Having recently been on a few trips, including the long-haul flight from Australia to the US – you guys have been asking heaps of questions about how I eat well and enjoy myself during travel, all the while sticking with my dietary awarenesses (gluten free, grain-free, dairy free, sugar free, peanut free – basically Whole30 and AIP).
And while we’re in the midst of the holiday season, I’m sure many of you are gearing up for some travel, and you might be feeling a little overwhelmed about how to stick to eating real food during all the social events and being away from your own kitchen/home. No worries. I got you covered!
I have been traveling overseas for more than a decade now, and while I make the conscious choice to prioritize positive thoughts and attitudes, quality food and water, I have totally felt anxiety in the past when it comes to food and travel. Over the years however, I’ve learnt what’s worth stressing about and what isn’t, as well as the systems I’ve put in place so I can enjoy my time away, and spend much less time in my head wondering where my next “safe” meal will come from.
We all choose to prioritize our health for different reasons, so whether you just don’t want to be bloated on vacay, or you’re following a specific dietary protocol for health reasons (i.e. celiac, autoimmune paleo, diabetes, Whole30, etc), these are my best strategies to fuel and nourish your whole body while on the road.
My Ultimate Guide For Traveling & Eating Healthy
• Be “That Bag Lady”- Coolers/Eskys will save your life. Yes, it means you’ll have some extra luggage with you, but you’ll be sitting on a plane for an extended period of time, so why not see this as some functional movement for the day, and count it as exercise.
You can bring 2 carry-on items on an airplane, so I always take my backpack full of snacks and other essentials, plus a small portable cooler as my second carry-on item.
Make sure to keep some plastic cutlery in your cooler along with an ice pack if it’s an especially long flight (ie. overseas). I’d recommend a solid block-type of ice pack, rather than the gel ice packs, since you’re not allowed to take liquid through security checks and they may consider the gel a liquid.
I also bring some zip-lock baggies with me and if the ice pack does get taken away during the security check (has only happened to me once) I will then go through to the food court and ask for a cup full of ice and transfer the ice to the zip-locks to keep in my cooler. Easy-done.
• Bring Your Own Food – Bringing your own food means NO guessing games about what’s being served on-flight, so you can just relax and know you’ll be provided for. And remember, overly stressing about this will un-do the benefits of the planning, so try to keep an acceptance mindset throughout it all. It really can be simple if you let it be.
1. The day before your flight, pack your non-perishables.
Some of my favorites:
- Canned wild salmon or sardines – these are stinky at the best of times, so I like to have these as “emergency” back-up, so I try not to eat them on planes if I can help it, out of common courtesy.
- Baby food. Yep, you read that right! I love the convenience and simplicity of baby food. Make sure to read the labels. The simpler the ingredients, the better. I get the packets that are JUST veggies – no flours, sugar, grains or dairy added – they’re usually a blend of root veggies, but sometimes you can find a blend of roots and greens. I also like the root vege and meat combos. I especially like Rafferty’s brand and they come in handy little squeeze packets. My sweetie eats these with me too and we’ll have a laugh at the funny looks we get in public if we whip these out ;)
- Grain-free crackers – Check your favorite health food shop for what’s local to you. New brands are popping up all the time.
- Kale chips, veggie chips, sweet potato chips and plantain chips. Because yum. *
- Epic Bars or jerky (again, read your ingredient labels!). I was over-joyed when iHerb started carrying Epic Bars because I have yet to find anything quite the same here in Oz. I am very conscious of food miles, but a girl has got to eat, and these are the only whole-food protein bar I’ve found that feels nourishing. (Yes, there is an Australian company here that has followed suit, and I really wanted to like them, but they add sugar to their bars and they’re so dry and chewy, the purpose of having bars is for digestible/accessible fuel, so I just can’t. Thanks for trying though).
- Small jars/packets of coconut or olive oil. – Add these to any of your other snacks for some healthy satiating fat. Or eat a spoonful of coco-oil to help balance blood sugar when food isn’t handy. If taking a liquid oil on an airplane, make sure it’s under 100 ml for TSA allowance.
* April 2017 update: Take note peeps on the Whole30 that they changed their guidelines to no longer allow store-bought chips of any variety, even kale chips. Homemade is allowed however.
2. Ok, so you’re loaded with your non-perishables (that you can keep throughout your whole trip), now it’s time to prep your meals for the flight!
I take 3 fully comprised meals with me on my international flights. Here’s the key: I freeze one of them, so it stays cold throughout the longer part of the flight, and keep the other 2 in the fridge until it’s time to go and they all get packed into my eksy.
This way, I can eat one of the refrigerated meals after I get through security and I’m waiting to board, and the other within the earlier part of the flight. The final frozen meal will defrost over time and stay cool so I can eat it toward the end of the long haul. Travel is tiring at the best of times, so having regular meals will help keep your blood sugar levels stables and leave you with energy to navigate arriving at your new destination!
I try to be considerate of my very close economy class neighbors and pack less-stinky foods, like chicken instead of fish, salads instead of cruciferous veggies, plain baked sweet potatoes, etc.
However, if you discover you haven’t packed enough food and you’re getting hangry, by all means, eat your canned salmon or other stinky foods please. :)
• International Flights: Unlike domestic flights, international flights include a meal service. So while I’m purchasing my plane tickets, I put in a special meal request to suit my dietary needs (if you don’t do this during booking, you can always call at least 2 weeks prior as well). I normally fly with Qantas and their gluten-free meals are automatically dairy-free as well which makes it very simple.
Now, I don’t usually eat the provided meals (since I bring my own) but, if they’re going to be plopping food down in front of me 3+ times throughout the flight, then I’d rather it be gluten free, with at least the option to eat, if I needed to. It’s comforting to know that it’s there as back-up if my food didn’t make it through security, or if I ate all of what I brought already – on my last flight back to Australia, I ate the steamed broccoli and carrots from the dinner they served. It added a nice warm element to the cold salad I’d packed.
• Hot Tip *literally*: There’s not much worse than eating luke-warm or cold food that was meant to be eaten hot. If you’re feeling a bit FOMO when everyone else on the flight is getting served their hot meals – then use my favorite trick:
When they bring you your hot meal it comes in a plastic, draw-string bag (this may be exclusive to Qantas so bring your own bag – any plastic grocery bag will do, but something with a bit more insulation works even better).
Now take the meal you packed (in my case it was fried chicken thighs, green beans, sweet potato and olive oil) and slide your container into the hot baggie along with the airline meal and close it tightly. Let it sit for 20-30 minutes and viola! Your meal is warmed. Thanks Qantas. I knew that GF meal would come in handy.
• Find Your Kitchen: Whenever possible, stay somewhere that has a kitchen. You can do this by either staying with family/friends, an ‘apartment style’ hotel room (look for the word ‘kitchenette’ in room description), or you can book through Airbnb.
• A Note To My Gluten-Free Peeps: If you’re staying somewhere with a kitchen, you’re now set to do any of your usual cooking. Keep in mind, depending on your gluten sensitivity level, that communal toasters, baking sheets, mixing bowls, etc, may need to be avoided as they will likely have been in contact with gluten. I get around this by purchasing foil trays and use these in lieu of baking sheets, and also buy a new sponge or wash cloth to clean pots and pans thoroughly before use.
• Bar Fridges… They’re Not Just For Alcohol: If none of these options are available, don’t stress! Try to book a hotel room with a mini-fridge. If your room doesn’t already come with one, you can often request one from management and they will have it sent up to you. Just kindly explain to them that you have to bring your own food, and they are usually quite accommodating.
If you’re in a hotel room with only a microwave and bar fridge, you can stock up on things like deli-meat and salad veggies, and if you can get to a health food store, they’ll often have prepped foods you can pick up and store in the fridge. I’ve been known to microwave bacon in my hotel room. When it comes to eating vs. not, I happily choose the microwaved bacon (placed on grain-free tortillas with lettuce and coconut yogurt “sour cream” – it was a yum hotel breaky!)
• “Plug It In, Plug It In!”: I love my plug-in esky from Coleman. I bought this over a decade ago, so there’s probably more models out there these days, do some research and let me know what you find! I only am able to use this now when I’m back in the States (since I couldn’t take it with me), so it’s lasted me 10+ years. It plugs into the electric outlet on the dash of your car and runs a fan that keeps the food cool, add some ice packs to it and it’ll keep food as cold as a fridge would do. We used it on this last trip when we drove from Seattle down to Willamette Valley in Oregon. It has been such a life saver and definitely worth the investment for all my road trip adventures.
• Snack-Attack: If it’s meal-time and fresh food isn’t available, I assemble what I like to call ‘snack-meals’. For example – an Epic Bar, bag of plantain chips and some avocado. This does the trick and gets me to my next ‘fresh food’ destination. Every meal doesn’t have to be a 5-Star experience, think of food as fuel to keep you going and this will keep you nourished and your belly happy.
• Google Is Your Best Friend: Use it. There are also many apps out there that help you find Paleo, gluten free and allergy friendly restaurants. These days, awareness has really grown and we are very lucky to have the options that we do. A quick search to the area you’re traveling to and you’ll likely find some restaurants that you feel confident about.
• Make A Call: You can also call ahead and make sure the restaurant is willing to accommodate your needs, this will give you some confidence going in and also saves you from having to do the whole explanation at the table once you’ve arrived, it’ll free you up to enjoy yourself more.
• Flash Dance: Back in more sensitive days (when there were less foods I could tolerate) I had a laminated flash card that I would give the server with all of my ‘NO foods’ and the other side of the sheet had all of my ‘YES foods’. Super straight forward. Ask your server to give it to the chef to keep with your plate while it’s being prepared in the kitchen so everyone is aware.
Now, the key from there is to LET IT GO…. the stress, that is.
Whether you’re flying, road tripping, cooking in a hotel or dining out with friends – you have done everything you could possibly do to set yourself up for feeling your best, now let yourself off the hook! Perfectionism gets you no where (speaking from experience here). There will be times when you can’t find the most ideal “clean food” and that is A-OK! Do your best while sticking with your nonnegotiables — i.e. don’t eat something that you KNOW will make you sick, but if it’s not exactly how you’d have it at home, try to go with the flow. The more relaxed you are, the less your body, your gut and your nervous system will be on the defense. The reason we all go for a holiday is to spend quality time with our loved ones and have some fun. If you’re stressing about your food, you are going to out-do any good that’ll come from the relaxing parts!
It does require some attitude shifts, to let go of the control a bit, especially if your motivation to eat well comes from a place of fear of food making you sick. You have got to ditch the fear motivation to be able to fully relax into it. Choosing a different reason to look after yourself, one that comes from a place of positivity (“I choose to eat this way because it makes me feel good“) will totally change your experience. Even if you end up eating chips and jerky for dinner, it feels fun and is part of the travel experience.
I hope you have found some gems in what I’ve shared today, and that it makes your next travel experience that much more enjoyable. Please do share with me in the comments any of your favorite strategies that make feeling good and traveling easy for you, I’d love to know!
And as always, thanks for being here.
To Your SoleFire,