16 Ways to Avoid Fast Food When You're On Vacation

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happy family unloading luggage from the car for summer vacation
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TRAVEL WELL, EAT WELL

When you're on vacation sticking to a healthy diet can be difficult — not only must you resist the temptation of calorie-rich tourist treats, you also lack the full kitchen setup you have at home. While fast food is usually the easiest and cheapest way to grab a meal you're on the road or staying at a hotel, it's almost never the healthiest. Here are 17 vacationers' alternatives to fast food that will keep your body and budget healthy while you're away from home.
customers served in line in Chipotle
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FIND FAST CASUAL, NOT FAST FOOD

When looking for a healthy but still affordable option to a fast food restaurant, think fast casual. Many fast casual chains such as Panera Bread, Chipotle and Jimmy John's market themselves as a higher-quality option to fast food. They're more likely to use fresh rather than frozen ingredients and rely less on processed food. Of course, this does not automatically make fast casual offerings "healthier" than fast food, but it does make healthier options easier to find.
Panera Bread
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SWAP OR DROP INGREDIENTS ON THE MENU

Fast-casual sandwich shops such as Panera Bread and Chipotle post their nutritional information online, and by customizing your order you can have a healthier meal. At Panera Bread, for example, a full-sized roasted turkey and avocado BLT on sourdough bread has 640 calories, including 17 grams of fat. But the nutritional information page reveals 140 of those calories come from the sourdough; replacing that with the rye or whole-grain options knocks another 10 calories off the total. Using Chipotle's calorie counter, it's possible to add and subtract ingredients (and see a breakdown of protein, vitamins, and fiber for each) to come up with a healthy meal before you order.
bowl of oatmeal
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EAT HOT INSTANT BREAKFASTS

A healthy and convenient in-room meal option is to get single-serving just-add-hot-water breakfasts such as instant oatmeal or farina packets. This does require a way to make boiling-hot water, however. If the hotel does not have a microwave, small countertop appliances such as an electric tea kettle or a Sunbeam "hot shot" hot-water dispenser ($20 on Amazon) can help. These items are small enough to be portable for travel, depending on where you're going. A packet of original-flavor Quaker instant oatmeal contains 100 calories, with 20 percent of them coming from poly- and monounsaturated fat. You can also pack your favorite toppings, which can add more flavor while still offering a healthy start to the day.
artisan salami sandwich
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TRY DIY DELI SANDWICHES

Visit a local delicatessen or a supermarket deli section and buy their own fresh sandwich fixings (and then, perhaps, find a nice scenic spot to have a picnic). In addition to bread or rolls, and pre-sliced meats and cheeses, most supermarkets also sell pre-washed and pre-sliced vegetables and fruit. Where deli meats and cheeses are concerned, you'll definitely need to check the specific nutritional information posted at the store or delicatessen, because the numbers are sure to vary.
man eating sandwich while driving car
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KEEP AN EYE ON CALORIES ON THE ROAD

Make a ballpark estimate of the calorie counts for favorite foods before you hit the road so you make good decisions on the go. A thin slice of salami typically has 35 calories while two slices of rye bread will have about 166 calories plus a few grams of protein and 10 percent of the daily recommended supply of iron. You can add some provolone cheese: a single thing slice averages just under 100 calories, yet has over seven grams of protein and provides a whopping 21 percent of the daily recommended allowance of calcium.
child in car eating sandwich
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PACK HEALTHY, EASY INGREDIENTS FOR THE KIDS

Worried the kids will cry out for Happy Meals and other junk while on the road, blowing both your budget and your plans for healthy eating? Come prepared. For kids' sandwiches, opened jars of peanut butter can be carried without refrigeration, but opened jars of jams and jellies can not. Consider buying single-serving jam and jelly packets instead.
man and woman having lunch at a diner
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LOOK FOR LOCAL DINERS WITH HEALTHY ALTERNATIVES

Want to get a feel for the local scene while also steering clear of ubiquitous roadside fast food options? Venture beyond tourist areas and look for local diners. Of course, some diners almost qualify as tourist attractions themselves, such as the 29 old diners on the National Register of Historic Places. Price-wise, most diners are in the fast-food or fast-casual range, buy many of them will offer a much broader menu selection, including plenty of healthy alternatives.
omelet with feta cheese
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BE FLEXIBLE, BUT LOOK FOR SMART OPTIONS

You may not be able to get nutritional breakdowns of what's on the menu at a restaurant or diner. Luckily, some food choices are common sense depending on your diet. If you're on a low-carb diet, you won't want a stack of pancakes, and if red meat and high sodium are problems, don't order the bacon. Switching from white bread to wheat can increase your fiber intake by up to five grams. Another classic diner staple, the cheese omelet, is a cheap and tasty source of protein — and replacing cheddar cheese with feta will reduce the amount of fat in the omelet by up to one-third.
family drinking water in the park
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OPT FOR WATER OVER SUGARY DRINKS

Healthy food is not the only component of a healthy diet; you need something to drink too. Travelers on the go find can find soda, fruit juices, slushies, and other sweet drinks readily available — all of them full of sugar and empty calories. It's far healthier, and a lot cheaper too, to get every member of your household a reusable water bottle to refill throughout the day. Reusable sport bottles with built-in Brita filters can be had for around $10; bottles without filters can be had for even less. For a bit of variety, consider adding healthy ingredients to the water such as fruit and herbs.
Party Stacker Jug
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STAY HYDRATED ON THE ROAD

If you're traveling by car and want to be sure you and your family stay healthy and hydrated, consider buying a portable insulated water jug with a built-in spigot (preferably a removable spigot, since the built-in ones can be extremely difficult to clean). A Coleman two-gallon Party Stacker jug sells for around $20, while Igloo's two-gallon water jug (non-stackable, but there are hooks on the handle so the jug can be hung) is $18.
food truck owner serving sandwiches to customer
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LOOK FOR HEALTHY FOOD TRUCKS, NOT SIT-DOWN FARE

Cities with a vibrant food-truck scene have enough variety that you shouldn't have difficulty finding plenty of healthy and delicious offerings too. How do you find a food truck where you're going? Smartphone users can get several free or extremely cheap food-truck-finder apps for iPhones and Androids, though most truck-finder apps focus on big cities. However, many individual cities have websites or mobile apps of their own. Before your travel, do an online search for "food trucks in [city you're visiting]" and see what comes up.
grilled shrimp tacos
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LOOK FOR CHEAP YET HEALTHY TACOS

Taco trucks and restaurants often offer surprisingly healthy fare — go easy on the cheese and sour cream, and a taco's main ingredients are meat and veggies. Also, taco street vendors often use corn rather than flour tortillas. A typical corn tortilla has 209 calories and 2.7 grams of fat, whereas the flour equivalent has 291 calories, 7.4 grams of fat, and less fiber. However, flour tortillas tend to be better sources of protein and iron — though if you're getting a beef taco, the beef itself will provide ample levels of these nutrients. Look for lean meats (mainly chicken and fish), and avoid bacon and fatty cuts of lamb, pork or beef.
fresh salad in hands view from above
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GO VEGETARIAN (AT LEAST PART-TIME)

Despite popular misconceptions, the words "vegetarian" and "vegan" are not necessarily synonymous with "healthy" — plenty of vegetarian foods can be loaded with sodium, sugar, and fat. That said: a vegetarian restaurant is likely to have more healthy offerings on its menu than a regular restaurant does. Many Indian restaurants are vegetarian, and even the ones that aren't usually have plenty of vegetarian options on their menus. If you're worried about calories or saturated fat, avoid foods made with coconut milk, oil or yogurt.
woman buying food at farmer's market
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VISIT FARMERS MARKETS

If you're looking for tasty, nutritious food and a feel for the local scene, check out the farmer's markets where you're going. In addition to farm-fresh produce, many markets sell prepared foods as well — sometimes made from ingredients purchased at that very market. Permanent farmers markets, such as Your Dekalb Farmers Market just outside of Atlanta, feature established food courts or restaurants.
daughter eating sushi with father
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EAT SUSHI

Sushi is tasty enough to be festive vacation food, and with its primary ingredients being rice, fish, and vegetables it's far healthier than fast food, too. One of the more "sinful" items on a typical sushi menu, a fried shrimp tempura roll, averages only 508 calories, with 20 grams of protein and 21 grams of fat. A standard tuna roll has only 184 calories, and a whopping 24 grams of protein. While sushi can be pricey, cities with large southeast Asian immigrant populations have plenty of affordable options if you look around.
frozen microwave dinner spaghetti marinara
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HEAT UP A HEALTHY FROZEN ENTREE

If your hotel room has a microwave and there's a supermarket easily accessible from your hotel, buy some healthy frozen dinners. Frozen dinners tend to have higher sodium levels than their fresh-made counterparts, but there are healthier alternatives available. Sukhi's potato samosas with chutney have 230 calories with 320 mg of sodium, while Amy's "Light in Sodium" cheddar cheese, bean and rice burrito has 330 calories with 290 mg of sodium and 12 grams of protein. Pick up a piece of fresh fruit at the store, too.

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