Real Food on the Road

You’re hungry, and you exit the highway toward the usual lineup of gas stations and fast-food chains. Or you’re stopping with friends or family at a popular restaurant.

How can you find nourishing, satisfying food that will contribute to your health and not undermine it?

To investigate this question, I went to Starbucks, Sheetz, Wawa, Panera Bread, Subway, Chipotle, Taco Bell, Wendy’s, 7-11, and even McDonald’s. I threw away waaay too many plastic containers, but what I found actually surprised me, in a good way.

Screen-customized McDonald’s meal. Loved the fresh lime slices on the salad. Lots of plastic trash though

What do I mean by “real food”?

The terminology is frustrating. I could say “whole” foods, but that’s now a grocery store. Or “clean” foods, but that makes other options sound unclean, impure or dirty (ugh). “Natural” has been co-opted by the food industry and has basically lost its meaning. So I’m using “real,” as opposed to foods that are artificial, manufactured, highly processed, pulverized and stripped of their nutrients (yes, white flour, I’m looking at you), and definitely nothing that is “engineered to be craveable” (yikes).

Poster at Wendy’s. They recognize that we want these options

Basically, I’m looking for food that comes from a farm, not a factory. Food that a hunter-gatherer, or someone from the pre-industrial era, would recognize. Food that comes from nature; things that our bodies evolved to eat and enjoy.

Why eat real food?

So many reasons. Whole plant foods are full of fiber, vitamins, antioxidants and other substances that we’re just starting to understand, which feed our good gut bacteria and appear to combat cancer, inflammation, and other stuff we don’t want. Real food is nutrient-dense, and usually not calorie-dense, while processed food is the other way around. Real food takes work to chew and swallow (compared to, say, mac&cheese and a soda), and our natural “you’re satisfied, stop eating” mechanism seems to work better with it.

Thus, when I hit the road, I’m looking for:

  • Vegetables, raw or cooked, without excessive sauce or dressing.
  • Fruit without added sugar.
  • Natural proteins: meat, poultry, fish, eggs, beans, nuts, seeds. My usual principle is to avoid factory-farmed animal products, but that’s a huge challenge on the road, so I decided to let that one go. Hmm, great challenge for the future!

So let’s get on the road and see what I found. My first stop was Starbucks (thanks @francescakelly!), where I immediately found lots of great options. Not the cheapest, of course, but something for just about everyone: Icelandic skyr (a protein-rich yogurt), a delicious-looking chicken quinoa salad, grass-fed beef jerky, bars made from pure fruit, and cold-pressed juices. Also bananas. And coffee beans and tea leaves are real foods ๐Ÿ™‚ Nice!

At my next three stops (Sheetz and Wawa — thanks @saratoland! — and Panera Bread), I was impressed to find touch-screen ordering kiosks, which is sort of a clunky term so I’ll just call them “ordering screens.”

Ordering screens let you customize your food, choose healthier options, and take your time instead of holding up the line and driving the counter staff crazy with your requests ๐Ÿ™‚

My customized salad with chicken at Wawa. I added sunflower seeds and chopped apple, and fresh salsa instead of dressing, yum! And there was a huge pile of mixed fresh greens under this layer
Carolyn eats gluten-free, so Panera “Bread” was a good challenge! Note: Panera isn’t suitable for those who can’t even have a speck of gluten, because of cross-contamination

At Panera Bread (suggested by @ninasichel, thanks!), where I went with @carolynconnell, friend and real estate agent extraordinaire , there was no one else in line, so we asked the patient young woman at the counter to describe the contents of all the salads, and then we carefully customized our soup/salad combos.

Customized soup/salad combo at Panera, with apple as a side dish, quite large, satisfying and healthy

By using the ordering screens, however, we could see all of the ingredients (including calorie counts) and freely add/substract items.

A salad I invented but didn’t order, while playing around with the screens. Soup/salad combo was a better deal and more filling

I was pleasantly surprised also to find ordering screens at McDonald’s and even Taco Bell, where I had fun poking through the combinations and trying to invent healthier meals. (At Taco Bell, a woman took pity on me as I fiddled endlessly with the screen, and she kindly suggested that I just give up and place my order at the counter ๐Ÿ™‚ )

Pretty good options here, but I couldn’t subtract the soft taco shell, and my add-ons would get expensive. So I switched to the “Power Bowl” instead
Taco Bell Power Bowl Veggie, customized: no rice, no tortilla strips, plenty of extra beans, and extra veggies of all types

Wherever I was, I rigorously substracted all of the ingredients that were fried or had flour or added sugar (buns, wonton strips, croutons, sweet sauces) and added extra vegetables wherever I could.

Holy calories Batman! Look at the calorie range on these Panera soups. Carolyn and I were stumped at first, and then it hit us: BREAD BOWL

Notes on ordering from screens:

  1. Adding extra ingredients often had a cost (see the chicken soft taco menu above). But subtracting ingredients, even major ones, didn’t reduce the cost. No fair!
  2. Screen-type ordering can often also be done on the restaurant’s website or even an app. I’ve sometimes had the bright idea of standing outside the restaurant and customizing my food online, for instance at Chipotle (where I find the ordering process hectic and pressured, maybe that’s just me), but I found that the pickup time delay can be significant, so ordering at the counter may be faster.
R U hungry n in a hurry? Here’s my screen-customized Sheetz burger order. They prepared it quickly and got it all correct, impressive for a gas station
Montage of my Sheetz burger with all the messy spicy stuff (if this doesn’t look appealing to you, no worries, there were a lot of options)

At Wendy’s there was no screen. The woman at the counter was happy to take my order for a single burger on lettuce instead of a bun, with mustard, onion and tomato. But she didn’t mention (and I didn’t ask) that there would also be cheese, mayonnaise and ketchup on the burger. Still good, but not what I’d had in mind.

Wendy’s apple pecan salad would have been a better choice, but I’d already eaten Subway and Taco Bell salads that day ๐Ÿ™‚ Another big plastic thing to throw away. Could I bring my own plate, or waxed paper, or ??

Salad bars are also great options for real food on the road; @ninasichel recommends Ruby Tuesday’s (thanks!), and some steak or barbecue restaurants at highway exits have them, if you have enough time to dine in. Supermarkets also might have salad bars; when traveling in a city (missing you, Austin, TX!), I usually eat at least one meal at the Whole Foods buffet. Of course it’s expensive, so my added challenge is to choose high-value-to-weight-ratio foods: arugula and olives rather than hard-boiled eggs and beans :).

One of my previous go-to places at highway exits has been Chick-Fil-A, so I didn’t revisit it on this quest. My typical road-trip meal there is the grilled nuggets, which are tasty plain pieces of grilled chicken in a little foil bag with no breading (easily eaten from one’s lap while driving), a fresh fruit salad (also solo-driver-friendly), and the superfood side with kale and broccolini (don’t eat this from your lap though, I’ve tried).

Asking for vegetables instead of starch works in a wide range of places.

  • Most restaurants will now happily give you a burger or other sandwich on lettuce instead of a bun. I’ve done it at Five Guys, Elevation Burger, Smashburger and many other places.
  • At Subway, Chipotle and many other “you choose, they assemble” places, you can start with a salad base and put other ingredients on top of it.
  • At Panda Express, you can ask for the mixed vegetables instead of rice or noodles as a base. I’ve even done this at Italian restaurants, for instance indulging in maranara sauce with spicy Italian sausage, but on steamed broccoli and cauliflower instead of pasta.
Subway chopped salad with their new Pit-Smoked Brisket
Chipotle salad bowl with carne asada, no rice or beans (I was still on my Whole30)

At 7-11, Sheetz, Wawa and similar convenience stores, I look for:

Epic tries to source their products from humanely raised animals
  • nuts (without sugary spices/coatings)
  • bananas, apples, cut-up fruit and vegetables (I’ve sometimes bought cut-up fruit with an off taste; try it before leaving the premises)
  • high-quality jerky without excessive additives (bonus: sometimes these products are made from grass-fed or wild-caught animals, see above)
  • packaged salads
  • hard-boiled eggs
  • when truly desperate, I’ve bought a hot sausage without a bun, with added onions and mustard — I do this sometimes at Costco, where they will also give you sauerkraut on request.
Whaaaa … water costs more than iced tea at McDonald’s? Did the soda companies have anything to do with this? Bring your own bottle

What can you drink on your Real Food on the Road adventure? Some options to consider:

  • Black coffee, or add real half&half or the most natural unsweetened plant milk you can find
  • Unsweetened teas, hot or iced
  • Coconut water (read label and avoid excess added sugars)
  • Flavored sparkling water (check the label — ingredients and calorie counts vary widely)
  • Bottled water (I have to remember always to travel with my own bottle, even locally)
  • Kombucha (fermented tea with only a little sugar and fruit juice)
  • Cold-pressed green juices (look for those with more vegetables than fruits, and no added sugar or other ingredients)
  • Tap water — though since getting a distiller at home, I can’t stand water with chlorine anymore, and it evidently is not the greatest for our gut bacteria ๐Ÿ™
Interesting display at Panera showing sugar content and calories of various beverages

What about drinks with artificial sweeteners? The science is not all there yet, but the indications seem to be negative: little or no impact on weight loss, gut bacteria are not happy. I personally can’t stand the taste, so it’s off the table for me anyway ๐Ÿ™‚

So … what did I learn from my multi-week quest?

  • Ordering from a screen let me customize a fast-food meal with much healthier choices. I will definitely look for this option whenever I stop on the road.
  • I feel confident that I can find real food, with some compromises, pretty much anywhere.
  • I must carry my own water bottle, to save money and to avoid chlorine and wasted plastic.
  • I want to find a way to cut down on the disposable plastic containers. Any ideas about what I can bring or ask for?
  • And finally, having lunch with Carolyn was a lot more fun than eating alone. I’ll make sure to share meals (at my house or elsewhere) with a friend, client or networking contact at least once a week. Who’s in?

Thanks for reading this, and I look forward to seeing your own real-food discoveries in the comments! See you next week for the story of my successful September challenge: the Whole30!

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