It’s been 17 days since I set off from London for my eight-week trip to the States. I’m already amazed by all of the things I’ve seen and done so far. There’s Chicago, of course – my hometown and where half of my extended family lives – but I’ve also taken a few side trips. I went to stay in my mom’s “cabin in the woods” for a couple nights, then went up north to Milwaukee to visit friends, then south to Champaign-Urbana to visit more friends. Now I’m in Lancaster, Ohio visiting my dad’s side of the family.
All of this traveling has had a few food-related effects: I haven’t been keeping up with my usual food diary posts, I’ve been eating out way more than I ever do in London, and I’ve been eating foods that I don’t normally eat given the choice between, say, instant oatmeal and Bircher muesli.
True, I expected this. When planning this trip, I was worried what eight weeks away from my trusty routine would do to my general health.
In London, I swim every other day, I walk at least a mile per day (usually more), I commute by bicycle, I cook most of my meals at home, I eat mostly vegan foods… traveling has thrown all this out the window. Need I go on the perils of eating while traveling? The roadside buffets? The portion sides? The vast availability of fried food, soda pop, and corn syrup? The woeful lack of fresh, healthy, whole food?
There was a time in my life when all of these challenges caused me a great amount of stress. I would become so anxious about eating weird foods and gaining weight that I would fail to actually enjoy myself and my well-earned holiday. This time, things are a bit different.
Despite any initial worries I had before leaving London, I’ve so far managed to avoid stressing out about food. I’ve also avoided gaining weight, even with the extra influx of pumpkin pie and holiday cookies. I suspect there are lots of reasons for this – maintaining good habits all year long, learning to eat slowly, letting go of my reigns of control and learning to relax. But these are all kind of fuzzy reasons that probably only make sense to me.
Here are a few specific ways I’ve been keeping up with my food “plan”. It’s not the kind of food plan that tells you exactly what to eat and of how much. It’s more of a plan to deal with all of the food surprises that occur when traveling, especially during the holidays.
- Maintain a food diary – Though my posts have been few and far between this December, I still keep taking pictures of all the foods I eat. Part of this is pure addiction – I just can’t help taking pictures of food! But it also keeps me honest and forces me to be thoughtful about the food I eat. I notice that when I take pictures of my meals, I think a little bit more about what my plate looks like, which makes me think a little bit more about what I’m eating. The bonus: I rarely find myself mindlessly stuffing my face with food. I bet a written diary would be similarly effective, though I like the photo diary because it’s easy, fun and even kind of social.
- Ask for a doggy bag – This one probably seems obvious, but it needs to be said. Usually, when I’m eating out and am given a plate of food, I can tell just by looking at it how much I should eat. So I try to stick to that and take the rest home.
- Share meals – When I’m lucky enough to eat out with someone who shares my tastes, I like to split a main dish. My mom and I have done this a few times – one of us will order a salad and the other a main, then we’ll split the two between us. I like this because I generally don’t have trouble finishing the meal. I know some people love leftovers but I find them kind of oppressive, especially if the food is a little greasier, cheesier, or just not as tasty as I would have liked. Then I’m left with a bunch of leftovers from a meal that I would rather leave behind.
- Snack on veggies, fresh fruit and nuts – I don’t bother with snack bars; I think they’re a waste of money and generally crap. Instead, I usually pack an apple or a banana with me and a small container of emergency nuts. If I’m feeling ambitious, I might also do sliced veggies like carrots, celery, jicama and peppers. Plus, this guarantees I get some fresh, whole food in my diet, just in case other food opportunities end up being lame.
- Start the day with a healthy breakfast – I don’t know about you, but I eat better and feel better when I start the day with a nourishing breakfast. When I travel, I usually cater my own breakfast rather than eating out. In addition to being healthier, self-catered breakfasts save lots of time and money. Things that pack well? Oatmeal, fruit, nuts, bread, peanut butter… many hotels these days have microwaves and refrigerators, so you can have milk and cereal or hot oatmeal.
- Eat slowly – I’ve been honing my skills at eating slowly for a few years and this really comes in handy during the holidays. I started eating slowly to keep from eating too much, but there’s an added benefit to this: when I eat slowly I actually enjoy my food more. And I’m so glad I do because there’s so much delicious food to be savored during the holidays.
- Say no to the complimentary corn chips and bread rolls – I actually haven’t done this yet because it’s such a novelty (and I love salsa), but it’s a tactic worth mentioning. Back in Austin, Tim and I used to curse ourselves for ruining our dinners by eating too many complimentary corn chips and salsa (if you’ve been to Trudy’s, you know why – their salsa is superb). So we started refusing the free chips. If a waiter or waitress came by with corn chips, we’d say “no thanks.” It was hard at first, but it was totally worth it when the spicy black bean tacos arrived and I actually had room to eat them!
- Let it go – Let’s face it, sometimes when traveling you’re going to be stuck with fewer food choices than you would have at home. Sometimes it sucks, like when you end up at a restaurant and the only vegetarian options are cheese sticks and french fries. But sometimes its cool, like when your uncle makes a pineapple upside down cake, or your mom makes pumpkin pie with real whipped cream. In either case, traveling means you might have to give up some of your control. And this isn’t the end of the world. Learn to let go and enjoy the unexpected. Or get used to self catering.
What about you guys? Do you stick to a food plan when you travel? How do you do it?