When it comes to finding healthy food on the road, the problem isn’t too few options. It’s too many.
The options exist if you know how to hunt them down. If you’re aware of how to hack a restaurant meal for optimal nutrition (like I discuss in depth in The Road Warrior), they’ve always existed. Even tiny fast-food-only backwaters have one Mediterranean/Levantine place where you can get grilled chicken and vegetable-based sides like salad and tabbouleh.
Plus, it’s 2018 and “healthy” has become something of a meme. Good options are popping up everywhere. Chain American places like Ruby Tuesday have salad bars with kale and spinach in the bins, McDonald’s has salads1although just because it’s a salad doesn’t automatically make it healthy, every convenience store is itching to sell you an RxBar or other “healthy” snack.2same point here as the one about the McD’s salads — just because something is marketed as “healthy” doesn’t automatically make it so, and healthy is a fairly relative concept anyway, but those are both topic that are way out of the scope of this article. Heck, I’ve found delicious, healthy farm-to-table fare in Columbus GA, a city better known for Coca-Cola and crawfish than kombucha.
But still, not everywhere has good options, and not everything that claims to be healthy actually is. So we have to research, and choose, and that’s what gets us into trouble.
We don’t know if a place has healthy options, or if those healthy options are any good. So we fret, and compare, and look at menus, and try to find the best place. We look at pictures (if there are any) to see if the place seems worthwhile. Researching new restaurants is complicated; so complicated that it’s a hobby for some and a full blown job for others. It takes focus and mental energy better spent elsewhere — the number of hours I’ve lost on Yelp that I could have spent eating and reading or working or watching a movie is unpleasant to think about.
But of course, when I’m on the road for work, hunting healthy food options is the last thing I want to do after a long day. So I don’t spend the time and go with something convenient and familiar instead — whether or not it’s the best choice — and the pizza joint next to the hotel does a booming business.
It sounds strange, but too many good options is one of the reasons we choose less-good (but convenient, or comforting, or already-known) ones. Sure, you know McDonald’s isn’t necessarily the best thing to eat for dinner every day if you’re trying to maintain your health, but you know exactly what you can eat there. There’s value in that.
The best way to deal with this paradox of choice is to have a default. A place you always go, that you can find anywhere, that you don’t have to think about. There are many restaurants (chain and otherwise) that can serve as good defaults, and it’s nice to find your own special one in a new city. But the default that exists in every city is not a restaurant at all. It’s the grocery store.
Grocery stores are lifesavers. I eat as many as half of my meals at grocery stores when I’m on the road. Not just the Whole Foods hot bar either, although it’s a strong option if available—virtually every full-sized grocery store in North America has the ingredients for a ready-to-eat healthy meal.
In addition to the hot bar and ready-to-eat selections, they will always have rotisserie chickens. A quarter (or half) of one is a great base for a meal. Buy a whole one, keep the leftovers in your hotel fridge for later in the week, and cobble together the rest of your meal from the produce section. If you’re a breakfast eater, the same trip get you a whole week’s worth of breakfast, too.
Certain chain restaurants are valuable to the weary traveler for the same reason — they’re a known quantity that you don’t have to seek out after a long, hard day. Whether I’m in Cincinnati or Columbus or Cleveland 3I’ve been in Ohio a lot recently, I know I can go to an Applebee’s, Seasons 52, Chipotle, etc and get a healthy meal at a known portion size without too much thought or prior research.
A grocery store or chain restaurant might not be as high-quality as the local farm-to-table place, but I know I won’t have to google the menu beforehand or struggle to figure out a meal once I get there, because even if I haven’t been to that one, I’ve already been there.
Which is to say, the actual value grocery stores and chain restaurants provide is consistency.
One of the few benefits of modern agribusiness is that all groceries and chain restaurants have roughly the same selection of things, which means you can eat the same meals even when you aren’t in the same place. A whole rotisserie chicken is always roughly the same size, so are clamshell boxes of salad, so are pieces of fruit, so are chain restaurant portion sizes, because they’re all coming from a handful of nationwide suppliers with tight supply chain and wastage controls.
You give up some variety and novelty in exchange, but do you really need variety and novelty for every meal you eat? Probably not.
You can spend time and mental energy finding a local place with healthy options, or you can go to a grocery store, get the exact same meal you can get at virtually any other grocery store anywhere, and then spend the extra 30-120 minutes doing literally anything else, whether that’s working out, watching a movie, or catching up on email.
I’ll take that over variety or novelty any day of the week.