Since I’m now traveling 120 days a year — roughly a third of the time, which is all I can stand — people routinely ask me how I handle eating healthy food while traveling. I’m actually writing this column while traveling to a speaking gig in New Hampshire. In fact, I do much of my writing away from home these days. I wrote my last two books while I was on airplanes. But back to food.
First, a disclaimer: I don’t have all the answers. All I can do is share what works for me, realizing that I’m a solidly built, over-60-year-old geezer. This is to say that my metabolism has slowed considerably since my teenage years.
With that in mind, my first tactic is fasting while traveling. The three-meal imperative is actually uncommon historically. Eating times are highly cultural. Most of us are social eaters — when someone is eating, we want to join them. And I hate eating alone. So if I’m at a hotel and my client plans to eat breakfast before they pick me up for the day’s activities, I’ll often fast. Over time, I’ve concluded that sleep is more important to me than eating three meals a day, which makes it emotionally easy for me to skip a meal if it means I can get another hour of shut-eye.
Fasting while traveling also sharpens my senses and keeps me from being sluggish. But I appreciate that “not eating” is an unacceptable answer for most. And my lovely bride of 38 years, Teresa, smiles and adds, “Now you see why I don’t like traveling with him.”
Even at home, I’ve cultivated a two-meals-a-day regimen, and I really like it. Just an apple or a slice of cheese between my eating times works fine.
OK, enough of this deprivation idea. What fasting allows, though, is a higher probability — and budget — to seek out and enjoy food that aligns with my values, wherever I can find it. If you eat fewer times while traveling, you’ll be able to spend a bit more on good stuff. Fortunately, it’s much more available than it was many years ago. Some airports even carry locally sourced, organic fare these days.
Be sure to drink lots of water to stay hydrated and take the edge off your hunger. Smoothies can be quite satiating. A Naked Juice or Odwalla smoothie can act as a bridge until you can find something more substantial. As soon as you break the three-meal standard, lots of options will open up. Traveling already interrupts the home routine; just enjoy it and push the limits of what’s not routine. You might like it.
Preparation is your best bet for following an agreeable, healthy eating schedule while traveling. I know people who travel in cars with more food than luggage. When we travel in a car, we pack food to eat on the road. Sandwiches, apples, nuts, jerky, and dehydrated fruit are all great options. We try to avoid stuff with a lot of crumbs or juice. Apples are much better than oranges, for example. Dried apricots are better than popcorn, which gets into every crevice of a car seat and soils pants with butter stains. Been there, done that.
My favorite flying companions are jerky and meat sticks. They’re ideal because they’re not crumbly, and they pack a huge punch with little volume or weight. Jerky is filling and offers high nutrition from a little bag. Dried fruit, from apple slices to raisins to apricots, is the non-meat counterpart, and ditto for the volume.
Nuts work well, but be careful. They’re heavy on the stomach and can quickly make you feel sluggish. Nuts do travel well and are easy to eat on the fly. Mapping out your flight times, meal itinerary, and activities can help identify when you’ll need to eat and how much food you’ll need to bring.
In the end, regardless of my own fasting and planning, sometimes my body screams for something to eat. Maybe I’m flying internationally and can’t bring any food items through customs, and I have a long layover. So what next? If I have to buy food from the airport or a gas station, I look for something unprocessed and simple: soup, clam chowder, corn chowder.
A lot of knowing what to eat requires knowing your own body. Each of us is different, and what works for me might not work for you. I love bread, but bread doesn’t love me. Luckily, the paleo movement has now normalized ordering a burger without a bun or condiments.
I avoid fast-food franchises like the plague. Instead, I try to find a place where I can get an egg fried up for breakfast. In Charlotte, North Carolina, I can get pulled pork barbecue without a bun. That said, everyone has a weakness. Mine is ice cream. I also know exactly where the gelato stand is in Charlotte, so don’t think I’m a traveling ascetic. Yes, I have my limits and protocols, but I like to indulge occasionally too.
I’m reminded of a story an organic-produce grower told me about traveling with a livestock farmer to a sustainable farming conference. They were getting famished and finally decided to stop at the next available place, as long as it wasn’t a McDonald’s. They came upon a diner and went in. The produce grower purchased a hamburger with no lettuce or tomato. The livestock farmer purchased a Caesar salad with no meat. They each refused to buy the industrial counterpart of what they produced, opting instead to buy the industrial option they didn’t know. Sometimes that’s just the way it is.
I like the 80/20 rule. It’s a business axiom that applies to many things, but I use it to avoid being a food cultist. Eat 80 percent in alignment with your values, and you can handle 20 percent indulgence. An 80/20 mix offers a little forgiveness in your choices. Wearing food snobbery on your sleeve can get old.
The main thing is to think it through, experiment with what keeps you healthy and sharp, and don’t veer too far away from your body’s normal ingestion. Happy traveling.