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Holiday Travel Guide | EATING

Words to Live By: Portable Snacks and Potable Water

Even if your mode of travel comes without meal service, you won't have to subsist on junk food if you plan ahead.

November 18, 2001|KATHLEEN DOHENY

Eating healthfully during the holidays, especially while traveling, is a challenge. Factor in this season's travel realities, whatever mode of transport you choose, and 2001 is shaping up as the uber-challenge for healthy holiday eating on the road.

Airlines have cut back their food service. American and Delta airlines recently cut out meal service for coach passengers on most domestic flights of less than four hours and for first-class passengers on flights of less than two hours. Amtrak did not reduce menus after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, but not all trains have dining cars; some have only snacks available.

For those who choose to drive, there may be more freeway congestion and thus more temptation to stop at the wealth of fast-food outlets.

But if you whine about all this to a dietitian who travels frequently--or three of them, as we did--they're likely to see the situation not as mission impossible but as a challenge to overcome. With a little planning, they say, travelers can eat healthfully most of the time--and not be forced to make a lunch of 10 tiny packets of pretzels.

To boost the odds that you'll carry through on your resolve to eat wisely during a trip, try to have a sit-down meal at home before departure, suggests Joan Carter, a registered dietitian and a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Assn. "It doesn't have to be fancy, just soup and sandwiches ... or a full breakfast."

The other ironclad rule: Take water, whether you're going by plane, train or auto, even if you think there's no room in your luggage and you worry about finding a bathroom. Dehydration can make you cranky, and that can trigger overeating and junk food binges.

If you're flying or taking the train, find out whether the trip includes meal service. Then figure out where else you will eat and when. "You really shouldn't go longer than about five waking hours without eating," says Evelyn Tribole, a registered dietitian in Irvine and author of "Eating on the Run" (Human Kinetics, 1992). Making plans to stop at a restaurant may help motorists resist overeating or turning to junk food, a particular danger when the scenery gets boring, Tribole says.

The every-five-hours-or-so challenge includes finding healthy, totable food that can stay edible in a variety of conditions. Even if you plan to stop at airport concessions, eat in the train dining car or stop at a favorite restaurant, take along something to eat--just in case. Tribole's husband once packed a case of sports nutrition bars, not her favorite snack. But when they were stuck for hours in an airport, she developed a new appreciation for them.

Think portable food, adds Nelda Mercer, another ADA spokeswoman and a registered dietitian in Ann Arbor, Mich. Baby carrots, fruit, bagels and pretzels are all easy to carry and eat.

For kids, it helps if foods are nutritious and fun, Carter says. Yogurt in tubes is one possibility if you have access to a cooler. Frozen grapes often appeal to kids too. But Carter notes: No eating grapes or tiny carrots while the car is moving, since sudden braking can cause the food to lodge in a child's throat.

Toting food in the car has become easier, thanks to thermoelectric coolers. These handy units--which can also keep food hot--are made to be plugged into the vehicle's cigarette lighter, eliminating the need for ice. Sold at discount stores and online (check and, coolers with a 1.3-gallon capacity cost about $30 to $40.

If you don't take a cooler but pack sandwiches, eat them within two hours to avoid food-borne illness. "If you start out with a frozen sandwich, figure you have about three hours to eat it since it will thaw in about one hour," Mercer says. But take the outside air temperature into account too.

If you're drawn to the airport concessions, take heart: Dietitians generally give them higher nutrition marks than they used to because the choices are healthier. Tribole's picks: a bagel (though be aware that the big ones may actually be the equivalent of two or more standard-size bagels) or grilled chicken, skipping high-fat dressings like mayonnaise. Fire-grilled pizza is an OK choice too, she says, especially if you add vegetables instead of salty, high-fat toppings such as pepperoni. (Fire-grilled pizzas tend to be smaller and have thinner crusts than oilier pan-style pizzas, Tribole says, and "in general, a place that fire-grills their pizzas also seems to have more creative topping options.")

Even the airport coffee shop can boost your daily nutrition. In a latte you'll get about 300 milligrams of calcium, Tribole says, and if the milk is nonfat, it packs only 90 calories or so. Fruit is sold by the piece or in bowls at more and more airport concessions.

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