I tear open the package to find that it smells good, like sugar cookies. But, I'm still leery. Can this freeze-dried meal really serve as an adequate substitute, or will it give me stomach pains for the rest of the day? But my hunger outweighs my fear of spending the next eight hours in the car with unbearable stomach cramps. It's noon and I have subsisted on only a doughnut, which I ate four hours ago.
This experiment was simple. Drive 860 miles over the course of 2 days and maintain a strict vegetarian diet. My aim was to test how difficult it is to travel and avoid eating meat, as well as form some tips and tricks for eating meat free on the road. But this goes beyond eating meat free. Whether you eat meat or don't if you want to maintain a healthy diet travel usually disrupts your eating habits. Generally when I travel I'm forced to just deal with the fact that I'm going to eat unhealthy for the time being and then make up for it when I return to my normal environment. The issue is one of control. So how can you maintain control over your diet in a place when you don't know the area?
A Meat Culture
If you're trying to make good time when traveling you don't want to spend two hours eating a big lunch. It's just too time consuming. When I'm traveling and need a quick pit stop for lunch I'll pull off the interstate and grab something easy. But, many of these quick options aren't healthy. So not only am I stuck in a car for 12 hours, but I feel even more like shit because I'm eating horrible. Americans consume almost 200 pounds of meat a year. That number is up 41% from 60 years earlier. We are a nation of meat, and when you're traveling the low hanging fruit is fast food restaurants, which specialize in quick, easy meals laden down with a myriad of meat. So this begs the question, how do I eat healthy when my best, quick options are all unhealthy?
I've found several methods to adhere to dietary restrictions while on the road. These options had to meet the following criteria:
- Be Quick.
- Not contain meat.
- I didn't want to starve myself so I still needed a sufficient intake of calories.
- Combine meals I brought in the car, with eating out options.
So fast food joints are starting to get with the times, and offer healthier options, which does make eating healthier, or even adhering to dietary restrictions (vegetarian, gluten-free, etc) much easier. But, I didn't want to rely on just eating out. Especially when you travel domestically taking food with you that fits your diet is easy. Since I didn't want to deal with taking a cooler and keeping things cold I decided to try some freeze dried foods. The results were better than expected.
Quick Tips for Maintaining a Diet:
This is the short version for the below article. If you don't have the time to read it all, here's the summary:
- Bring the food you want with you. Even in airplanes you can bring along food.
- Utilize ready made meals, like MRE's and Freeze Dried Foods
- Eat at Italian, Asian, and Seafood restaurants
- Stay at a hotel with additional amenities that can help you stick to your diet.
- Shop Local
Freeze Dried Food
Astronauts have been eating this stuff for years, the Incas made this stuff hundreds of years ago and General Mills even includes freeze-dried food in their cereals. This stuff isn't scary, well most of it. What scared me was such things as freeze-dried ice cream bars and powdered milk. These sorts of things defy our thinking towards food. But, many of the freeze-dried options available today are actually quite healthy, not to mention more readily available. Most sporting good stores today stock freeze-dried food in their camping sections. I found mine at Cabelas and similar stores. Or, you can just order them online beforehand. Several top brands are Backpackers Pantry, Alpine Aire and Mountain House. Alpine Aire and Backpackers Pantry are more diverse and offer vegan and vegetarian options. Mountain House tends to be a bit more traditional, going for the mom and pop home cooking sort of meals.
For lunch on day 1 I tried granola with milk and blueberries. All you had to do was add a bit of water and mix. I expected it to taste like nothing and was surprised to find that the blueberries tasted like blueberries. For desert was a freeze-dried ice cream bar, which stayed true to its claim, "no drip, no mess."
When you're traveling with Freeze Dried Food there are a few considerations:
- You will need water, sometimes hot, sometimes cold depending on the food. Several suggestions: Stay at a hotel that provides water boilers or bring an extra bottle of water for cold water meals. Take a thermos of hot water. Travel with a jet boil camper stove, or something similar. Pro Traveler Tip: When you fill up for gas buy tea. Many gas stations now have hot water dispensers and tea packets. So just fill a cup up with hot water and don't add the tea bag. Keep the tea for later consumption and add the hot water to your food. (I can already hear you complaining about having to pay for hot water. Consider it a diet tax. You choose to follow a specific diet, you're going to have to pay more for it at times.)
- You will need an eating utensil. If you like to travel as light as possible, just grab disposable utensils from gas stations as you go. I've never been charged for one, or even questioned on it, as long as I was buying something else... like tea.
- Be sure to note the sodium content when choosing which foods to eat. Many of the options are high in sodium, but options like granola and blueberries aren't.
What Restaurants do I stop at?
So let's say you've arrived at your destination and want to go for a nice meal on the town. Your chances of finding a restaurants that fits your needs is better now than ever. So what sort of restaurants should you look for? Your best options are Italian, Asian and Seafood. These sorts of restaurants will give you the most, best options. Stay away from American bars, and American restaurants as they cater to the part of the population that consumes 200 pounds of meat a year. Now you can find a few vegetarian or gluten free options on pretty much every menu, what you won't find are good tasting options. Many places are throwing these items on their menus as a way to appeal to the more diet conscious individuals, but it isn't their specialty.
But, the restaurant types mentioned above already specialize in meals that can be made vegetarian very easily, or are vegetarian already. These restaurants don't need to "reinvent the wheel" so to speak if you sit down and request a vegetarian dinner. It's already part of their meal plan. For Italian take the meat out of the red sauce and you have a vegetarian pasta, or just order a cheese pizza with spinach and mushrooms. For Chinese, just order steamed rice with mixed vegetables and tofu. A good rule to follow: places that focus on pastas, rice and similar carbohydrates generally have better meals for people with diet restrictions. These are just a few examples of traditional meals that can fit your diet.
What Hotel do I stay at?
What are extra amenities worth? Do you want a hot water kettle in your room? Does the hotel need to have a good restaurant and diverse food menu? What about a workout room? Do you want to cook some of your own meals? When traveling, where you stay can help you stick to a diet. By giving yourself as many chances to succeed as possible (having a hot water heater, workout room, kitchenette, etc) you decrease your chances of failing. Since there are so many options out there my recommendation is to just do your research. When you find a hotel chain that works for you, stick with it.
Most bigger cities, and many smaller ones have farmer's markets that run during late spring to fall. These markets can be a great way to eat local, fresh and healthy. When I lived in Italy I frequented the farmer's markets in town. I found them a great way to experience the culture and atmosphere of a place. The people dishing out food at these spots are locals. They have stories to tell, insights into their town and more.
For other times of the year visit the grocery store. But instead of taking all of your food with you on a road trip, just buy it when you get there. This way you have a chance to still experience some of the local specialties, as many grocery stores also carry "local items."
Vegetarian and Vegan Resources:
There are a few resources out there that are extremely helpful when traveling.
Happy Cow- an online database that lets you search through vegan, veggie friendly and vegetarian restaurants in a select location. Perfect for finding a restaurant that fits your needs.
The Vegan Passport- Published by the vegan society it is "A multilingual vegan phrasebook that describes what foods vegans can/can't eat in the languages of over 95% of the world's population"