Robin Withrow-Wong is a former student of mine who is currently earning a Master’s in Nutritional Science/Dietetics with the goal of becoming a registered dietitian. She is a mother of four “almost grown” children, and six years ago transitioned her family to plant-based whole foods. She just returned from volunteering in Fiji, where she taught basic nutrition in local villages, an opportunity that combined her passion for international nutrition and skills she acquired through her BA in Communications and experience raising her family. As I’m sure you’ve already gathered, we have quite a bit in common! She thoroughly enjoys healthy cooking, outside sports and just about any activity that centers around family and food! When I asked her about participating in this “Excuse-itarian” article series, she jumped at the chance to tackle “Excuse #7: I can’t eat healthy when traveling.” Enjoy her strategies and recipe!
“Where did you buy your sandwich?” I was asked recently by a woman sitting near me in the airport, while I was devouring a homemade pita sandwich while waiting for a flight. When I told her that I brought it with me, she lamented that healthy eating was “too hard” while traveling, as she gnawed on her overpriced, unappetizing slice of pizza. The excuse of not eating healthy because of travel is baffling to me. I witness people putting time, money, and careful thought into planning their trip, determining how they are getting there and what activities to do once they arrive, yet ignore planning to stay true to their healthy lifestyle and diet. For many, eating is an integral part of their vacation. I have heard people say, “we ate our way through ‘insert location’” and others recount the fabulous or horrendous meals they had while traveling. This makes me wonder, is travel treated like a “free pass” to eat unhealthy foods? What I know is that healthy eating while traveling by train, plane or automobile is not difficult. When the excuse-itarian overpowers the do-er, ask yourself — how does good eating make me feel? I adhere to the motto “nothing tastes as good as good health feels”. I’m pretty sure an English teacher would criticize that sentence, but you get the idea. Eating well while traveling just makes sense, since you want to feel your best and have plenty of energy to enjoy your time away. A few simple ideas can open up to an abundance of great food options when you are far from home, or just for out most of the day!
Pack your own food
Packing your own food allows you to eat food prepared how you like and on your stomach’s schedule. Traveling with kids or adults who get grouchy when hungry? If so, packing food is necessary for those unexpected traffic jams and plane delays. Taking food along, even if it is just simple snacks, will help avoid the “hangries” that occur when meals are delayed, which is inevitable, even with a carefully planned itinerary. Some very doable snack suggestions:
Bring on the fruit, nuts and granola! These items can easily be stashed in a purse or backpack. Fruit such as apples also travel well and can be eaten as a part of a quick breakfast or while waiting during long layovers. Dried fruit and nuts are mess-free, shelf-stable and can frequently be found at gas stations and airports, if not packed ahead. Homemade granola is easy to make prior travel and is especially versatile, offering a crunchy snack or quick breakfast, with a single serving “box” of almond milk or soy milk and/or fruit. Professor Hagenburger even has a recipe for “Scot’s Granola” in her cookbook that is delicious and free of oil and refined sweeteners!
The humble potato is also a great travel food. My family absolutely loves potatoes. My daughter’s soccer friends still talk about the time my husband pulled a baked potato out of his coat pocket and started eating it like an apple while waiting at the soccer field! Potatoes are super portable, and when heated just before you head out, can even stand in as hand warmers in cold weather. Whether your favorite is a Yukon, Russet, purple, red or a colorful sweet potato, you can easily cook several potatoes at once in the microwave (some microwaves have a “potato” button) or oven. I like them plain, but they can be jazzed up with a topping of your choice, such as salsa, hummus or seasoned beans.
Don’t overlook the faithful standbys — cut veggies and rolled sandwiches. Rather than crunching on high fat, high salt chips, which can negatively impact your blood pressure and contribute to dehydration (common while traveling), why not get the nutrients your body needs while also helping to stay hydrated? Cut veggies never disappoint, with a crunch so contagious, they are begging to be eaten. Enjoy carrots, celery, cauliflower “trees”, red bell peppers or zucchini planks, by themselves or as dippers for homemade or store-bought, oil free hummus. The hummus can also be used as a base spread on pita bread, tortillas or lavash bread. Fill a pita with your favorite veggies or layer them into a tortilla/lavash, snugly roll and wrap it up! Investing in a thermal travel bag to keep items cool is handy and the bag and contents easily go through TSA checkpoints, assuming you don’t have liquids. Note that you will need to eat all your unpackaged food prior to arriving in other countries, due to some agriculture-related restrictions. While traveling into Fiji, I chose to eat my bag of homemade sweet potato chips on the plane, rather than throw them away.
Order side dishes off the menu
When you find yourself at a restaurant with few plant based options, rather than order an entrée from the menu, look at the side dishes. Frequently, steamed vegetables (order plain, no butter/salt), a side salad (specify no cheese, dressing on the side) or a plain baked potato will be available. Also, look at the other dishes on the menu to see what ingredients may be used. For example, if quinoa is being used in another dish, the restaurant may be willing to substitute quinoa for cheese on a salad or pair it with steamed veggies. You just need to ask! Restaurants and servers have become accustomed to special requests and aim to please their patrons. Not long ago, my husband and I found ourselves in an “all meat” restaurant with a group of friends. Obviously not our choice of a restaurant, but we were looking for some side dishes and we asked the waiter what he suggested for no oil/no animal product options. To our delight, we were served a vegetable-based meal, free of oil, that was the envy of all the meat eaters at the table! Our lesson – just ask. You may be surprised what restaurants can do. And, if they can’t, then you have your stash of packed food to eat once you leave the restaurant.
As plant based options increase, so does the technology to assist patrons search for suitable restaurants. The website, Happycow.net provides a list of vegan/vegetarian restaurants/health food stores for cities all over the world. Additionally, there are many smartphone apps, such as Veg Out, Veggie Passport, and Vegan Steven which also help find vegan friendly restaurants. One app, Vegan Express even helps identify vegetarian-friendly menu items at chain restaurants.
Don’t forget the grocery store
On road trips, or once you arrive at your destination, a quick visit to a grocery store will enable you to keep your plant-based eating habits intact. Many grocery stores have salad bar or offer a veggie sandwich option at the deli. You can always grab quick-cook (shelf-stable or frozen) brown rice or quinoa, frozen veggies, canned beans, oatmeal and dried soup. All can be prepared in a hotel room using either a microwave and/or hot water. Whole Food Market locations across the country now offer oil free, plant-based options in the pre-made food section labeled with a Health Starts Here logo, making it easy to find their healthful food to go. The possibilities are endless. Be a “true traveler” and choose to the “eating path less traveled,” so that you can eat well, no matter where you are! Not only will you enjoy your trip so much more because you’ll actually feel great, but following your own path will likely save you money on the road, but you’ll also avoid the burden of having to get back to your good eating habits once you return. The beginning of your next trip can be the end of the excuse that travel makes healthful eating difficult. Your quality of life is well worth the effort.
Pita Pocket with Robin’s Homemade Sweet Potato Chips
Make this super easy and extremely portable meal the next time you are off to the airport or train station, and you’ll have fellow travelers wishing you’d brought enough to share!
1 package whole wheat pita bread
1 medium sized sweet potato (any variety)
2 tablespoons hummus (homemade or purchased)
Veggies of choice: cucumber, red onion, lettuce, red bell pepper, broccoli spouts (remember that very juicy vegetables may make sandwich a bit soggy)
Wash and dry all produce. Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Slice sweet potato into ¼ inch thick rounds. Sprinkle with spice of choice (garlic power, black pepper, curry powder or your favorite spice blend). Place on a parchment paper lined baking sheet without overlapping. Bake until edges begin to brown and potato is tender. Approximately 20 minutes overall, but flip rounds halfway through.
While the potato is baking, slice cucumbers, red onion, red bell pepper, tear lettuce and prepare any other vegetables you plan to include.
Once potatoes are done, assemble sandwich by spreading the hummus inside the pita and filling with vegetables. Additional sweet potato chips can accompany sandwich. Pack in a “smash-proof” container and hit the road!
Timaree Hagenburger, a registered dietitian, certified exercise physiologist with a master’s degree in public health, and is a nutrition professor at Cosumnes River College. She is thrilled to connect with her students like Robin, who is truly making the world a better place! Timaree also conducts local events, corporate wellness work, has a regular segment on California Bountiful TV and published her first cookbook – The Foodie Bar Way: One meal. Lots of options. Everyone’s happy. available at www.FoodieBars.com – where you will also find details about Timaree’s upcoming events (cooking demos, book signings and talks about the incredible power you yield with your fork!).