How to eat on vacation without feeling terrible

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Vacation can introduce us to the most memorable meals of our lives. It can also lead to rushed airport breakfasts, skipped lunches or panic-bought fast food - none of which are particularly exciting or good for us.

Who hasn’t, near the end of a road trip filled with fried food, longed for a fresh vegetable?

“The moment you begin to travel, you are out of your base routine,” said Maya Feller, a Brooklyn-based registered dietitian nutritionist and author of the cookbook “Eating from Our Roots.” “Because we’re creatures of habit, when we’re out of our routine, it also means that some of our things that we fall back on in terms of nutrition, physical activity, mindfulness, all of that . . . go out the window.”

Travelers can end up with a dearth of healthy options, and a vacation mind-set can lead them to flood their diet with far more additives than they would consume at home. Unrelated to calorie-counting or weight management, their eating and drinking patterns away from home can simply make them feel sick.

Kayla Kopp, a registered dietitian with Cleveland Clinic’s Center for Human Nutrition, said foods with a lot of saturated fat can digest slowly, leaving people feeling bloated and sluggish. Eating too many foods without nutritional value can leave travelers with irregular bowel movements.

Eating something highly processed and high in sodium - like many fast-food options - can take their toll, said Paige Macauley, director of nutrition for CoreLife Novant Health in North Carolina.

“You don’t digest it well, it doesn’t sit great on your stomach and then you don’t feel well,” she said.


Three nutrition experts offered tips and suggestions for how to eat on a trip to feel your best.

1. Don’t let mealtimes catch you off guard

Macauley, a registered dietitian, says a food plan should consider when you need to be at the airport, what mealtime that will include and what kind of food is allowed through security. Or, for a road trip, travelers should know how long they’ll be in the car and pack easily accessible food accordingly - or have an idea of what to buy at a pit stop.

“Knowing what your schedule is going to look like is going to help you look ahead for your food choices,” she said.

Kopp says she and her family like to swing by the grocery store right away on a trip so they have plenty on hand for meals or snacks, like eggs, Greek yogurt, whole wheat bread, string cheese and fresh fruit.

She said it’s also important to make sure to have reservations, especially in busy areas, so vacationers don’t end up with fast food as the only option.

2. Don’t skip meals

This was one of the top pieces of advice from dietitians.

“Oftentimes we’re on the road and we’re like, ‘This food’s not good, that food’s not good, so I’m just not going to eat that,’” Feller said. “Inevitably, when we restrict and we undernourish ourselves, then we’re really, really hungry.”

If a traveler knows they’ll be in a time crunch during mealtime, they should plan ahead to make sure they have something on hand they can easily grab at mealtime, Kopp said.

Macauley said vacation planning needs to include working in the time to eat a typical breakfast and lunch. When that happens, she said, travelers have the bandwidth to be mindful at every meal.

“If you get there and you’re ravenous . . . you’re going to be like, ‘I want the quickest, easiest, most palatable thing,’” she said.

3. Prioritize protein

Say you’re in Paris and you’ve got a perfect croissant in front of you for breakfast. Great. But grab some protein too, Macauley says, like yogurt, eggs or cottage cheese. Nuts and oats can also be good sources of protein. Same idea if you’re at a resort buffet with a coffee and a breakfast pastry.

“Protein is what’s going to help you stay full and fuel yourself for the rest of the day,” she said.

For snacks, she said the ideal combo is a protein with a color, whether that colorful item is a fruit or a vegetable.

4. Compose a balanced meal

Feller urges her clients to put together a meal with everything they need, not just a quick yogurt or granola bar. For a yogurt, she said, think about what else to add so it’s more nourishing: granola, nuts or dried fruit, for example.

She likes sandwiches as an option, which she said “can be a wonderful vessel for a lot of things,” and can be accompanied by a small bag of plain potato chips and a piece of fruit.

When patients are going to a resort with a buffet, she urges them to make intentional choices about how to fill their plate instead of trying everything.

“If we eat everything in one sitting, most of us don’t feel well,” Feller said.


Experts said travelers shouldn’t feel the pressure to make every single meal fit to some ideal. But they can think about their overall health over the course of a vacation. Macauley said if there’s an option to cook, maybe one night’s dinner can include something grilled with a big salad.

5. Satisfy cravings (sensibly)

If you’re itching for something sweet or salty, don’t ignore the craving, Macauley says. But it helps to have more nutritional options in mind.

She said that for a sweet tooth, she likes dates with peanut butter, which pack high fiber, some creaminess and sweetness all together.

“Still nice and filling, nice little energy burst, still nice and sweet,” she said.

For something salty, she said roasted nuts are a good option because they have high-quality fat as well as salt.

And Feller said even if the craving is more specific, like a bag of Doritos, don’t let it take over your life. “Get the bag, enjoy it and move on from it,” she said.

6. Snack with a purpose

Snacks are an excellent opportunity to add protein, fresh fruit and vegetables into the daily mix, experts said.

Macauley likes fruits with a peel for durability and sturdy veggies like celery, carrots, parsnips and radishes. If there’s a lunch box handy, cheese sticks and yogurt are good options.


Feller said rest stops will often have cups filled with sliced vegetables and hummus or guacamole, which can be good options. She also loves seeded crackers, tinned mini-fish and even a staple like peanut butter and jelly.

“You can literally have a PB&J in your bag and at the end of the day you’re like, ‘This is delicious,’” she said.

She acknowledged that some good options like nuts, seeds and hard-boiled eggs can be expensive as the cost of food has increased.

“I think the best snack is the one that a person enjoys and will actually eat and helps quell their hunger between meals,” Feller said.

7. Drink (water) all day

Nutrition experts say it’s essential to stay hydrated, especially because so many parts of travel - flying, eating sodium-packed food - can be dehydrating.

“When we travel, that’s one of the first things to go out the window, the quantity of what we drink,” Feller said.

Kopp said travelers should try to get 64 ounces of water a day and limit caffeine and alcohol, which can also be dehydrating.

If clients plan to drink sweet cocktails, Kopp urges them to limit the number to one, then drink eight ounces of water after. Sticking to drinks without a lot of sugar, like clear liquor, is also a good idea.

Macauley said it’s important not to drink alcohol if a traveler is already dehydrated, and people should not skip meals if they’re drinking. If someone has a plan for how much they intend to drink, they should make sure the rest of their group is aware and on board with that plan.

8. Savor the special stuff

For those meals that travelers have especially been looking forward to - the ones to write home about - Kopp recommends taking it slow, truly savoring and engaging in conversation with the rest of the party. If people aren’t sure if they’re full, just wait 10 minutes and check in with hunger cues again.

Feller said travelers should plan and look forward to those meals.

“Map out the places you want to go and the things you’re excited to have, and go and have them and enjoy them,” she said.


9. Move because you enjoy it

Experts agree being active on a trip is a great thing, but they’re careful not to tie it to vacation eating practices.

“I always say that movement should be pleasureful and that you don’t need to exercise in relationship to what you’re consuming,” Feller said. She loves when people “are able to engage in intentional movement that’s appropriate for their bodies” so they can get the cardiovascular benefit from it.

Kopp said rather than thinking of activity as a chore or exercise, vacationers should take part in movement that make them feel good or that they enjoy with their families.

She describes the idea as “doing things you truly enjoy on vacation, things good for heart health and joints rather than burning off calories.”