shakes or packets of protein-powder you can mix into water or milk.

    • Hard-boiled eggs.

    • Plain, low-fat yogurt with granola or fruit.

    • Individually-wrapped, low-fat string cheese, cheese sticks or mini-rounds.

    • Individual portions of sugar-free applesauce.

    • Single-serving envelopes of tuna packed in water.

    • Low-sodium turkey jerky or smoked salmon.

    • Popcorn (air-popped or a low-fat, low sodium variety containing as few ingredients as possible).