by Nate Widom
Healthy meals are a simple concept for those who are health-conscious and committed. You roam the grocery store, pick your ingredients, and with some careful cooking later—bam! You now have a healthy meal you can enjoy. But sometimes, you’re in a time crunch, unable to prepare a healthy meal, or stuck at a rest stop with no choices but fast food. When this happens, how do you compromise?
Even when hours or options are limited, it is possible to eat a healthy meal on the go? I talked to registered dietitian Jeannie Versagli for her expertise.
It’s all about your plan!
Let’s be clear. For Jeannie, spending time cooking nutritious items and storing them in meal prep containers is ideal. According to Healthline, some studies suggest that those who cook at home are healthier overall, and many takeout meals contain more sodium, fats, and calories. Plus, cooking is frequently easier on the wallet and allows you to customize your meal.1 Regardless, for one reason or another, sometimes homemade meals just aren’t an option.
This is where a different and broader type of “planning” comes in. Jeannie recommends maintaining an organized thought process regarding the next best choice if cooking isn’t an option.
“It’s like anything else. In order to be successful, you have to plan. When you don’t have a plan, you fall apart,” Jeannie explains. “There’s a lot of healthy choices out there, but you have to be smart about it and know what they are.” Jeannie believes planning builds crucial healthy habits, leading to routines as familiar as brushing your teeth in the morning.
Grab and go: what to look for
Jeannie mentions that most prepared foods are heavily refined and contain high fat. Therefore, it is crucial to choose carefully when you want to grab a quick snack at the supermarket or convenience store. “When you look at healthy food options, you always want to look at whole grains. Anything with fiber in it, and then fresh fruits,” explains Jeannie. “You can get fresh fruits anywhere you go. I can walk into Wawa tomorrow and pick up a container of chopped fresh fruit.” In addition, Jeannie recommends on-the-go options like vegetables, nuts, nut butter, popcorn, and low-fat cheese sticks.
Jeannie compares your body and nutrition to a car. “Your car won’t provide the best service if you don’t care for it. If you don’t take care of your car, it’s not going to function properly. Your body does the same thing a car will do. For a period, it will adjust like a rubber band where you’re stretching it and stretching it, and all of a sudden, it snaps.”
Modifying the foods you already love
In addition to grabbing food from the supermarket, there are countless ways to modify your food when ordering at restaurants. Thankfully, you can still enjoy the foods you love, albeit with some adjustments. Jeannie eats out herself; when she does, she’ll strive for healthy choices.
Here are some things to note: sauces and creams, while typical in many go-to dishes are mostly bad news since they’re loaded with fat. According to Jeannie, the amount of fat calories are difficult to identify in foods. To top it off, fat has about 2.5 times more calories than carbs or protein when compared gram for gram. She explains that usually, if you can see through the sauce, there are fewer calories. Therefore, vinegar and oil-based dressings are recommended.
Below are some ways to modify common foods to make them more nutritious:
Consider using a whole grain or lettuce bun and load up the burger with veggies of your choice. Jeannie recommends keeping the traditional sandwich toppings of lettuce, tomato, and onion while forgoing any mayonnaise and sauces. Should you want to use a condiment, Jeannie recommends using mustard. Opt for a more natural and less processed cheese like provolone or cheddar (though it’s better to remove it altogether). Consider a turkey burger or grilled chicken breast instead of beef. As for your side, substitute any traditional fries or chips with a vegetable like a side salad or broccoli.
Simple differences can make salads healthier. Avoid cream-based dressings and steer towards vinaigrettes. Request your dressing on the side so you can choose how much you really need, and avoid high-fat and processed cheese.
Digging a pizza? “You can use a whole grain pizza crust, lots of vegetables, put a little bit of cheese on it. All those things are really healthy,” Jeannie says. “There’s nothing wrong with those foods. What makes the pizza unhealthy is the fats you put on that pizza.” She recommends staying clear of pepperoni and sausage due to their extremely high fat content. Should you opt for protein, grilled chicken is a better choice.
It’s a local favorite here! Jeannie recommends sparing the mayo and dressing and keeping only a bit of cranberry sauce.
“You can eat a healthy sub, but you’ve got to be smart about how to do it,” Jeannie says. “You go in there and say, ‘Give it to me dry.’ Do turkey, don’t do the cold cuts because they’re high in fat.” Like with burgers, Jeannie recommends keeping lettuce, tomato, and onion and says that the cheese can stay or go. Get a smaller portion where you can, too.
Traditional Sandwich or Wrap
Ask for whole grain bread and lean protein. Add healthy toppings like lettuce, tomato, and onion for flavor. Avoid any mayonnaise and cream-based sauces. And be cautious when selecting wraps, or forgo the wrap altogether and make it a salad instead.
For my fellow cheesesteak lovers, Jeannie recommends substituting the traditional Cheez Whiz or American cheese for something less processed and fatty, like provolone or cheddar. If you’re willing, consider requesting less cheese (or no cheese). And Jeannie always recommends dressing up your cheesesteak with healthy toppings like mushrooms, peppers, onions, and some hot sauce if you want an extra kick. Also, consider substituting steak for chicken and putting it on a smaller, whole-grain roll.
If you want to eat a pasta specialty, consider using whole-grain pasta. Request lean proteins like chicken, and always incorporate your veggies! For the sauce, it’s best to steer clear of alfredo and instead choose fresh marinara, garlic and oil, or pesto sauce.
If you choose to eat steak, steer clear of butter or sauce. If your steak is prepared with a loaded baked or mashed potato, consider requesting it without all the butter or cheese. Pairing your steak with a side salad or vegetable is also recommended.
Tacos & Burritos
Spare the sour cream, use lean, unfried protein, and load up your tacos with veggies for a delicious treat. Consider ordering your tacos in bowl form too! According to Jeannie, tortillas consist of refined carbohydrates and lots of fat. Salsa and guacamole are also typically reasonable, nutrition-conscious pairings for these delicious eats.
Sauces, creams, and the dietitian screams!
For extra flavor, Jeannie advises topping your foods with mustard, vegetables, refrigerated pickles, and vinaigrettes. If you can tolerate it, she suggests hot sauces and chili sauces. Also, marinated foods are recommended because they are natural yet enhance flavor. For mayonnaise fans, she recommends yogurts, yogurt dressings, and tzatziki sauce as alternatives. If that wasn’t enough, Healthline suggests salsa, guacamole, pesto, hummus, kimchi, sauerkraut, tahini, lemon juice, apple cider vinegar, and raw honey to top your foods.2
What about fast food?
Jeannie notes that fast food is some of the worst stuff you can eat. “It’s an inexpensive food choice, and when it’s inexpensive, oftentimes it’s a very refined product. It’s all high fat, fried, no fiber, no fresh fruit, and no fresh vegetables.” Since fat enhances flavor, many fast-food restaurants will add sauces that are high in fat to enhance the flavors of their proteins.
Furthermore, fast food provides eaters an emotional response that’s hard to break from. “People have a sensation, an emotional connection to their fast foods, and they’re eating what they call comfort foods because it provides a reaction.” Still, you can even make healthier choices at most fast-food restaurants. While most fast-food restaurants advertise their well-known unhealthy foods, there can be more nutritious options in the midst, like salads and grilled chicken sandwiches. Should there be no healthy options available, Jeannie recommends ordering smaller portions or a kid’s meal.
Here’s how to find the information you need on a nutrition label
Interested in finding healthy food on the go? Even though we mentioned several popular foods and ways to modify them, a nutrition label would be your best resource. The label will break down foods by ingredients and list them in the order of the most used ingredients to the least. Here, Jeannie continues her philosophy of “less is more.”
Jeannie advises looking into the fiber content when reading a label. A food’s fiber content will show if a carbohydrate is a whole grain and overall healthier product. “The more fiber, the more natural the product. Fiber is your friend. It absorbs some of the lipids in your gut to minimize the reabsorption into the blood stream.”
“Compromise is another great word in my vocabulary,” Jeannie concludes. By modifying foods ordered on the go and ordering smaller portions, you can achieve a healthful meal almost anywhere.
This article has been reviewed by Jeannie Versagli, RD, LDN. Jeannie is a Registered Dietitian with the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, a national professional organization, and is licensed in nutrition with the State of Delaware.