There’s nothing like a great vacation or successful business trip—except when you return home feeling sluggish and bloated from overeating. Choosing healthy foods on-the-go doesn’t have to be impossible, though. With a little preparation, you can plan for delicious, nutrient-rich options that help you stay on track with your fitness goals. Our experts share six ways to stick to your diet while traveling, so that you can enjoy any trip without worrying about packing on extra pounds.
Pack your own snacks or healthy favorites.
“If you’re able to pack snacks, do so,” says Becky Kerkenbush, a clinical dietitian with over 15 years of experience. “Being prepared with an array of healthy snacks keeps temptation at bay. Try string cheese, unsalted almonds, fresh fruit and vegetables, individual containers of hummus, yogurt, and cottage cheese, skim milk, hard-boiled eggs, sandwiches, water, whole grain crackers, or granola bars.”
Public Health and Nutrition Expert Dr. Dani Torchia recommends anything with plenty of protein, fiber, B vitamins, and mono- and polyunsaturated fats, instead of junk food or high-sugar items. To avoid hitting up the vending machine or making a poor food choice, try to keep snacks with you at all times, says Dr. Alex Robles of New York Presbyterian Hospital. Examples of these snacks include mixed nuts, homemade protein bars, natural nut butter, and rice cakes. And, if you’re flying, be sure to skip salty, greasy, and overpriced airport food, adds Chelsea Gloeckner, RD.
Bring your meals with you, if you can.
“Here’s my secret: I purchased a car cooler that plugs into the power source in my car,” shares Stephanie Lincoln, personal trainer and eating psychology expert. “I meal prep and bring lunch, dinner, snacks, and drinks for each day of a trip. So all I have to do is open up the cooler and grab my food. For flights, I bring a lunch box that has the insulation that you can freeze, and pack small containers of salad with protein, salad dressing, boiled eggs, carrot sticks, hummus, etc. Anything else goes in my carry-on: nuts, beef jerky, apples, individual packets of nut butter, individual cans of tuna or chicken salad, protein shakes, and a blender bottle.”
Keep in mind, though, that there might be some restrictions on fresh produce you can travel with while flying to certain international destinations. Always check with your airline to confirm what you food items you can and cannot bring in your check-in and carry-on bags.
Plan to cook, try local foods, or research restaurants in advance.
“Since travel often leads to an increase in eating out, the best way to stay on track with a healthy diet is to make a plan in advance,” say Registered Dietitian Erin Palinski-Wade. “Plan out when you will eat so [that] you can determine where you will be eating and what foods will be available to you. This can cut down on impulsive food decisions, which can often lead to poorer choices. Having a plan for meals can also ensure [that] you don’t wait too long in between meals to eat, which can lead to excessive hunger and cravings.”
If you’re not sure where to eat for your diet while traveling, use apps like Yelp or HappyCow to find local restaurants and eateries. Once you land at your destination, use these smart strategies from Kerkenbush and Dr. Torchia to avoid extra calories.
- Pass on the processed rolls and unfamiliar non-butter spreads.
- Start with a side salad or broth-based soup.
- Look for protein and vegetable options.
- Ask how food is prepared, and make requests for dressings on the side and grilled items, instead of fried.
- Ask for substitutions, like a side salad instead of French fries.
- Swap cheese for extra veggies, like onions, tomatoes, and lettuce.
- Box part of your meal to prevent over-consuming calories.
- Steer clear of buffets.
- Drink water with lemon or plain iced tea, instead of soda.
Shop at a local grocery store.
Look for a local grocery store or market that sells fresh produce, versus relying on chain restaurants familiar from home. “Before we book a hotel or an Airbnb, my wife and I always check to see if there is a supermarket nearby,” says Dr. Robles. “If not, we look for another place. Everywhere we go, we buy enough food so that we can prepare a nice, healthy breakfast every single day. We usually buy eggs, spinach, peppers, onions, and avocados to prepare omelettes, and then eat lunch and dinner out. Alternatively, we buy a lot of fruits and vegetables and make homemade smoothies for breakfast.”
Don’t indulge for every single meal.
“It’s okay to indulge, especially if you’re at a restaurant that’s known for a particular dish. But be mindful to eat balanced meals—protein, vegetables, carbs, and healthy fats—the majority of the time [that] you’re on your trip,” advises Aaptiv trainer Kelly Chase. “This will keep you feeling energized. Whether you’re traveling out of the country or in the U.S., be present in the moment and find healthy options that taste decadent.”
One way to hold yourself accountable for your diet while traveling? Use a salad-sized plate instead of a dinner-sized plate, says Personal Trainer Jill McKay, and prioritize anything green. “Fill it half full with veggies, leafy greens, or roasted veggies, if possible. French fries don’t count! Choose a palm size (about as thick as a deck of cards) of protein, and about a thumb size of healthy fat (olive oil, avocado slices, nuts, seeds, etc). If there’s any room left on your plate (there shouldn’t be much), enjoy a taste of whatever you want. If you go back for seconds, fill that plate half full of veggies again, and eat them.”
“The first rule for healthy nutrition while on a trip is not to forget drinking water, especially when it’s hot outside, to avoid dehydration,” says Andy Groove, nutritionist and personal trainer. “Keep in mind that alcohol and coffee, as well as soda, does not replace water.”
“When you become even slightly dehydrated, your brain can misinterpret thirst for hunger, driving appetite and cravings,” explains Palinski-Wade. “On top of that, dehydration can drain energy levels, making you less likely to be physically active. Focus on carrying water with you and drinking at least 16 ounces with each meal. As a bonus, drinking water before meals can help with portion control!”
Be intentional about treats.
McKay also likes to pretend that buffets are a menu. She asks herself if she would really order everything if she had to pay for it all. The answer is usually no. This helps her pick and choose what she really wants, and then actually enjoy her selection. And, according to Kerkenbush, mindfully savoring your meal instead of using food to kill time or reward yourself is better for you in the long run, anyway.
However, don’t be afraid to treat yourself when it makes sense. “Last summer, I drove to New Orleans, Louisiana from the East Coast of Florida,” says Lincoln. “I was determined to stay on my eating plan the whole trip. But my one allowance was to have a beignet at Cafe Du Monde. When I am traveling, I allow for one treat. You can plan it out like I did or spontaneously use it if something really tickles your fancy. This is a great approach, because that treat then becomes the highlight of your trip. Instead of returning back from your trip feeling bloated, guilty, and heavier by a few pounds, you can return feeling great and with the memory of that one special treat that you enjoyed thoroughly, guilt-free.”
Don’t stress—just get back on track.
Above all, there’s a time and a place for healthy eating. It’s important to figure out where to cut yourself some slack and where to practice discipline. For instance, McKay once saw a very fit woman use a food scale in the buffet line on a cruise ship.
“As a fitness professional, I can say if she was training for an event within a week or so after the cruise, I get it,” says McKay. “But having a healthy relationship with food, in my opinion, does not mean carrying a food scale with you on vacation. Any weight you gain during a week of vacation is likely water weight or constipation. When you get home, be diligent about getting back to eating well. Plenty of vegetables, along with healthy carbohydrates and protein in appropriate portion sizes. Your body will get back to its normal in no time.”