Summer means strappy sandals, t-shirts and sundresses, long weekends picnicking at the beach and… road trips!!!!
But wait… can people who eat a healthy, plant-based diet survive out there on the road and return home with our health intact?
Yup, as long as we know how to sidestep some potential landmines lurking along the way.
Fast food. That’s right, there is such a thing a vegan fast food. I have read article after article about the “vegan” options available to us at fast-food joints like vegan burritos at Chipotle Grill (pretty decent, really…but lots of GMOs in their ingredients by their own admission) or vegan pizza at Pizza Hut and Papa John’s. While appealing, think before you steer into one of these parking lots.
The fast-food industry is notorious for telling us what we want to hear… and it ain’t always the truth. We know what we know about burgers and such… 38 ingredients in Chicken McNuggets… secret “special sauces” really nothing more than a melting pot of chemicals, additives, and flavorings, and so on. But what about the plant-based options? Remember kids, vegan doesn’t always mean healthy. Traveling and eating vegan food in fast-food restaurants can have you returning home just as puffy and bloated as anyone else on the road living on junk food.
Fat, sugar and salt will load you up on calories, from plants or not. For instance, I checked out the vegan option at Papa John’s. What a caloric landmine! A 10-inch Garden Cheese-less Pizza weighs in at a whopping 140 calories a slice! That’s 840 calories for the whole thing, which we know we are going to eat because, let’s face it, size matters… a 10-inch pizza just ain’t that big!
So how do we eat and travel? There are the usual tips that we know: pack a cooler with items like fresh veggies and hummus, and sandwiches made at home before you hit the road; pack dried fruit and nuts in small jars (which fit nicely in sectioned wine bags, staying neat and safe), stop at local markets along the way for veggies, fruit, nuts, and seeds to replenish your empty cooler and jars.
But what do we do when you want to sit down and enjoy a hot meal at a real table, rather than in your car or at a campsite or rest stop? I can only tell you what works for me… and I travel a lot.
For me, the most important thing is breakfast. If you can find a decent breakfast, the rest of the day will be easy. We generally look for a truck-stop or local diner where we can get real oatmeal with nothing added to it. Stir in some fresh fruit, and you have started your day on the right foot. Skip the sugary pastries, vegan or not, because they set you up to be hungry all day. They are nothing more than empty calories.
Lunch and dinner will likely be eaten in a restaurant, but you can choose well. Always add a fresh salad (with oil and vinegar on the side, so you sidestep lots of fat, salt, and dairy products). When possible, begin your meal with a soup, as it helps fill you and is loaded with nutrients from veggies. Soup also helps you digest your food more efficiently, but be sure and ask if the broth is vegetable-based. You can also build quite a feast from veggie side dishes at any restaurant. Just ask that they hold any butter or cheese that might be stirred into them. Order baked potatoes instead of French fries or onion rings to help control the amount of fat you are consuming in your travels.
We have found the most fun and the best food when we search a little more to find that local jewel of a place in a small town. See, local joints love to please the customer. If you walk into a restaurant and ask to see a menu, chances are you’ll see something on that list of dishes that can work with a little creativity. Ask the hostess if the chef can substitute or mix-and-match to create a dish that’s plant-centric.
As a chef myself, I can tell you that we love being asked to be creative and come up with delicious, healthy, plant-based meal. In all my years of travel, I have never had a restaurant refuse to accommodate me. I have, more times than I can count, been surprised and delighted by what the chef has come up with (some disappointments as well, but that goes with the territory).
It’s also important to remember that consumers drive the market, and we are seeing those results. Uno Chicago Grill has added a number of surprisingly healthy and delicious options like farro salad and organic brown rice, as well as some tofu dishes. So it’s important to check menus and see how and what you might be able to enjoy without checking your ethics or health at the door.
Finally, if sandwiches are your thing, stop at a place where you can build your own sandwich so you are in control of what goes in and on it. Whole grain breads, lots of veggies, and a light drizzle of olive oil will create a feast of a meal.
Traveling like this can result in a fun, satisfying and healthy road trip.