How to plan and enjoy healthful food when away from home -- and tips for dietitians to help clients find healthy choices at work, school, and while traveling.
“The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” This quote by Lao Tzu rings as true for actual travel as it does for actualizing your healthy eating goals.
Traveling, working, or going to school while maintaining a meal plan can be tricky, but it is possible. Having a plan for meals that includes simple, applicable steps can help make healthy eating from anywhere a reality.
Keep reading for several simple tips on how to make healthy meals on the road.
Easy tips for eating healthy at school or work
A busy work or school schedule can quickly feel taxing if food isn’t providing the right fuel. Dangerous habits like skipping breakfast can mean starting the day on an empty tank. Instead, focus on the following helpful tactics to be more productive.
1. Eat a well-balanced breakfast.
Especially for growing children and teens, a balanced breakfast can make all the difference. Research shows that those who eat breakfast have improved overall health and make healthier choices throughout the day.
Breakfast-eaters also have improved behavior and school performance. Fueling with filling breakfast options can mean more healthful menu choices throughout the rest of the day.
2. Utilize meals first to meet your specific nutrient standards. Then, use nutrient-rich snacks to fill in the gaps.
A nutrient-rich meal plan doesn’t have to be fancy. Fresh, frozen, and canned foods can all fit into a healthy diet.
3. Switch to whole-grain products whenever you can.
Refined grains are stripped of fiber and nutrients. Fiber is a nutrient of concern for the public, according to the latest national nutrition guidelines. Especially when on-the-go, fiber plays an important role in keeping digestion regular.
Anywhere you can in your routine, choose whole grains -- even in unexpected places such as:
4. When selecting snacks, try and make sure that fruit, vegetable, low-fat dairy, or lean protein is the first ingredient on the label.
Fresh and whole is often best. Protein from fish, skinless chicken, and plants can often be thrown easily into a wrap or sandwich. Pack protein and fresh fruit to-go for a nourishing mid-day meal.
5. Bring your own lunch.
Batch cooking or meal prepping can make packing lunches a lot easier. Simple ingredients like chicken, chopped vegetables, and steamed rice can be incorporated into casseroles, sandwiches and more. Whole-grains and beans are also high-protein options that can help provide a feeling of fullness.
6. Instead of caffeine, eat periodically to avoid crashes.
Coffee can deliver an immediate kick, however it can also cause a loss of energy later in the day. Staying hydrated and eating small, more frequent meals can sustain energy in a healthier way.
7. Get help from a dietitian.
Dietitians are trained nutrition specialists and foodservice experts. They can ensure that you are getting the nutrients you need, even -- and especially -- on busy days. Inspired with innovative ideas, they can suggest smart meals like mason jar salads or fruit, granola, and yogurt parfaits to help you feel full all day.
8. Slow Cookers and Instant Pots for the Win
Cool kitchen tools like slow cookers and Instant Pots make preparing dinner during the busy weekdays a breeze. Invest in equipment and cookbooks like Instant Pot Miracle Healthy Cookbook to help you get the most out of your meals.
9. Ask about assistance.
Many worksites and schools offer programs for eligible families to take advantage of. Everyone should have access to food during the day. Meet with a school counselor or human resources representative to discuss your struggles and what can be done to increase your access to healthy, fueling food during the day.
Why is it important to maintain a meal plan while traveling?
Traveling certainly is an adventure -- but it can also be an intense change in routine. In order to fully enjoy your time away, it is important to know you can count on a healthy, balanced diet to support you.
There is room for both flexibility and spontaneity in meal planning. Meals on the road should not be rooted in restriction. Instead, they should support you in having the resources necessary to make healthy decisions while you visit new places and learn new things.
How to plan healthful meals while traveling
The following tips can help you to be your healthiest self while traveling.
What dietitians need to know about eating on-the-go
Patients and clients generally have the best of intentions. However, when they’re on their own, temptations can take their toll.
What are some ways you can help your client to prepare for busy schedules or traveling?
Obtain information about:
Foods available at the destination (i.e. travel destination, school or work cafeteria)
Understand the nutrient risks and what nutrients may not be supplied at the destination
Use contacts and resources, such as people who have previously traveled to an area.
Athletes and other clients can be supported through filling their hotel refrigerators or kitchen cabinets in advance (depending on the duration of travel).
Advocate that nutritional needs be met by recommending dietitians and cooks travel with teams/organizations when possible.
Negotiate with hotels, restaurants, schools, worksites, etc. to understand how existing foods can be made into healthy meals or snacks.
Don’t forget to consider the place, time, and location of meals in the preparation/recommendations.
Special orders can be given to airlines.
Evaluate meal replacement and packaged convenience options beforehand to see if they are adequate options for on-the-go fueling.
Income is also an important variable to note. One recent study found that low-income individuals spend more time traveling to meal destinations than high-income individuals. It also took into account that some areas are food-dense and some are food-poor.
Simple Swaps to Suggest
It is crucial to understand the client’s needs, not just as they relate to food but also how the environment and economy play a role in their decision-making. Ask them what they need help with and then suggest sustainable ways that they stay nourished throughout the day.
The Bottom Line
Making healthy dining decisions on the road is a group effort, but it starts with an individual understanding simple, realistic habits and how to sustain them. Involving dietitians and investing in helpful resources can make the process more fruitful in the long-run.
Pros Who Know
Deanna Wolfe, MS, RDN and Maggie Michalczyk, RDN are two dietitians who travel a lot. They both have great tips. Below, you will find Deanna's tips for staying healthy while traveling and Maggie's healthy travel essentials.
Günay Eskici. “Practical Nutrition Recommendations for Traveling Athletes”. EC Nutrition 15.1 (2020): 01-06.
Johnson A. Get to Know Your School Lunch Program. Eatright.org. Published November 15, 2018.
Retelny VS. Registered Dietitian Nutritionists: Helping Students Eat Right. Eatright.org. Published March 10, 2020.
Thompson S. Smart Snacks in Schools. Eatright.org. Published September 17, 2018.
Wolfram T. Tip to Eat Right at School. Eatright.org. Published August 21, 2018.
Wolfram T. 5 Tips to Kick Bad Eating Habits to the Curb. Eatright.org. Published March 25. 2019.