Johnny Cash once claimed to have been “everywhere, man.” In that song, he lists off a ton of cities all across the United States. But what Johnny failed to mention in his ode to road tripping is the food he ate while on the wide open roads of the USA. Eating while traveling is hard. I know this because I work with members who travel all the time. Want to know how I’ve managed to coach them through eating on the road? I’ve become a “master” of traveling myself.
Take this past May, for example. A few days before the month started, I hopped down to Austin to hang out with Coach Tanner Baze for a couple of weeks. But my wife and I had already decided we were moving from North Carolina to Western New York to get set up for her new job before Summer started. That meant that I’d leave Texas, land in NC, pack up the house, rent a Uhaul, and then drive more than 700 miles north to New York.
So what did that mean for me? Well, it meant a lot of time on the road which also meant a lot of less than ideal food. Luckily, I’ve traveled enough over the last four years, whether attending fitness conferences and business events or just visiting friends that eating while traveling is barely an issue anymore.
As coaches, our goal is to give you tools that you can use to make the best of any situation. When it comes to travel, I want to make sure you have the tools to handle any kind of travel. No matter if you’re traveling for work, to go see family, for a vacation, or any other reason that you might find yourself on the road. We want to help you make choices that not only allow you to enjoy yourself but get to a point where you no longer view travel as an obstacle preventing you from feeling successful.
In order to handle traveling as stress-free as possible, I think it’s best to take a two-pronged approach. First, we should focus on the boulders. Think of these as your main behaviors that you can practice just about anywhere and have a high return on investment from a decision-making standpoint. After that, we’ll look at some of the actionable pieces of advice you can follow in different settings while you’re on the road, or what I’m going to call the gravel, because I’m committed to this analogy.
Let’s look at the boulders.
Yes, like me, when Pumpkin Spice Latte season kicks up again, we’re going #basic. I know, it’s boring, and totally not a “cool” boulder to implement — but it works. And when I say plan ahead, I mean for everything. I’m not only talking about planning your meals a day in advance like you might do when you’re home. I mean doing things like:
- Looking up restaurants and grocery stores around where you’re staying so you know where you can get food to keep on hand. No grocery stores? Is Instacart or a similar option available? Do you access to a fridge and/or a microwave at your hotel? Not sure, ask the hotel.
- Identifying any dinners, cocktail hours, or other social events that are on your calendar and think about how you want to handle yourself that day, as well as that night.
- Keeping protein on hand to make sure you have something you can count on in a pinch, or what I call an “emergency bag,” — more on this later.
- Planning your workouts or physical activity and making sure it’s in your calendar like a meeting you can’t miss.
Plan ahead by not only thinking about what you’ll be doing and how you want to handle those situations but also plan for the unknown. If you’ve got great choices on hand in your hotel room and protein sources on you, it’s a lot easier to behave in a way that’s in line with your goals versus going way off plan all in thanks to no forethought.
Walk — a lot
Almost anytime an American travels to Europe, they come back with one common sentiment that goes something like, “I can’t believe I ate all of that food and I came back and didn’t gain a single pound!” Sound familiar?
Here’s a secret: the food in Europe doesn’t have magic powers that somehow keep it from causing you to gain weight. The reason that people come back from Europe weighing the same or even losing weight has to do with what they did while they were there: walking. There’s a lesson to be learned from our European counterparts: walk. A lot.
Use walking as a way to explore and see new things. Choose the stairs when it’s an option. In short, walk. Everywhere.
- If you’ve got some downtime, see the history of where you’re staying. Take a hike up a mountain (maybe get lost because you want to feel like you’re an explorer, more on that later), rent a bike and ride through the town, or head to some outlet malls and do some all-day shopping.
- If you’re traveling for work or a non-vacation reason, find a reason to log some steps. Walk down the street to go stock up on protein sources. Walk down the street for lunch. Or maybe just set aside time for yourself to go on a walk and decompress.
Front Load Protein.
Make your first meal predominantly protein. Always. But especially when you’re on the road. Finding carbs and fats while you’re on the road is hardly ever an issue. Protein on the other hand? Sometimes travel can feel like an exercise in trying to come up with the most creative ways to get a lean source of quality protein. So get out in front of that by front-loading your protein early in the day.
Aim for at least 30-50g. This will keep you feeling fuller for longer, and allow you more carbs/fats for later in the day.
If you plan on dinners out or going out drinking while you’re on the road, I highly suggest this protocol as having that protein will fill you up early and help keep you from wanting to dive head-first into foods you normally avoid.
Where possible, opt for vegetables.
If you’re on the road, chances are you’re going to be eating out a bit more than normal. If you know you’re going to deal with that, set standards for yourself and how you’ll act in those situations. One of my favorites is choosing vegetables at every opportunity I’m given.
In most situations, this means that I’m just swapping something out for a vegetable. It might be a salad over a burger, broccoli over fries, or steamed vegetables over the loaded baked potato.
We know that anytime you eat out at a restaurant you’re never fully in control of how the food is prepped. Even the most innocent of dishes like chicken breast with broccoli can be drowned in oil or butter. But even accepting that fact, choosing vegetables when you’re on the road over something else is a standard that is sure to help you err on the safe side. Not only will your macros thank you, but let’s not forget that vegetables are packed with micronutrients and fiber. Your body will thank you as well.
*Quick aside here: do not be afraid to order what you want and how you want it. It’s okay to be “that” guy/gal. Tell your waiter/waitress exactly what you want. Be courteous, always. And polite. But you can order steamed veggies and plain grilled chicken, even if they don’t advertise it on the menu. Never be afraid to advocate for yourself (and your goals).
Those are the boulders. They’re standards that can guide your behavior in just about any situation or setting. But we’re not going to forget about the gravel, either.
What are the more actionable and immediate tactics though? Like how do you manage an empty airport with just a couple of options? Or a lonely gas station that seems to be your only choice hundreds of miles in any direction?
I want to make sure you’re prepared for any and all situations, and that includes navigating airports, train stations, and gas stations. So here are a few hacks I send to everyone I work with:
Fruit is now your new best friend.
Apples or bananas can be found at nearly every gas station you stop at. Nearly every Hudson News I’ve seen in airports around the US has apples. You’d be hard-pressed to travel and not find fruit somewhere, which makes it a perfect on-the-road snack. Fruits have fiber, which will help keep you feeling more full than that $11 airport chicken salad sandwich. Sure, there’s not much protein, but if you’re following some of the big rocks above or the next point, you know you can get your protein needs met.
Plus I just saved you $11 and potentially a couple of hundred calories. You’re welcome.
Choose protein bars, protein shakes, or jerky.
When I client tells me they travel often, my first suggestion that I ever make is for them to pack “an emergency bag.” And in this bag they’ll keep readily-available, high-protein foods like bars or jerky.
For instance, I keep an entire box of Quest bars in my backpack at all times. Yea they get smushed quite a bit, and I’m sure some of you are judging me for carrying an entire box of protein bars with me. But it helps me hit my protein goal when I’m on the road. Plus, when I combine a Quest bar with an apple, y’all, I’m full for like 4-5 hours. I don’t even think about food. I have protein to keep me filled and get close to my 200g goal, and I have an apple giving me more fiber, micronutrients, and helping me stay on plan.
When traveling, finding quality protein can be a major challenge. That’s why I try to set a standard similar to my vegetable rule above. If I’m in an airport, train station, or gas station and I’m making a food choice, then I’m choosing a protein bar, a protein shake, or beef jerky.
P.s. when it comes to choosing your protein bar, always opt for something that has 20g of protein, at minimum. Anything less and you’re typically choosing a glorified candy bar.
Specifically, black coffee or just a small amount of cream and sugar. How else do you think I get up for flights at 4am, drive 90 minutes to an airport, and then fly for like 5-6 hours? Coffee. (Okay fine, I have it every day. But still. If you’re gonna drink anything while your travel, get some caffeine [unless advised otherwise by your doctor].)
But it’s not just the caffeine that I like. It’s that sipping on black coffee gives me something to do and drink that isn’t a calorie-laden meal or beverage. By choosing coffee, that also means I’m not choosing something that has more calories like an energy drink or juice. (Note: yes water works well here for the same reasons, but mmmm coffee.)
Bonus: So this is a strategy I will suggest at times, but not one I will push people on: fasting. I’m not here to discuss the efficacy of Intermittent Fasting on a cellular level. I use it, I like it, it works for me. Like all things, fasting is more of a tool that can be added to your dieting toolbox.
Fasting can be a useful travel strategy because it helps you conserve macros for later meals. You’re essentially just banking your calories for later in the day by forgoing spending calories earlier in the day. If you’re heading out for business travel, you’re probably going to have dinner at night. And that means less than stellar food, and likely booze. So the more of your macros you can conserve, the better.
I especially like this as an option when all other options seem like they’re not in the cards. For example: you know there isn’t a quality protein source you can track down, all the food available to you is carb or oil-laden, or both. Instead of trying to do your best guesstimate while logging a stale hotel croissant, just pushing your first meal back a few hours can be helpful.
My guidelines for fasting on the road:
- Push your first meal back until you arrive at your destination; if that’s going to be too long due to a long layover, munch on a protein bar and apple halfway through your layover
- Water and black coffee have 0 calories, so drink up.
- Time zones are irrelevant, eat per your time zone
- It doesn’t have to be a 6 or 8 hour fast, it can mean simply pushing your first meal of the day back a couple of hours
- If it doesn’t work for you, don’t fast. Keep an “emergency bag” of healthy alternatives in your carry on at ALL times (that you know can get through security if flying)
These are a few of the ways I make travel less of a pain. If you do travel a ton and are in and out of airports on the reg, the biggest suggestion I can leave you with is this: do your research and know what the best options are at the airports you frequent.
I know there is a Chipotle in the C terminal of the Atlanta airport because I used to fly through the Atlanta airport all the time, and you better believe that’s where I go if I have a layover in ATL. Most major airports will have a list on their website of their vendors. Use those sites. Plan ahead. If it’s an airport like Burlington, VT, which has the loneliest little kiosk I’ve ever seen, then you’re gonna need to dip into your emergency travel bag.
One quick thing I will touch on before I wrap up. I am posting this because it was a conversation I had with one of the members I coach who recently had to travel to Europe for a week at the drop of a hat. If you travel a ton and find that you’re in a place that you may never visit again, don’t feel bad for having a little taste of local cuisine.
Yes, it’s super easy to tell yourself, “I might only be in this place once, so I better enjoy all they have to offer.” I get that thought process, it’s an easy one to fall into, and I’m not going to sit here and tell you that you shouldn’t enjoy the wonderful foods that are unique to different places that you might go. What I told my client was this:
“Do the best you can at the meals you have control at. Do all the things we’ve talked about with travel before. And since you’re there for a week, in a place you may never go again, give yourself one breakfast, one lunch, and one dinner to enjoy local cuisine. I mean, don’t go crazy at all those meals. But enjoy food that you may never have again.”
If you’re still with me by this point, you’ve probably recognized that none of these things I’ve mentioned are sexy, earth-shattering, or completely brand new. That’s the point. Managing yourself while you’re traveling doesn’t come down to finding some brand new food strategy or hack. Instead, it’s about managing yourself in a new environment, and doing so requires a little flexibility as well as some general standards that you set for yourself.
Traveling doesn’t have to scare the crap out of you. It just takes a little more planning and prepping. It’s a time when you get to test yourself in a new environment, evaluate how you did once you’re back home, and identify ways that you want to improve that approach in the future.
I'm a concert pianist, and I chair the Gloria Narramore Moody Piano Area where I'm lucky to teach students from around the globe. I love having the opportunity to travel to share music with audiences and work with other piano teachers throughout the country and abroad. However, I also love being home with my partner of 15 years and our two cats---Tanda and Paulie. I also happen to be a huge Disney fan and love every chance I get to escape to Walt Disney World!
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