Whether you're on a specific diet or just want to ensure that you have better options than fast food as you head into the great unknown, bringing healthy food with you is always an option. It's easier than it sounds, if you know a few tricks. Illustration by Angelica Alzona. Photos by MoToMo, mush m.
While it's great to relax and experience the local cuisine, that's not always an option if you're following a doctor-prescribed diet, or if you've committed to a weight loss plan that can easily go off track after too many restaurant meals. Packing meals or groceries can also be a huge relief if you have allergies or other dietary restrictions, and don't know whether you'll be able to find appropriate food at your destination.
Plan Ahead Before You Leave
If your trip will be a short one, packing food for the duration is definitely possible. You'll need to spend a day cooking or assembling your meals, similar to what people do for once-a-week or once-a-month cooking. A few reusable food containers, and you're good to go.
But that's not the only way to eat healthy on the road. For a more complete slate of options, it helps to have a way of keeping food cool, and a way of heating it up. Many hotels offer a fridge and microwave if you request them, while extended stay hotels have actual tiny kitchens with a stovetop, dishwasher and a few pots and pans. Check out your options when planning your trip. If the room doesn't come with a fridge or microwave, ask at the desk if it might be possible to rent one, or call ahead and ask.
Don't forget that kitchen appliances are portable. A slow cooker, rice cooker or even an electric hot plate can give you a way to cook food in a place without a built-in kitchen (just check with your host or hotel to make sure there are no rules against it). All three are allowed on planes, according to the Civil Aviation Safety Authority, either in checked or carry-on bags.
If you can't snag a room with a fridge, don't forget that a good cooler is almost the same thing. A cooler can nestle snugly in the back seat of your car, and there are soft-sided coolers that barely take up any space in a suitcase. In that situation, you'll unfold the cooler when you arrive, and fill it up with either hotel ice or a bag of ice from a nearby store.
A good cooler will keep food cold for a day or two when packed with ice. Use a thermometer if you need to be sure of the temperature, but as a general rule, if there is still plenty of ice, the temperature is likely to be 0C or very close to it.
All you need to do is empty out the melted ice each night, and replace it with fresh ice. The more insulation your cooler has, the longer it can keep food cold. Make sure to plan for the way ice water and condensation tends to get into everything, though. Anything wrapped in paper, for example, will get waterlogged, and you'll probably want to rest the cooler on something absorbent like an extra towel from the hotel bathroom. Pack a box of Ziploc bags to keep your food dry.
Gather Your Supplies
Once you've figured out what you will do with your food, it's time to make sure you have all the supplies you need. Here are some of the things that come in handy:
- Forks, Knives and Spoons: You'll need them, and better to have them than have to scrounge around or use flimsy takeout ones.
- Dishes: You can buy paper plates in a pinch, but it's nice to have a mess kit, like this one from Light My Fire ($27.50), with a reusable version of everything you'll need. If you're packing for a family, IKEA's KALAS dishes are kid-size and only about two bucks for a six pack. They are built to survive microwaves, dishwashers and probably also atomic warfare.
- Containers: Ideal for leftovers or other things you might need to contain. Ziploc bags will do in a pinch, but it's nice to have something structured enough to eat out of, like a jar or a plastic lidded container that's easily stored and easily cleaned.
- A Cutting Board and Knife: CASA permitting, of course, if you're flying. Look for a knife that comes with a blade cover and pack it in your checked luggage, or if you don't want to travel with a knife at all, find something cheap at a grocery store or drug store when you arrive.
- Detergent and a Sponge: You don't want licking the plates clean to be your only option. Again, if you're flying, be mindful of CASA requirements - you might prefer to buy a small bottle once you reach your destination.
Not everyone will need all of these supplies, but each one opens up new possibilities for the kinds of food you might be able to make and eat on the road, and how easily you can keep everything clean wherever you stay.
Pack Foods That Travel Well
If you have a home base with a mini kitchen, anything at the grocery store is fair game. But if you're eating out of a cooler in your car or a hotel without a lot of cooking options, try these staples:
- Refrigerator Oatmeal: This one requires a refrigerator (or cooler), of course. Combine oats, milk or non-dairy milk and your favourite sweetener and add-ins. To keep things easy on the road, my go-to mixture is oats, almond milk, nuts and a spoonful of jam. Fill a few jars when you arrive at your destination, and you'll have a filling, high-fibre breakfast ready to go every morning.
- Anything in Packet Form: If you have access to hot water, like any time you have a microwave plus a mug, or if you managed to pack a hot pot or have an electric kettle in your room, bring packets of soup, instant noodles or even mac and cheese for quick mini meals. Add extra protein and veggies to upgrade these quick snacks to full, balanced meals.
- Fruits and Vegetables: Don't overlook the appeal of a banana, apple, orange or the produce of your choice (as long as you're not travelling interstate). Peanut butter, or the nut butter of your choice, is a great way to turn apple slices into a filling snack. Whole fruits and veggies don't need to be refrigerated, as long as you eat them while they're still fresh.
- Cheese and Hard Boiled Eggs: These are both classic, highly portable foods that need a cooler to stay safe for days, but are easy to snack on or to add to other meals as an extra protein source.
- Sandwiches: Bread keeps well (just don't squish it) and can be topped with peanut butter, tuna, deli meats or other easy-to-tote foods. Bring a cutting board and knife, and you can easily add veggies.
- Cooked Leftovers: Because anything is fair game if you have a cooler. I know someone who grills a huge batch of sausages before leaving on a trip, because they're his favourite high-protein snack.
- Protein and Energy Bars: Homemade or commercially packaged, bars are handy any time but really shine during travel. For a sweet treat, these date-and-nut bars keep well and are essentially a homemade version of Larabars. Some folks swear by Quest bars, which are high in protein and low in carbs. If you get sick of dessert flavoured snacks, Tanka bars are made of meat and savoury seasonings.
Bringing food with you on a trip may seem weird at first, but with a little planning, you can end up with an extensive list of healthy eating options that beats eating fast food every night.