Eating healthy on the road

Oh, the quintessential American road trip. Our country’s iconic open highways have been immortalized in so many classic movies, like when we thought “the Rocky Mountains would be a whole lot rockier.” Or perhaps you need to bootleg a few Coors Banquets from Texas to Georgia? Maybe two legendary ladies in a ’66 T-Bird is more your style? Whatever your favorite road trip film might be, there is no arguing that eating healthy while driving American highways is no easy feat.

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Hello Wyoming, and thanks for inventing cruise control. (Photo may have been taken in 1987 or 2017. With filters, who knows?)

I like to move food. It’s my thing. Whenever we leave our house, it’s a guarantee that there are a few canvas shopping bags and maybe a plastic tub or two stacked by the door. We go to my sister’s for dinner and I bring jars of homemade applesauce, fruit leather for my niece (also known as “repurposed jam”) or gorgeous cheese from these lovely folks. My book club ladies leave with end-of-the-garden produce, dinner leftovers and more cheese. And if we’re off on a trip, whether by car or by plane, I simply will not be held hostage by the American industrial food complex.

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Mmmm…McDonald’s or Cinnabon? Why not both?

The vast majority of food in this country is based on two key ingredients: corn and soy. We are very, very good at growing corn and soy, and even better at turning it into cheap meat, soda and processed food. And these “edible foodlike substances” are most of what’s on offer at your standard convenience store or truck stop. And to add insult to injury, it is absurdly priced! I will not play by those rules.

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Example A, above. Look! It’s a $2.79 “meal replacement bar!” You know, so we don’t have to eat an actual meal! Can you read the first ingredient? It’s soy protein isolate. The second ingredient is sugar, and the third is soluble corn fiber. If all of your standard meals are composed of soy, sugar and corn, then by all means, please choose this as a meal replacement. But this is just one of many examples of a giant, powerful marketing machine that has convinced the American public that we 1. don’t have time to cook and 2. can eat some junk like this with “PROTEIN” printed in large font and call it a meal. No, no and no.

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Absolutely no actual food was harmed in the making of these edible foodlike substances.

If you’re on a road trip, whenever possible get off the highway and into a town supermarket. Gas stations, convenience stores and truck stops are by their very nature stocked with cheap, non-perishable food, so that’s what you’ll buy. Their staff has neither the time or inclination to stock and then dispose of fresh fruit, vegetables and meat, so instead you’ll encounter a display like the one above. If you can make it away from the interstate and into a small grocery store, you’ll hopefully have access to a much better selection of food.

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I genuinely pity the poor animals who died to make these “meat sticks.” (Also, “thungry?” Is this like “hangry?” Notice that it’s trademarked.)

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Part of our road trip survival kit.

So what’s a person to do in the face of this pretend food trash? Easy answer: plan in advance. Just like cooking healthy food at home, eating well on the road requires a bit of time and planning. But if you’re already doing other pre-road trip tasks like checking your tire pressure and refilling your windshield wiper fluid, why not get some healthy food in order? For me, it’s mostly shelf-stable items, plus a few perishables in a cooler. My basic road trip essentials, most of which are easily found in the bulk section of a good supermarket:

  • stellar cheese and good crackers are mandatory
  • dried fruit, including figs, apricots and homemade fruit leather
  • fresh fruit that can last, such as citrus and apples (no berries or bananas!)
  • homemade granola, to eat on its own or with purchased yogurt
  • jerky, either homemade or from well-raised animals
  • nuts, which for us are typically roasted salted almonds
  • rice cracker mix, pretzels or other reasonably healthy salty snacks
  • homemade granola or energy bars, or packaged bars with clean labels (be able to pronounce and understand every single ingredient, and the first three ingredients shouldn’t be soy, sugar and corn)
  • good-quality dark chocolate, preferably without soy lecithin

And for equipment:

  • without question, a good chef’s knife and paring knife, protected in sheaths, and a small polypropylene cutting board.
  • we bring our own coffeemaker, grinder, beans and mugs. We sleep cheap, and I’m not drinking Motel 6 coffee. Not negotiable.
  • cutlery rolls, which include an inexpensive metal fork, knife, spoon, reusable straw and corkscrew. We don’t use single-use items, with the exception of compostable paper napkins.
  • Mason jars with screw-top lids and a few plastic containers. These can be used for drinks, storing snacks or to eat meals.
  • a wooden spoon, rubber spatula and metal tongs
  • a small electric burner plus a frying pan and mini stockpot. This makes meal prep on the road easy – and more importantly – possible.

In all honesty, at various stops along this trip I did notice small containers of cut fresh fruit, hardboiled eggs and some seemingly fresh sandwiches and wraps, which indicates that demand is shifting. But there is no guarantee that every gas station will have these, and if you pack your own food you’ll have a much better selection and save a ton of money. I saw two packaged hardboiled eggs priced at $1.99; with a cooler and ice packs, a dozen well-sourced hardboiled eggs, flaky salt and hot sauce can easily be brought along for about $4 and a few minutes’ work in advance. There is simply no one thing you can do to improve both your physical and financial health more than planning, cooking and bringing your own food. Enough said.

Friends, please remember that your health is your responsibility, and what you choose to eat makes a huge difference in your health. Take some time prior to your next trip and bring food along, and stand in opposition to a system that insists you have to eat what it offers.

 

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