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Dietitians’ Top Tips for Eating Healthily While Traveling

By Sarah Garone
July 12, 2022

Vacation is the time to cut loose and enjoy yourself, and that definitely includes trying some foods you don’t normally get to enjoy. When you’re on an international trip, part of the experience is sampling cultural cuisine, and umbrella cocktails almost feel like a requirement when you’re on a tropical beach. But going all-in on vacation dining like cruise ship buffets, campfire cooking, and restaurant meals three times a day isn’t always a recipe for healthy eating, which means your digestion might get thrown off and you’ll enjoy the overall experience less.

Read next: Protect Yourself from the Most Gross Spots in Planes and Hotels

We think that people shouldn’t expect themselves to adhere to super-strict healthy-eating standards at any time, much less when traveling — you are on vacation, after all, so the idea is to relax. But if you’re looking to build some healthy habits into your next trip so you can keep on top of your travel game, we’ve got you covered. Here are some dietitian-approved tips for eating well, wherever your travels take you.

1. Build a better breakfast 

Hotel breakfast smorgasbords can be a siren song of simple carbs and saturated fats. But even the most syrup-dripping buffet can be an opportunity to get creative about building a nutritious breakfast. To start, check out all of a buffet’s offerings before grabbing a plate. This way, you’ll have a sense of what you really want to eat, rather than autopiloting your way through a mountain of options.

If cereal is on offer, look for a high-fiber option like bran flakes, or better yet, start the day with stick-to-your-ribs whole grains in the form of oatmeal. Eggs and yogurt make for healthy, high-protein breakfasting — especially if the hotel has plain yogurt on offer. If you want to go for a plate of fluffy pancakes or the classic hotel Belgian waffle, consider skipping the syrup in favor of fresh fruit for fiber and micronutrients, or simply enjoy a little syrup on the side for dipping, rather than drenching. 

Meanwhile, if your accommodations don’t include breakfast, try a simple DIY meal.I always bring packets of plain oatmeal to make for breakfast in the hotel with hot water,” says Christina Iaboni, RD. “I’ll pick up fruit and yogurt at a local grocery store to have with it so I start the day with a balanced breakfast.” 

Your possibilities don’t stop there. If you have access to a fridge and a toaster, other healthy in-room breakfast ideas include a whole grain cereal with milk, pre-purchased fruit smoothies, or sourdough toast with peanut butter and banana slices.

2. Try to eat regular meals at regular times

As fun and exciting as travel can be, there’s no denying that it can throw us off our normal eating patterns. Between time changes, flight delays, and over-scheduled vacation activities, regular meals can be hard to make happen. But cramming down quick, haphazard meals can cause indigestion, and dining at odd times might lead to over- or under-eating.

“Often, people try to make the most of their time and end up skipping meals or eating on the go,” says Meghna Pandit, RD. “It’s important to keep time to eat in your traveling schedule. Planning your meal schedule beforehand will lead to less snacking and less mindless eating.” As you make plans — whether you’re catching a boat to Cozumel or seeing a show in Vegas — do what you can to accommodate solid meals in the day.

cocktails on the beach

3. Read restaurant menus closely

Think healthy restaurant dining is a contradiction in terms? Think again. With a little pre-planning, you can sleuth your way to eating well when dining out. “Check restaurant menus ahead of time online to help you find healthy selections or things that meet your dietary needs,” says Melissa Altman-Traub, MS, RDN, LDN

You might also re-think a standard entrée order by checking out other parts of the restaurant menu. Often, appetizers and sides offer better portion control (and sometimes better nutrition) than the epic plates of main dishes, so if you’re not really craving one of the mains and want to go for a healthier choice, try mixing and matching sides and appetizers like sautéed vegetables, soups, and salads. 

Also consider the vocabulary used to describe the menu options. Descriptors like “crispy,” “slathered,” or “battered” are usually code for high-calorie, high-fat meals. Instead, select items that are grilled, broiled, steamed, or roasted, which are a better bet for health — and if you’re unsure, you can always ask the server how a dish is prepared.

If you’re traveling abroad, you’re likely in luck if you go to a restaurant that’s considered “classic” wherever you are — the oldest, most traditional dishes in nearly every culture are prepared with whole foods, since they were created back before super-processed foods were a part of life — so just eating like the locals is often among the healthiest options. 

4. Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate

If you’re someone who enjoys the occasional cocktail or glass of wine, vacation is a great time to expand your beverage horizon. If you’re lucky enough to be on a beach sipping mai tais from a coconut, however, remember to hydrate with some H2O as well. Not drinking enough water can have some potentially unpleasant consequences that could derail your trip, such as constipation, fatigue, and increased risk of heat exhaustion. “Stick to water as the main beverage of choice,” says Trinique Waters, RD, LDN (a dietitian who is especially well-named for her profession).

Air travel is also notorious for its dehydrating effects. If you’ll be flying, make a preemptive plan for hydration. “Have a reusable water bottle you can fill up once you get past security,” recommends Patricia Kolesa, MS, RDN. Then fill ‘er up and drink regularly while in the air.

5. Pack healthy snacks

You can’t necessarily stuff a three-course dinner into your carry-on — but you can come prepared with healthy snacks. Before heading to the airport or hopping in the car for a road trip, pack your bags with smart choices to fuel you between meals. This will help fill in nutritional gaps that might be lacking as you travel. 

My tip is to travel with dry foods like low-sugar protein bars or granola bars, plus unsalted nuts and seed mixes to have in the airport and for snacking,” says Iabioni. Just be sure your chosen munchies are airport security-friendly. Solid foods are allowed past TSA, but liquids or gels over 3.4 ounces are not (so applesauce packets or smoothies probably won’t make the cut).

Once you’ve arrived at your destination, you may need to re-stock on good-for-you nibbles. “Find a local supermarket and pick up fruits, hummus, whole grain crackers, and pretzels for snacks,” says Altman-Traub. “For road trips or at the beach, bring a cooler for cut melon, peppers, cucumber, and celery.”

6. Make it mindful

Mindful eating is a great way to avoid consuming more than you actually want or are hungry for. Wondering what mindful eating looks like on vacation? Some hallmarks include eating more slowly, limiting distractions while dining, relaxing into the experience with your travel companions, and savoring each and every bite. With a more intentional approach, you’ll enjoy making memories and will eat as much as you actually want to enjoy rather than continuing to snack simply because the plate is in front of you. 

Read next: Getting on a Plane? Here’s What to Eat Before, During & After Your Flight

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