Real Food, Part Three: Eating Real Food on the Road

What an extraordinary achievement for a civilization: to have developed the one diet that reliably makes its people sick-Michael Pollan

Do you find yourself eating much worse on the road than you do at home?  I think most of us do.

I wonder sometimes how much illness during and after trips is from travel and exposure and how much is actually because we eat junk when we are away from home and weaken our immune system.

Traveling with a family, by auto or air, can be very trying and food is just one part of the equation.  If you have a child with food allergies (1 in 13 have allergies these days), you have no room for error.

Traveling for work can mean a different set of restrictions like an inflexible schedule and limited mobility.

Oh, and if you are traveling on a monetary budget, good luck.

I haven’t traveled for work in many years but I watch the struggles of my Mister and our friends who do so regularly and I travel with my children so I decided some time ago that some serious research needed to be done.

Here is what I have learned thus far:

Carry food whenever possible.

I know the stereotype of a mom with a purse full of food is cliche but really, anyone who eats real food should be prepared for the times they don’t have access.  Airports are offering some improved options these days but they charge 3 to 5 times what is conscionable.  Be prepared.  The TSA rules can be confusing, especially regarding what counts as a liquid. The site Business Travel Life has a great overview of what you can bring and how you need to pack it.  The information is helpful for anyone getting on a plane with food, not just our business travelers.  Does it seem silly to carry a few things in your bag?  It really matters if doing so saves you from a meal of faux food.  Every bit of real food can be a victory, especially on the road.

Stock up when you arrive.

It isn’t always possible to get your driver to take you to a grocer and there isn’t always time.  If it is a possibility, get to a grocer or market when you arrive at your destination, or en route if you are traveling by car.  The same items qualify as food on the road and at home so you need to go where you go at home to get food, when possible.  We keep pre-washed veggies, fruits, nuts etc in our hotel and take them in the car with us.  Some upscale grocers have hot foods and salad bars that are a great option.  Ask the employees about ingredients if they are not prominently displayed.  A friend who travels every week has told me she has to get food at the closest place she can find to the airport, usually a gas station.  There are increasingly bananas, nuts and other actual food items if you know where to look.  Just make sure you don’t grab a pop or some other junk as well.  I used to buy V8 at gas stations all the time.  I’m sure the pesticide residue is high but at the time it was the only thing they sold that I would consider.  

Navigating restaurants

Most of the time the food we eat when we travel is from restaurants.  Having worked in many, from fine dining to dives, I can tell you that the food seems healthier than it is.  We used to ladle butter all over steaks before they left the kitchen,  put sugary sauces on veggies and use corn or other veggie oil in everything.  The quality usually goes up when you get to true fine dining but that can be cost prohibitive. and require reservations.  Happily, there is some serious improvement of late, particularly in the fast casual market.  While Chipotle opened themselves up for all kinds of attacks from the powers that be while vocally denouncing industrial ag and revolting supply chains, Panera was quietly trying to offer a cleaner menu and, thus far, has avoided the drama.  Both provide some real food, a respectable business model and knowledgeable staff.  I used to think these places were a bit pricey but, after doing the math, they cost not much more than most fast food menus while allowing you to eat actual food.  

Nothing but a golden arch in sight?  Even the fast chains are trying to respond to the growing consumer awareness.  McDonald’s in our area sells whole oranges.  Chick Fil A has shade grown coffee, decent salads and a fruit cup.  When ordering salads, avoid the dressing.  Put fruit or balsamic on instead.  I have yet to hear of a fast food or even casual restaurant whose dressings do not use transgenic oils as a base. If all else fails, the oatmeal these places (Starbucks, McDonald’s, Chick Fil A) is better than most of the rest of the menu and it is hot and filling.

Still tempted to justify the sandwich?  Do your homework.  Never order something at one of these places until you have read the ingredient list.  Seriously.  You can look at it online before you leave or pull it up on your phone.  Even before I started eating clean, I used to ask for the list before I would order.  We’d highlight what was okay by our standards and keep it in my Mister’s glove box for road trips.  Most people are shocked that there are so many ingredients in something that should be simple.  The business model for most fast food places requires such chemical feats.

Here are some popular fast food ingredient lists: (hint: look at the buns and the sauces)


Chick Fil A




Burger King

Taco Bell


Long John Silver’s

Make sure you scroll down far enough to get to the actual ingredient list on some of these, not just the “nutrition information” or recipe overview.

I can’t even find recent Sonic,  Zaxby’s, Dairy Queen or Arby’s ingredient lists so you’ll have to ask for one at the store.  The lists from several years ago for all of these rival the worst I have ever seen.  Don’t kid yourself.  

For Subway’s list you’ll have to open the PDF in your own files.  Notably, they have different ingredient lists for the US and Canada.

If it is helpful, safe this page in your phone so you have the links handy.

So how do I find a place to eat when I do have a choice?  

If you get to choose a place to eat, there are a few guides out there that can be really helpful.  Check out The Eat Well Guide here or even look up the food truck finder guide for the area you will be staying.  Most larger cities have one now.  Food trucks rarely keep inventory and tend to use minimal ingredients, plus they know exactly what they are serving so they can be goldmines for real and flavorful food.  Ask questions.  With the ability to do web searches from our phones, we are able to find what we want like never before.  Do some homework.

What if there is no time for that?  

Vegetarians can usually do well finding real food at made-to-order Asian or sushi restaurants.  I can walk into a Thai place and order Thai veggies dry fried and eat pretty well.  The spices and herbs they use impart vibrant flavor without the nasty vegetable oil.  Veggie sushi is easy to find and you can usually request brown rice.

Mediterranean and Middle-Eastern restaurants usually offer simple but flavorful salads and sides that make great main courses and I have been pleasantly surprised how many of them make their own hummus and use olive oil.

Smoothie bars have been popping up all over.  There are some rules here.  First, they load their drinks with sugar.  Tell them you do not want the added sweetener or ask them to half it.  Second, know the source of any added protein.  (We avoid soy and whey.)  Third, find something veggie based.  Most, but not all, of these bars have staff that can customize.

It is important to note that you want to keep the special requests at any restaurants to a minimum.  Have some common sense.  If there is a line, keep it very simple.  If the staff seems annoyed, back off or risk them messing up your order.  

Throughout human history it has been necessary for people to find food in their environment or die.  How sad that we, in a land of “plenty,” so often find it difficult or prohibitive to locate real food.  It is equally telling that we allow so little time (and knowledge) for such a fundamental task.  This historically unique dilemma is a result of something good, specialization, being taken too far, to the point that it has negatively impacted the fundamentals of our existence.  Don’t allow yourself to be completely cut off from the basics of human life.  Be deliberate about your food.

To Learn More About Real Food

 Check out Part 1, to learn about what real food is and how to change your personal definition of food and Part 2 for thoughts on the logistics of eating real food in a culture that eats junk.  We will wrap up this series next time with thoughts about children and real food.

Very simply, we subsidize high-fructose corn syrup in this country, but not carrots. While the surgeon general is raising alarms over the epidemic of obesity, the president is signing farm bills designed to keep the river of cheap corn flowing, guaranteeing that the cheapest calories in the supermarket will continue to be the unhealthiest.-Michael Pollan

Chew on This

This is short but important to understand.  If you take care of your health, you are not guaranteed some sort of pass on illness.  You can stack the deck in your favor and still get sick.  Then your healthy lifestyle allows your body to fight to the best of its ability.

Bonnie Modugno on lessons fighting cancer.

Recommended Reading

We are currently celebrating the 10 year anniversary of Michael Pollan’s culture shaking book The Omnivore’s Dilemma.  If you would like to know more, there is some good coverage on New Food Economy.  

In Pollan’s own words, this piece in the Washington Post discusses what has happen and not happened since the book was first published.

There are a lot of amazing books about food, farming, agriculture and the politics of it all but for the last decade this book has proven to be the most jolting, insightful and well written book of the movement, perhaps the book that has awoken more mainstream consumers than any other to the perils of industrial agriculture.

I read the Young Reader’s Edition with my children when they were 4 and 6 and will do so again this fall.  

I recommend it, and Pollan’s other fantastic books, to everyone who eats in western culture.


Love from the farm

Happy eating, Katy

4 thoughts on “Real Food, Part Three: Eating Real Food on the Road

  1. Bravo! I will definitely check these links out before leaving on my road trip to Indiana later this month. One good thing about driving is that I can pack a cooler with fresh fruits and veggies and my homemade granola!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Fabulous post. Am catching up on my blog reading. While I try to eat healthily, there is lots of room for improvement. And I am terrible on the road for not prepacking our own food and for making terrible choices in petrol stations when we stop.

    Liked by 1 person

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