Real Food on the Road
Eating well while traveling – a real challenge for most! So many of my clients are thrown off their hard-won routine when they are going on vacation or on a business trip. Quicker than you know you find yourself hungry at the airport, ending up with a sandwich or a croissant, a bag of crisps or peanuts, a chocolate bar or maybe fresh-pressed juice ( = sugar bomb). Breakfast at your hostel is likely to be bread, marmalade, margarine, UHT milk, coffee and orange juice. The lunch package you can take on your hike probably consists of a sandwich, a piece of fruit and a muesli bar. At the business reception they might only serve sandwiches and dessert. There are no restaurants close to your hotel, so your only option is pizza service or Chinese Take Out. Does any of this sound familiar?
To be clear from the beginning: In this post, I am focusing on those travel occasions, where you are falling off the “eating healthy” train because there doesn’t seem to be another option, not because that’s what you actually WANT to be doing. Yes, I know holidays can be a more than welcome excuse to indulge in everything that you know will push your particular metabolism out of balance and thus take you farther away from your bigger goals, but that you just like soooo much. This is especially likely to happen, if you still feel like you are on a “diet”, that you are restricted by “rules”, as opposed to simply being in the process of acquiring a new lifestyle and way of eating that actually works for you. You should only read on if you would want to maintain your way of eating anytime, anywhere, finding a balance between the needs and wants of your mind and the needs and wants of your body. This article is NOT for you, if you are still in “restriction” mindset and actually glad for the excuse to just go and trash your body in the name of enjoyment and pleasure (and of course I am not against enjoyment or pleasure, just not at the expense of the health of the body… read more below when I talk about the 80-20 approach).
For now, let’s assume that this is not your case, and that you have become a true Qualitarian (someone who prioritizes high quality, Real Food).
Having traveled extensively myself, I know that if you want to, it is not impossible to keep up eating balanced Real Food meals, even when backpacking or on a road trip, with no kitchen at your disposal. Leave alone when having a minibar in the hotel, or even a whole kitchen if renting an apartment (of course, if you carry a gas cooker or stay in hostels where you can use the kitchen, your options increase). The meals might not always look pretty, nor be the most sophisticated, but they taste good, and definitely serve their main purpose which is to keep you going and in balance. In this post, I assume that you do have access to food shops on a regular basis. I will also give you some options for those occasions that you are eating in restaurants.
Prerequisites to succeed
Before we get into the concretes, let me list you the prerequisites you will most likely need in order to succeed at the challenge called “Eating Real Food while on the Road”:
- The willingness to plan ahead a bit: Roughly thinking about your trip in advance, i.e. how much food do you have to take to cover the travel time (on the first and last day), what food options will you encounter at your destination, are their shops, do you have a kitchen, a minibar… how are you traveling… doing so will help you get a better overview and avoid finding yourself hungry and with no other option than to choose from what’s available in the moment, which is usually not ideal.
- The willingness to take a bit more effort
- To do research for quality shops: I would usually google “organic food shop + the name of the city I was in, or cities close to me. This obviously works only if you are traveling by car, or are in a bigger city. If in a smaller village, you could ask the locals for small, artisan shops. I wouldn’t mind driving a few more kilometers if I knew that then I could load up on quality food.
- To carry a bit more weight on your back: When I was walking the Camino de Santiago, my backpack weighed 4.5kg without food and water, and about 7.5 with… Raw carrots, tomatoes, avocados weigh more than a sandwich… especially for the amount of calories they supply… still it was a priority for me, so I chose to do it.
- To take some equipment: This is only applicable if traveling by car. I remember that when I used to work as a sales rep and had to sleep in hotels a lot, I would carry my steamer in the car, so I could actually cook food even in a hotel room… You might also take a portable, small blender to make smoothies in the morning… At the very least a spoon, a knife and a Tupperware to mix food in are a must no matter how you travel!
- Be clear on your priorities
- Dedicate some of your 20kg allowed luggage weight or hand-luggage space to basic food items. I would usually take some tinned fish, some nuts, packaged bread or crackers and even cheese… and anything still left in the fridge, incl. Tupperwares with cooked meals from the day before to take us through the travel day (obviously, anything with a liquid or mousse-like texture would have to go into the luggage, and if you travel overseas this might not be an option at all).
- Trade variety for health: be ok with eating similar things every day
- Be assertive defending your needs, i.e. towards your partner, colleagues, friends or the restaurant owner.
Let’s get started with a simple framework. On the road, just like at home, I apply a simple formula to assemble my meals, which is: Slow Carbs + Clean Proteins + Healthy Fats.
|Slow Carbs||No kitchen available||Kitchen available|
|Vegetables||Raw tomatoes, cucumbers,
carrots, bell peppers, kohlrabi, salad greens. Ready-to-eat vegetable soups, Gazpacho, vegetable juices or sauces
|Same as left, plus everything else, incl. (sweet) potatoes|
|Legumes||Canned beans (red or white), chickpeas or lentils (prefer jars over tins). Ready-to-eat hummus||Same as left or soak and cook dried ones|
|Whole Grains||Non-wheat sourdough bread, sprouted bread, crisp bread or gluten-free crackers or waffles
(like buckwheat, corn or rice)
|Same as left, plus dried whole grains, such as quinoa, buckwheat, whole rice, whole spelt pasta… that you can cook|
|Fruit (max. 1-2 pieces / day)||Apples, pears, bananas…||Same as left|
|Meat||Organic charcuterie, ham||Same as left plus organic or grass-fed meat to cook|
|Chicken||No good option, so usually not
on the menu
|Pastured whole chicken or chicken breasts / legs|
|Fish||Canned fish in water or olive oil (sardines, mackerel, tuna,
mussels or calamari)
|Same as left plus fresh fish, ideally sustainably fished and not overfished|
|Eggs||Usually not on the menu, except for if you like to eat them raw||Boiled eggs, omelets, etc.|
|Dairy||Raw hard cheese, yogurt or kefir, full-fat, ideally from pastured animals (if you don’t know, goat and sheep are usually safer than cow). Raw milk for immediate consumption, if you happen to come along a farm.||Same as left|
|Legumes||See above||See above|
|Nuts and Seeds||Almonds, Pistachios, Coconut, Cashews, Tigernuts, Walnuts, Pumpkin Seeds||Same as left|
|Oils||Extra virgin olive oil from the canned fish||Butter, extra virgin olive oil, coconut oil…|
|Foods rich in good fats||Avocados, fatty fish (see above), full-fat dairy (see above), nuts
and seeds (see above), olives
|Same as left|
Once you have that list, you just have to pick and combine.
What to avoid
In an ideal world, all of the ingredients would be organic. Often (but not always!) that might mean simply buying food from the locals as opposed to in the supermarket, since in many countries produce is not labeled as such, but is effectively organic. Personally, when I am traveling, I pay most attention to the quality of the animal proteins and the fat that I buy. While I do prefer and look out for organic veggies and fruit, I am ok buying non-organic ones (and wash / peel them) if I have to. However, I do not usually compromise in the same way on animal foods. If I cannot at least have a minimum of trust into animal welfare, then I do not usually buy or eat them. Likewise, I always check the label for pro-inflammatory fats, such as sunflower, canola (rapeseed) or soy oil.
Which leads me to the list of foods to avoid:
- Wheat (which means most bread, pasta and baked goods)
- Sugar (esp. refined sugar and agave, but also excessive honey or dried fruits)
- Meat, chicken and eggs from factory-farmed animals
- Soy (usually GMO)
- Sunflower Oil, Corn Oil, Soy Oil, Rapeseed Oil, Canola Oil, Margarine or simply “Vegetable Oil”
- Broth Cubes
- Modified Corn Starch
- Artificial sweeteners, colorants etc.
Let’s now look into different scenarios and some concrete suggestions for each. You can also find a “real life” picture album on Facebook here.
Traveling without a kitchen (backpacking, road trip, hotel)
Here are my favorite options based on the above outlined framework:
- White beans from jar mixed with tomatoes, cucumbers and tinned sardines in olive oil
- Chickpeas from a jar mixed with tinned sardines in olive oil and raw carrot or red bell pepper
- Raw carrots dipped in ready to eat hummus
- Raw carrots with raw cheese and nuts (you can carry raw hard cheese for a 1-2 days without cooling with no problem)
- Crisp bread or crackers or good real bread with raw cheese and raw carrots or tomatoes or cucumbers and olives
- Crisp bread or crackers with avocado and sardines
- Crisp bread with organic charcuterie or raw cheese and raw veggies
- Apple with raw cheese or yogurt
- Apple with nuts
- Banana with goat kefir or yogurt (you can carry yogurt for 1-2 days with no problem)
- A mix of raw cherry tomatoes, cucumber, kohlrabi, carrots with olives and cheese
- Gazpacho or Salmorejo (both Spanish ready-to-eat tomato soups)
- Ready to eat vegetable soup without additives (also good when cold)
- Raw milk (for immediate consumption, if you pass by a farm where they have that)
- Salad from tomatoes, cucumber, avocado, olives and tinned fish in olive oil (optionally add chickpeas/lentils or eat with crackers)
- Almonds, tigernuts, cashews, coconut or pistachios
- Organic beef jerkey
- Tinned mussles in brine with fresh non-wheat bread or on salad greens
- Crisp bread, raw cheese, olives and tomato passata or tomato juice
- Green beans from a jar with tinned fish and fresh tomatoes
- Carrots and pea mix from a jar with tinned fish and some bread
Obviously, depending on whether you have a car, or you walk, you also have to take into account the weight of the food and only buy as much as you can carry comfortably (glass jars and raw veggies weigh a lot!). If you stay in a hotel, make use of the minibar to keep your foods fresh for longer!
Apartment or hostel with kitchen
This is the easiest option. If it is an apartment, you can basically cook like you would at home. Eggs for breakfast, and a main meal consisting of a good quality protein, veggies, and a starch. The biggest challenge here becomes to find good quality ingredients. Usually that is not too difficult though, thanks to google or if you ask around a bit. For lunch you can look into the options mentioned for cold kitchen, and add in additional goodies, such as boiled eggs, steamed veggies, grain salads (i.e. quinoa), left-overs or an omelet. You can also use dried lentils and beans as opposed to canned ones.
If on your backpack trip you are occasionally staying at hostels with kitchen access, you can take that opportunity to cook yourself a warm dinner, or simply boil some eggs to have an additional protein choice to take for the next few days (I would usually boil 6, eat 2 immediately and take the others for the next 2 days).
Eating out 1 (hotel breakfast)
Breakfast tends to be the most difficult one for Qualitarians. Of course it depends on how extensive the offer is at your hotel and also on how far you want to take it. Because most hotels do not use high quality ingredients, so you can be quite sure that the animal foods are factory-farmed (even in 4 or 5 star hotels), unless they state differently. If your main goal is to get your right balance of proteins, fats and carbs, then you can find your way at most breakfast buffets though. For example:
- Eggs with or without bacon (hard-boiled eggs are safest, since scrambled eggs are usually prepared with sunflower oil)
- Beans (beware of the brine, which is very rich in sugar usually)
- Veggies (i.e. raw tomatoes or cucumbers, or some also offer grilled veggies)
- Smoked fish
- Smoked or raw ham (beware of other charcuterie due to over-processing and additives)
- Yogurt or Quark
- Fruit (dried fruits max 1-2 pieces)
- Cheese (will usually be pasteurized)
- If available, rye crisp bread or German style rye bread
- Tea or hot water
If there are no beans or veggies or high-quality bread to go with your eggs, take a piece of fruit rather than the wheat bread, or bring your own non-wheat bread or crackers.
To avoid the biggest health offenders, say no to the following:
- White bread and also brown wheat bread
- Fruit salads from canned fruit
- The sweet stuff (baked goods, Nutella, marmalade…)
- Cheap looking cheese and charcuterie
- Too much of the brine of the baked beans (contains sugar)
- Milk (usually UHT milk)
- Juices (even if freshly pressed)
- Hot chocolate at the machine
If you don’t want to consume factory-farmed animal foods, then you can either skip the breakfast and choose something from the “backpacking” list and eat it in your room, or – if you are traveling with other people – you can mix and match. For example, you can take the veggies, fruit and beans from the buffet, but bring your own bread or crackers, avocado and some tinned fish or quality cheese / charcuterie from the store. If you are worried about what others will think, let me assure you that I’ve done so many times and nobody really cares. You can always state food intolerances as an excuse, if ever someone should ask, but normally they won’t.
Eating out 2 (restaurant)
When eating in a restaurant, we are using the same formula to assemble our meal: Carbs + Proteins + Fats. Again, if you don’t want to consume factory-farmed animal products, most fish, game and lamb are usually your best choice. I only eat beef, chicken or gambas in restaurants, if I can be sure of the quality (and trust me, if it is antibiotic-free and ethically raised, they will state it). Good Real Food restaurant choices are:
- Fish (prepared in the oven or on the grill, not fried or battered) with veggies or salad and potatoes (not fries) or rice. Choose a different type of fish every day for variation.
- Quality beef or chicken with veggies or salad and potatoes (not fries)
- Fish Soup or vegetable soup
- Vegetable Antipasta
- Grilled Vegetables
- Fish Curry with veggies and a bit of rice
- Salad with goat cheese or salad with olives and tuna (always ask the dressing separately, to avoid bad surprises)
Most of all learn to be assertive in restaurants! I usually ask them to prepare my food in olive oil or butter (almost all restaurant food is prepared with cheap vegetable oils). Sometimes I also ask to replace one ingredient for another to adjust a meal to my needs. Remember that you are the client who pays, you are the king!
The 80-20 rule
I love to try local food while traveling, in fact it is one of the pleasures of traveling! Most of the time I can do so within my “criteria”, because many local dishes are in fact made with natural ingredients. However, sometimes I might also choose a local specialty regardless of any criteria. This could mean a dish of paella, pasta or a dessert. As long as it is occasionally, and not all at the same time (i.e. pasta AND wine AND tiramisu), that also belongs to a balanced diet while on holidays. For example, when on Menorca recently I had a local menu of tomato-fig soup, grilled calamari with potatoes and an almond cake and it was the culinary highlight of the whole trip!
If the will is there, it is definitely possible to stay on the Real Food road most of the time while traveling. Even if you are not ready to take it as far as I do, I trust that you will get something out of this article that will serve you on your next trip! Happy Traveling!