When you’re a few days into a vacation, do you ever get sick of spending a lot of money to eat every single meal in restaurants?
When you travel for work, do you wish you could find healthier alternatives than over-processed restaurant meals?
Unfortunately, I’ve experienced both circumstances on far too many occasions. One day, I just got sick of it and decided to do something about it.
I found a way to create a simple meal that is a budget-friendly alternative to the high-fat, sodium laden meals you get from a typical restaurant or hotel chain breakfast. So, you can eat healthier while saving a lot of money when you’re on the road.
And, here’s what I did.
Tip 1: Spend 15 Minutes Visiting A Local Food Store
Find a local grocery store or a national grocery, mass merchandiser, or drug store chain at your destination.
When I take a trip that requires me to fly, I always stop by a local store to pick up water for the duration of my trip. If I keep a bottle of water with me I don’t have to rely on others to offer me a drink or I am not relegated to wait until it’s time to eat before I can get a drink. Water will keep you hydrated and feeling full throughout the day. This is especially important when you’re traveling and making decisions about what to eat.
Many national grocery chains offer soup, salad and hot bars in their stores. If I’m short on time or traveling alone I sometimes pick up lunch from the salad bar. Eating at a salad bar lets me customize my meal and take only what I want/need. Plus, the meal is typically much cheaper than spending $10-15 for lunch (plus a tip) in a restaurant.
One thing to always keep in mind, though, is that some of that food is highly processed and pre-prepared which means that it may contain just as much sodium and fat as you’d get from eating in a restaurant. So, avoid those foods at all costs!
I’ll will also pick up some snacks or small meals that I can eat for the rest of my trip.
Which brings me to my next tip . . .
Tip 2: Pick Your Hotel Wisely.
I always, always, always search for hotels that have mini-refrigerators and microwaves in their rooms.
Because staying at those hotels means that you have additional options that will save you money by not forcing you to eat out for every meal.
You’ll be able to store drinks and food for breakfast, lunch or dinner.
You’ll be able to make a quick and easy breakfast of, for example, milk, orange juice and fruit alongside yogurt, cereal, granola or oatmeal. If you like hot oatmeal you can microwave the water or use the coffeemaker to warm your water. Alternatively, you can easily create overnight oats by soaking your oats with a little milk and yogurt (while you sleep) in your refrigerator.
For lunch or dinner, you could eat a banana, grapes or an apple with yogurt (or nuts) and a sandwich. Dan and I don’t typically eat sandwich meat (due to the high sodium content), but when we travel we sometimes buy a few slices of lower sodium turkey breast from a grocery store deli counter or a packet of tuna. We then pair it with a roll or bread from the deli. This meal gives us the protein we need until our next meal.
Key Point To Remember:
Always remember to pick up a few paper products like bowls, plates, paper towels and a box of plasticware. You don’t want to get to your room and realize you don’t have everything you need to eat. Yes, this will add a little bit of cost, but overall if you are traveling for more than just a day or two you will easily re-coup the savings from not eating out. Alternatively, if your hotel offers any of these paper products, use theirs (why pay for something you can get for free?). Or, if you have reusable travel plasticware or plates at home, bring those, too.
Tip 3: Figure Out What You’ll Bring From Home
When planning your trip figure out what snacks and meals you can bring from home so you don’t have to eat out for every meal.
Bringing a bag or a cooler of food and drinks from home is a great option if you’re taking a road trip where you’re using your own car or traveling by train. Just make sure you pack the cooler with plenty of ice or that you have a way to restock the cooler with ice while on your trip.
As an example, a few years ago, I made a few simple meals and put them in individual containers prior to a weekend beach getaway. I froze the meals to help keep them cold while traveling. Because we were traveling by car and had reserved a hotel with a refrigerator and microwave this was a great alternative to eating lunches out. Dan or I could simply come back from the beach and heat up lunch whenever we wanted.
If you’re traveling by plane you have fewer options to bring food from home, but you can still pack a few things in your luggage or carry-on. This is especially helpful when you get stuck with the inevitable travel delays. When I’ve been stuck on the runway for hours (and that’s happened on more than one occasion), I found that having nuts, dried fruit, a granola bar/homemade granola or an apple in my carry-on bag provided me with something to snack on until I could have a full meal elsewhere. Believe me, after a few hours of delays or running through an airport you’ll thank yourself for thinking ahead!
An added benefit of carrying homemade granola is that I’m guaranteed to have something I like for breakfast rather than rely on what may be served at a hotel or conference breakfast bar.
Traveling by plane also makes it much easier to pick up items for meals from a local store. Given that, I always pack a small, collapsible cooler or insulated lunch bag. I use the cooler or lunch bag to keep food cold when venturing out on day trips – especially during vacation. Putting a container or baggie of ice in the bag should keep your insulated bag cold enough to pack that store-bought food.
Tip 4: Find A Local Farmer’s Market
Local farmer’s markets usually offer fresh fruits and vegetables that you can use for snacks or meals. Plus, visiting those markets lets you experience the local culture, too. This is especially true when traveling overseas. In many countries, the local market functions much like a local grocery store does in the United States. In France, Italy and South Korea, for example, locals and travelers alike go to the town market to pick up their bread, meats, cheese, fruits and vegetables for the day. You might even get lucky and pick up a local craft item from the farmer’s market to keep as a souvenir.
In addition, if you enjoy trying local dishes when you travel (like I do) you’ll often find food vendors at local farmer’s markets. I’d much rather eat something with authentic, local flavor from a farmer’s market vendor than eat at a chain restaurant. Also, if you enjoy cooking, the local flavor may inspire you to find or create similar foods when you return home.
As an added benefit, if you’re traveling with others, everyone can eat exactly what they want since there are many different food vendors at any farmer’s market.
TIp 5: Find A Healthy, Affordable Restaurant
My final tip is to find a healthy, affordable restaurant where you’ll be able to enjoy eating a meal each day.
When looking for a restaurant, you should do a local search on apps such as Yelp or a Google search to look at the menu, prices and ratings given by others. As a fallback, look to see if there are any national chains in the area that offer healthy options. Familiarizing yourself with menu choices from a few national chains will allow you to pick a good restaurant in the area quickly, so you don’t waste time figuring out where you want to eat. You can frequently find national chain nutrition information online. And always read the nutrition information so that you know what you’re actually getting. You want to do this because, in the past, Dan and I have found that foods that appear healthy (such as salads) can contain a shocking amount of fat, sugar, and sodium. Not only that, but just because you’ve picked a restaurant in advance doesn’t mean you have to actually eat there.
Once you get to the restaurant, you have to listen to your intuition. You should ask yourself the following questions (it’ll take you less than a minute) so that you can decide whether you feel good about actually eating there:
- Is it clean (look at the tables, counter tops and floors)?
- Does the restaurant appear to be well-maintained on the inside and outside or does it look rundown (like the owners don’t care)? and
- Does the restaurant smell fresh or does it have a stale, old greasy/musty smell inside?
If your answer is negative about any of the questions above, leave immediately and go to your second choice place. Repeat the above until you find a place where you feel comfortable eating. You never want to take chances with the food you put into your body – it’s just not worth it.
Ultimately, where ever you choose to eat you’ll be picking your food from a menu. Don’t be afraid to ask questions about how something is prepared and what it contains. A few simple questions can help you decide what you’ll order. Asking those questions will help you avoid being surprised by your food when you get it (e.g. you ordered “the fish of the day” and you got it “fried” instead of broiled).
By using the above tips during your next vacation or business trip, you’ll be free to enjoy the culture and food of your destination without risking your health, spending a fortune or ruining your regular diet.
What meal tips do you use when traveling for work or pleasure?