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It’s 4 p.m., you haven’t eaten since breakfast, you’re hauling two oversized carry-on bags and a cranky toddler around an unfamiliar airport terminal, trying to find the new gate for a flight that just got delayed another hour, and you’re getting desperate. Somewhere, somehow, there has to be something you can eat. Sometimes there is, and sometimes you have make do with a bunless McDonald’s patty and a $10 pile of wilted lettuce. But Paleo travel doesn’t have to be like this! Staying Paleo outside of your own kitchen is always a challenge, but with some strategic planning before your trip, you can minimize the stress and keep yourself sane.
The key to success here is preparation: a little planning ahead of time will save you a lot of pain and hunger down the road. Using your trip as an intermittent fasting window is always an option, but if you’re taking a longer trip or just prefer not to travel hungry, you can use a combination of food packed from home and meals at restaurants you looked up beforehand to make Paleo travel into much less of a nightmare for everyone involved.
Even if you plan to stop at restaurants along the way, you’ll probably want to pack at least some of your own food for snacks and emergencies. If you’re a veteran traveler, your first instinct is probably to grab a pile of granola bars: they keep well at any temperature, they’re quick to eat on the run, and they don’t make a mess. But most commercially available granola bars are just the standard American diet compressed into a travel-sized package: refined grains loaded with sugar, artificial sweeteners, and a laundry list of preservatives to prevent them from spoiling. Rather than relying on such terrible meal options, it’s possible to prepare the nutritional core of the Paleo diet – meat – in a travel-friendly way.
One source of menu inspiration for this is history. Admiral Lord Nelson didn’t grab a quick PowerBar before the Battle of Trafalgar, and the Hudson’s Bay Company didn’t carry a rack of foil-wrapped packages for explorers to choose from. Throughout history, different groups have developed a variety of ways to preserve meat at room temperature. One method was to mix it with fat, which functions as a natural preservative. This process gave us pemmican, a traditional travel food for Native Americans. A delicious and energy-dense mix of equal parts meat and animal fat, pemmican can last for years without going bad. You can buy pemmican online, or make your own for a pre-trip project.
Removing the water from a piece of meat is another way to preserve it. Drying is a preservation method that’s very literally Paleo: Neanderthals used it to make mammoth jerky after a kill. Jerky doesn’t store quite as well as pemmican, but it provides a handy protein boost for slightly shorter journeys – and, more importantly, it’s easier to make at home. You can also get high-quality jerky (grassfed meat and organic ingredients, with minimal chemicals) online, but be careful with commercially available jerky – it’s often loaded with nitrates, sugar, and soy sauce. Make sure to check the ingredients list carefully.
Traditionally, removing water also went hand in hand with another process: adding salt. Salt draws water out of the meat, restricting the growth of the bacteria that would otherwise cause it to spoil. Unless you’re restricting your salt intake – and you probably shouldn’t be – salting your jerky is a perfectly healthful (and tasty!) way to make it keep for longer.
For the less historically inclined, canned meats also store and travel well and don’t require anything more laborious than a trip to the grocery store. All kinds of fish and other seafood (squid, shrimp, etc.) are commonly available canned; so is chicken. Some cans even have peel-top lids, for easy on-the-go snacking. Be sure to check the labels carefully, though – several brands of canned foods do contain soy sauce.
While meat is the heart of the Paleo diet , most people like a little more variety in their meals. Especially on a longer trip, package after package of jerky gets very boring very fast. Fortunately, you also have plenty of non-meat options. Nuts are a classic Paleo travel food for a reason – they’re shelf-stable at room temperature, crunchy and delicious, and they’re one of the few Paleo foods that you can usually find at gas stations and rest stops. Single-serving packets of nut butters can also make a great emergency snack in the middle of a crowded airport line. Canned olives, like canned meat, keep forever and make a tasty snack on their own or a great addition to an uninspiring gas station salad. A small container of olive oil can also come in very handy for restaurants where the only salad dressing options are Ranch or Lite Ranch. LARABARS are energy bars made entirely from fruit and nuts, so they’re also a safe option. Save them for an emergency, though, because they’re based on dates and have a very high sugar content.
If you only need one meal (for example, if you have an 11am flight), you’re in luck: most cooked foods will keep for a few hours at room temperature without serious danger, especially in an air-conditioned environment. Hard-boiled eggs hold up very well, even outside the refrigerator. They’re not the food to keep for the final day of a week-long roadtrip, but they’re excellent for an airplane-friendly lunch. Many people don’t enjoy the taste of room-temperature meat, but if you don’t mind it, there’s nothing dangerous about packing up some leftovers before you leave the house and enjoying them a few hours later. This is also a great way to save money – instead of throwing out leftovers that will go bad by the time you go back, just bring them for lunch! Fresh veggies will also stay crisp and tasty for hours if you pack them properly (bring along a small container of guacamole for a filling snack), and most fruits will last several days.
If you’re travelling in a car and you have a cooler, you can extend the useful life of all of these foods for several hours or even a few days (especially if you keep topping off your cooler with ice from gas stations or hotels). Lettuce is also a great cooler addition for long car trips, since it’s crunchy and entertaining to munch on, and prevents you from getting dehydrated in the car. For a slightly stronger flavor, pack a small container of mustard to dip the lettuce in.
These travel-friendly foods might not be the most gourmet Paleo meal options, but you do have choices. An hour of prep the night before you leave can save you a huge amount of time and irritation, whether you’re packing a quick snack or a day’s menu.
You could always avoid restaurants altogether and eat only the food you brought from home. But especially on longer trips, most people like to have at least one hot meal. Restaurants sound tricky to handle, but in practice they’re fairly easy to work around as long as you’re comfortable being polite but firm about your diet. The best way to ensure a pleasant experience is to research beforehand: look up the places you’ll pass on the way, glance through the menus, and decide where you’ll eat before you have to make an instant decision on an empty stomach. If you do end up changing your plans at the last minute, though, there’s even an app for that: Paleo Go Go gives you Paleo-friendly options from a variety of restaurant chains.
If you land in a steakhouse, a seafood restaurant, or another meat-centric place, you’re in luck: since meat is the main event, you’ll be able to enjoy most of the entrees with very little modification. Any restaurant with a buffet-style salad bar or custom salad options can also be very Paleo-friendly – at Chipotle or Subway, for example, you can get a vegetable salad topped with meat and guacamole.
Even if you have to settle for a restaurant that doesn’t have a lot of Paleo options on the menu, most of the time you’ll be able to simply order a cut of meat with a side of vegetables, prepared in a Paleo-friendly way. Grilling, roasting, poaching, and steaming lend themselves well to Paleo preparation; pan-frying can be fine, but make sure the cook knows to use an acceptable type of oil. If you’re a fan of safe starches, you could also order a baked potato or a side of plain rice. The key here is to be very polite to everyone involved: they are doing you a favor by cooking special food that meets your dietary requirements. Clearly and patiently explain what you do and don’t eat, and don’t expect them to make you something incredibly complicated and difficult.
For a hot meal on the road without the hassle of finding a restaurant, many health food stores have hot buffet lines that allow you to mix and match (and while you’re there, you can refill your cooler). Whole Foods, for example, has several Paleo-friendly options that you can sit down to eat in the attached café or pack in a travel container to take with you.
Once you’re finally off the plane or out of the car, you’ll have a slightly easier time finding nutritious meal options, especially if you’ve planned ahead. Hotels aren’t the most Paleo-friendly environments, but they’re a lot better than airports! Some hotel rooms have full kitchenettes; if at all possible, try to get one with at least a mini-fridge. Before you leave, look up grocery stores near where you’ll be staying, so you can stock up right away: as well as the travel foods listed above, a rotisserie chicken is a convenient and fairly cheap way to get a hot meal the night you arrive, with enough leftovers for breakfast and snacks the next day.
Staying as somebody’s houseguest can be slightly more complicated if your hosts aren’t Paleo – even if you’re not trying to be rude, food is very personal and many people feel rejected or insulted if you refuse their cooking. You say, “I’m sure it’s delicious but I don’t eat ___________;” your host hears “your food isn’t good enough for me.” This is especially true if you’re staying with relatives: almost inevitably, you’ll have to field an endless stream of questions about your diet.
This can easily ruin your trip by turning every meal into an interrogation, and the stress and exhaustion of travelling only make it worse. Staying in someone else’s house leaves you very little privacy to unwind, which can make even a mildly irritating situation seem much worse. The best way to handle this is to prevent it before it starts. Before you leave, talk to your host about your diet. Explain what you do and don’t eat in a calm and nonjudgmental way. Present it as a personal choice (“this diet makes me feel better”) that you’re not trying to force on anyone else. Offer to pitch in for groceries and help with cooking. This also gives your host the chance to ask questions before you arrive, so your dinner conversation can revolve around something more interesting than your decision not to eat the bread. The key is mutual respect: you want your host to respect your diet, but you also have to respect theirs.
If you can’t come to a reasonable agreement with your host, seriously consider staying in a hotel: it might be expensive, but the chance to eat without a constant stream of judgmental commentary can be worth it.
When the subject comes up during your stay (and it inevitably will, even if you discuss it in advance or choose to sleep in a hotel), changing the subject is usually the path of least resistance. Rather than digging in your heels and getting into a barely civil argument over saturated fat or insulin resistance, politely stick to your preferred eating habits and change the subject: “No, thanks. Hey, what do you think of Susan’s new job?” You won’t win any grand Paleo victories this way, but you also won’t make any enemies, and you’ll be able to enjoy your visit without food battles getting in the way.
Even with the most careful planning, sometimes we all get stuck in a bind. Maybe the TSA got worried that you were going to hijack the plane with your jerky and confiscated your lovingly-packed spread of Paleo fare. Maybe you forgot your cooler at a rest stop, or someone broke into your car and grabbed it. Or maybe your trip was such an emergency that you didn’t have time to pack. Whatever the reason, it happens. But even if you’re stuck with food that isn’t strictly Paleo, you don’t have to give up completely and jump into the candy rack.
Your first choice should be “almost Paleo” foods: foods that probably won’t make you sick even though they aren’t on your usual diet plan. You might have to settle for meat that’s been cooked in seed oils (buying a fast-food burger and throwing away the bun can get you emergency protein in a pinch). Since many people don’t have immediate reactions to legumes and safe starches, you could go for a Mexican dish based on rice and beans, an Indian curry with lentils, sushi with white rice (but avoid the soy sauce, since it contains gluten), or mixed nuts that include peanuts. A smoothie with protein powder is also not technically Paleo, but it can carry you through for a few hours. If you can handle dairy fairly well, you could also try yogurt or string cheese.
If you can’t find anything “almost Paleo,” at least try to avoid gluten, added sugar, and anything that you react particularly poorly to. You can usually find at least one dish based on rice or potatoes instead of wheat. In this type of situation, accept that you have to eat something that might make you feel sick for a day or two, and try not to spend the whole meal beating yourself up for “cheating.” One meal won’t throw you completely off track if you don’t let it. The important part is to get back to eating Paleo as soon as possible, and to remember the situation so you can plan for it next time.
Even with a carry-on or a trunk cooler full of Paleo edibles, travelling is a far cry from the active lifestyle that most people on the Paleo diet try to maintain. Human beings just were not designed for the crowded, noisy, and sedentary world of modern travel. Sitting for most of the day can leave you stiff, store, and cranky; fighting through interstate traffic or airport security can send your stress levels through the roof.
One of the best ways to handle this is by making regular movement part of your travel routine. If you’re driving, stop every hour or two and get out of the car. Take a few minutes to walk around and stretch, then try some basic bodyweight exercises like push-ups or jumping jacks – even a few of these will get your blood pumping and bring up your energy levels. If you’re travelling with a friend, have a race to the bathroom, or find an unoccupied picnic table and see who can do the most box jumps in a minute. You don’t need to bust out the most extreme Crossfit WOD you know; just moving around a little is enough.
In an airport, your space and options are even more limited. Gentle stretching and yoga poses are a relaxing option that won’t disturb anyone else in the area; you could also take a brisk lap around the terminal. Some airports even have gyms built in (or a very short commute away); this is a great option if your flight is delayed or if you just have a very long layover.
Of course, if you’re exercising in any public place make sure you’re always considerate of everyone else who has to use it. Don’t crowd the kids out of a playground so you can do your pull-ups on the monkey bars, don’t practice your tabata sprints on the moving sidewalks, and bear in mind that you probably don’t want to get too sweaty unless you have somewhere to shower afterwards.
Most of us forget at least one important thing on every trip we take, and return vowing to never forget it again…only to forget something else the next time. This Paleo travel checklist is designed to help you keep track of everything diet-related, so that even if you leave your toothbrush at home, at least you’ll have enough to eat. For a road trip grocery list, print out the checklist and simply cross out any foods you don’t intend to buy.
Travelling on the Paleo diet can be tough – you’re thrown out into the world far from the safety of your own kitchen, and you have to make the best of it. But with some basic planning and preparation, you won’t have to sacrifice your health on the road.
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