Prepare enough homemade meals, and you’ll soon discover that eating out presents unforeseen challenges. Why pay $10.50 for a plate of pasta when you can make a better version for less? The more confidence you develop in the kitchen, the more you’ll notice a preference for dining in. Meanwhile, your digestive system will begin to shift its preferences as well, with the result that a sudden intake of fast food can leave you feeling bloated, cramped, and unusually thirsty. Enter the holidays, where many of us will spend several days at a time on the road and commit more than our share of dietary sins.* However fantastic your in-laws’ cooking (and let me tell you, both my family and my husband’s do some fantastic cooking), at a certain point you’ll likely begin to feel the effects. Here are a few tips to help you feel your best as you take on your holiday festivities.
1. Carry a thermos (and fill it with water). I’ve found that packing extra water is the fastest way to prevent headaches, resist sodas at the drive-thru, and offset the higher sodium levels that usually go with eating out. Many diet programs also encourage the use of water to help stave off the urge to snack. Opt for filtered tap water when possible, because bottled water will be more expensive, harder to replenish, and sold in smaller quantities. Carry your thermos with you whenever possible so you don’t forget to drink the contents!
2. If you’re making a road trip, eat lunch from a cooler. Salads, including pasta salad, keep well on the road. So do chilled soups, frozen fruit, and sandwiches. Throw some silverware and some ice packs into a cooler or insulted bag along with whatever is left in your fridge and save yourself the agony of throwing out your leftovers. (You can even pack separate bags for hot and cold items.) I try to pack at least one homemade finger-food meal if I’m driving a long distance, which saves both money and time on the road.
3. Know what you can buy at Wal-Mart. Wherever you’re going there’s probably a Wal-Mart, and it probably has a grocery section. You can buy single servings of yogurt; cartons of berries or bunches of bananas; pre-sliced salami and a croissant; or balls of fresh mozzarella. If some of these options don’t seem low-calorie to you, consider that low-calorie and high-quality are not the same thing. In most cases, I would prefer to eat what I can buy from a grocery store simply because it more nearly corresponds to the type of thing I can find in my refrigerator. When I travel, I’m more concerned about not shocking my digestive system than with counting calories.
4. Have a plan for breakfast. Breakfast on the road tends to fall into one of the following categories: (1) pancake house; (2) drive-thru biscuit or burrito; (3) buffet spread at the hotel; (4) whatever cereal or bagel is lurking in your host’s pantry. Unfortunately, this meal will set the tone for your day so it helps if it feels familiar. If you’re staying in someone’s home, you can consider making a run to the store for your favorite cereal/yogurt/nut butter/etc., but you’ll probably be in good shape with whatever your host offers: nearly everyone has eggs. If you’re in a hotel you’ll have a harder time. My most recent hotel breakfast consisted of blueberries, an apple with a single-serving packet of Justin’s brand almond butter, a bakery croissant, and a few mozzarella balls, all of which I packed at home before leaving and then stored in the hotel fridge overnight. (My plan was to eat everything for dinner if my room turned out not to have a fridge.) This proved to be much better than the offerings at the breakfast buffet. You could also make your own granola and then add yogurt from a Wal-Mart.
5. Bring your own sweets. This advice may seem counter-intuitive, but it’s hard to say yes to gas-station candy or dessert after dinner if you have homemade cookies close at hand. Your cookies may not be healthy, but you will know exactly what went into them and you’ll be less likely to consume excessive quantities.
6. Pay attention to trends in what you eat. How much meat do you normally eat? How much sugar? How many fried foods? If you start feeling “off” midway through your trip, you’ll want to be able to pinpoint any major dietary changes and try to rein them in.
7. Make a meal. If you’re staying with family, offer to cook one night. If cooking for everyone presents too many challenges, see if there is an occasion on which you can cook for yourself. Even one meal that feels familiar can make a big difference.
8. Have fun with your family. The advice in this post is meant to help you when you’re actually traveling (i.e. before you show up for your dad’s enchiladas) or when you find yourself feeling lousy in the middle of your trip. When you’re around the people you love, take advantage of the chance to step back from the stove and let someone else share their hospitality.
* Appropriately enough, I’m typing this post from my relatives’ computer in Chattanooga, TN. I would like to extend a big thanks to all of the family members who regularly host me, first for making such great homemade meals and secondly for putting up with me when I get the urge to cook cabbage pasta.