How can you improve eating habits if you’re never at home?
I know that many people are still at home more than ever (thanks, COVID-19) but there are people like truck drivers, hospital workers, hair stylists, nail techs, construction workers, teachers, the people who sanitize buildings, and many other professions who are serving the public all day who can’t always depend on conveniences like kitchens or break rooms to make eating healthy meals easier. This episode is for you! Even if you don’t have access to a way to heat up any food and you have to eat in the car. This advice applies to all of these on-the-go people and therefore it can certainly apply to anyone who is at home or working in an office with traditional lunch breaks.
The key thing here is being prepared! I’m going to give you several ways to do that so that you can successfully change your eating habits rather than just grabbing the nearest fast food all the time.
I want you to keep something in mind though throughout the rest of this episode: if any of it starts to sound too far-fetched for you personally, that’s ok and you certainly don’t have to do everything that I’m about to say. So that’s why I’m 1) giving you options 2) it comes down to how much of a change you’re personally ready for.
A lot of it has to do with mindset and truly wanting to continually make different choices. In your head, you might think that you want to do it because it sounds like a good idea, but that’s not enough. You have to want to do it badly enough that you will take the actions as well.
There are 3 categories you can look at in order to stay prepared to make healthier food choices:
1. Foods you can meal prep
2. Easy snacks you can have with you at all times
3. Changing your go-to choices when all you have is restaurant food.
I’m going to elaborate on each one with some ideas.
1. MEAL PREPPING
This can be hard but once you start I promise it gets easier and faster as you perfect your process. If you are someone who doesn’t have the option of warming up cold food, I’ve also been in that situation myself too and still meal-prepped and ate my food cold because that is how badly I wanted to make changes. I understand that for some people, this might be where they draw the line. But if you’re already having a knee-jerk negative reaction to the mere thought of eating cold food on a regular basis, but also feel that you DO want to make changes in your food choices, I want you to sit with any feelings you have about your emotional ties to eating PURELY for pleasure.
There’s eating for pleasure. Then there’s eating for fuel. Many people can live with such a good mix of these two things that there is really no differentiation. I find that oftentimes when people reach a crossroads in their life where they’re saying “Ok, I really have to make a change in my eating habits for the sake of my health because the road that I’m on is clearly having a negative impact on my health and/or body image”…USUALLY, when people say something like that, they are used to eating purely for pleasure. And they tend to have deeply-rooted beliefs that might have come from childhood where they think that healthy foods taste bad. And if you are used to eating high-sugar, highly-processed, pre-packaged foods, you do develop a taste for continuing that. Those foods are highly engineered to make you want more of them and your taste buds adapt. If you combine adapted taste buds with strong beliefs that “healthy” foods don’t taste good, it IS going to be much harder to change unless you are ready and willing to not only take the necessary actions, but you’re also ready and willing to change your beliefs about certain foods in order to make a long-term change for your health.
If this happens to be you, definitely go and listen to episode 19: You Don’t Like Vegetables? Is It Genetic? (if you do like vegetables but struggle with making healthy choices there’s some info in that episode that I think you will find helpful.
Back to meal prepping…this can be anything you want it to be and anything that you feel works for you. Most choices are going to be significantly healthier than a fast-food drive-through.
Ask yourself what kinds of lean protein and veggies you can prep and take with you. I used to eat cold chicken a lot when I was on the road. I’d cook it, season the heck out of it, and cut it into bite-sized pieces so I could use my fingers to eat if I needed to. Portion it into containers and you might need a cooler bag to keep it chilled. But protein, protein, protein is going to be big key to this. Whether it’s chicken, beef, turkey, bison, and if you’re vegan — tofu, seitan, or another meat substitute. Protein helps keep the fueled, full, and energized without making you feel sluggish or like you have a brick sitting in your stomach which is how a lot of fast food tends to feel.
Add some veggies. For on-the-go meals, I like to cook broccoli, add olive oil (healthy fats, great for brain health and energy and satiety) put it in the container with the chicken — and seasonings help a TON! Season the heck out of everything especially if you’re one of those people who is used to purely eating food for pleasure. The more you can season food to make your taste buds happy, the more likely you are to keep up with your new habits!
Of course, there are some seasonings that are ridiculously high in sodium, so if that’s a concern, look for low-sodium options. I highly recommend Flavor God (they are gluten-free, preservative-free, certified kosher, MSG-free, GMO-free, free of synthetics, and most of them are dairy-free and vegan except for the ranch flavor I believe) and they contain far less sodium than most brands that you’d normally buy in a store. I use their taco seasoning EVERYTHING and they have lots of others too.
As we’ve discussed before, it’s usually best to include every macronutrient in every meal and the three macros are protein, fat, and carbs. We talked about protein and fats (I quickly mentioned olive oil) and for carbs, a couple of my easy go-to options are 1) tortillas 2) sweet potato. Tortillas — there are endless kinds at the store, so get whatever works for you, then sweet potato you can also meal prep these by cooking them, pre-portioning them, and putting a serving in the container with your protein and veggies.
The possibilities are really endless here so again pick whatever sounds good to you and remember it doesn’t’ have to be perfect, because as long as you’re not a competitive athlete (remember what I said last week that if you’re not a competitive athlete there’s no reason to try to eat like one). If you’re still on the fence about this I know all of the excuse you’ll come up with in order to find a way to justify avoiding it and I know that one of those things that someone out there might be thinking is “I can’t do this because I’m going to get sick of eating the same thing all the time.” If that is you, I want you to keep in mind that you can always change it. Just START. With something. If you hate it, change it. There are endless choices. And once you start, there’s nothing about it set in stone. Change what you prep — every week, every month, mix it up as often as you need to in order to just keep it going.
Again, I know this will be esp difficult for some of you if you can’t use a microwave, but it can be done. Even if it’s once or 2x a week…that’s still better than none at all. And still an improvement from whatever you were doing before.
Ok, on to category 2.
2. EASY SNACKS
There are lots of healthy snacks. I’m sure you can find many options that you like. I love Rx Bars. They have a many flavors to choose from. You can find them on Amazon, Whole Foods, Target, and other places. I like them because they have very simple ingredients. They’re about 200 calories each and they have some protein and they’re kind of sweet so they’re great when you want a sweet snack. I really like the peanut butter and jelly flavor. I also like them because they are very chewy. This means there won’t be crumbs in the car and because they are so chewy they keep your mouth busy longer so it feels like you’re eating longer and maybe tricks your brain into thinking you’re having a bigger snack than you actually are. I like to eat these before I hit the gym quite often too because, for me, it’s just the right size to fuel me for about an hour when I need some extra fuel in my tank.
What you choose is really up to you and the REASONS that you might like to have snack bars on hand. I usually eat them in the car when I need food on the go so like I said, I prefer something that won’t crumble and be messy. It’s also important for me to choose one that’s not 400-500 calories because I simply don’t need a snack that big. I’d rather use those calories for my full meals. For some people, protein content is important too or sugar content. Check the labels of these things. Also, refer back to episode 36 for nutrition facts on food packaging to make sure things don’t sneak past you. Quest bars another brand that I used to eat a lot of because they do have a pretty decent macro profile (meaning they’re pretty well balanced between fats, carbs, protein and they’re relatively low in sugar I believe). Perfect Bars are another good one if you’re trying to get something that’s maybe not SO HIGHLY super-duper processed. Perfect bars are so fresh they are actually sold in the refrigerated section of stores so that’s where you’ll find those.
Have a few options. Try several different brands. Don’t just try one and say “oh, that didn’t work”. Keep exploring and you’ll eventually find one that is pretty great for all of your needs.
Here’s the big takeaway that I feel is most important about snack bars: remember they are not a meal. Some of them are labeled as “meal replacements” and those usually the ones that are higher in calories and protein like 400-600 calories per bar, BUT this is not meant to be an everyday thing. That’s why I call them snack bars. They’re not meals. They will not keep satiated for 4 to 6 to 8 hours and they’re not meant to. So I recommend doing your meal prepping and keeping 2-3 bars on hand for WHEN YOU NEED THEM. Not every single day.
Taking this back to a truck driver situation or maybe you’re a nurse who has work on your feet with the public for far more hours than you should or if you’re driving a truck maybe there’s unexpectedly a bridge that’s out or you’re stuck in traffic 90 minutes longer than planned until the exit where you planned to eat — these are the times to reach for that snack bar so that your blood sugar doesn’t get so incredibly low that by the time you DO get a break for real food, you’re beyond ravenous, you feel like you could eat 4 large pizzas and the only thing you feel is hunger, your decision-making skills are going to plummet because your brain is no longer fueled properly and this is when less-than-desirable food choices are made and you end up feeling guilty or overeating. It comes back to preparation. The snack bars are like your second line of defense for less-than-ideal situations where you can’t a full meal but you have time to eat a couple of bites to hold you over.
Fruit is also good to have too (apples, bananas I’ve found are easiest to eat while on the road, or maybe you can add fruit to your meal prepping time such as strawberries, blueberries, or blackberries or something easy to eat with your fingers and put them in their own small containers that easy to grab when you need a snack.
And the third part, which I’d consider your third line of defense against eating sludge-like fast food all the time:
3. HEALTHIER RESTAURANT CHOICES
Pretty much anywhere you go, even if it’s fast food there is usually something you can order that won’t be the most horrible option in the world as far as nutrition goes. Sometimes when you’re on the road, choices can be limited, more limited or EXTREMELY limited. If you’re on the road a lot you’ll have plenty of time to think about each restaurant’s menu that you might typically go to and start thinking through what the better options are. If you can make those decisions ahead of time, the next time you have to drive up and order in a hurry, a healthier decision has already been made so it’s a no-brainer to make a healthy choice that you’ll feel good about. Don’t try to re-negotiate in your mind just because you’re hungry — stick to the plan.
If you can even take some time to sit down at the computer and pull up the website for each place they will have the nutrition facts for everything on the menu. Even if we’re talking about places like Burger King, Chipotle, and Taco Bell — still fast food, but they will STILL have better choices nutrition-wise than some of their other options. So even if it’s a worst-case scenario, look at the menu and figure out what the healthiest option is. Because even if it’s 300 calories less than something else or it has 15 more grams of protein than something else, but you go there twice a week, that’s going to add up to bigger benefits over time.
If you go somewhere and have no idea what to order, grilled chicken is always a good option. Protein will help you to feel full much longer than carbs. We need carbs but if you can maybe aim to eat more protein, it will keep you satisfied much longer, than a meal that is 80% carbs. Vegetables are always a great option too. Most people do not get enough vegetables, but even worse, most people don’t get enough FIBER which helps you poop and it’s crucial for a healthy digestive system and most fiber is in fruits and vegetables. Fiber also helps you to feel full longer and have fewer cravings for starchy foods. If there are restaurants you like, you can still go there, maybe just try to make new choices that align better with your new health goals.
Another thing to pay attention to is making food choices that align with how you want to FEEL. We all have those foods that we eat because they taste good but then they always end up feeling like a brick in your stomach or foods that always make you feel sluggish. I don’t think anyone likes those feelings. Take note of which foods make you feel that way and eat less of them. As you make new food choices, take note of how you feel 20 minutes to an hour after you’re done eating. Do you feel energized? Do you feel satisfied? Do you feel less tired than you have in the past after eating? If so, pat yourself on the back for that, this is a victory to celebrate because you made a choice that left you feeling GOOD and you’ll likely want to do that again so you can continue to feel good so this is a very important part of the overall process of making changes — noting how you feel. Do more of what makes you feel good after you do it and less of the stuff (or the food) that makes you feel bad after you eat it. Pretty simple, but sometimes we need to force our brains to focus on this aspect a little bit more in order to convince ourselves it really is worth it.
There you have it!
1. Meal prepping
2. Snack bars
3. Smart restaurant options that should be pre-determined
And I have one more bonus to add on as another way to stay prepared to make healthier choices when you’re not at home: Protein powder.
I have some disclaimers that I need to add upfront and this is very important: I am not saying that you should have protein powder every day and it is not — I repeat — IT IS NOT — a replacement for a proper meal. So as long as you’re not going to misconstrue my words and say “well kelly said on the podcast that if I just have the protein powder I’ll be healthy and lose weight”. It’s not that at all. But think of it as a tool very similar to the way you’d use a snack bar. It’s a backup plan for the times when you need to wait longer than you’d planned to eat a real meal.
So here’s how you can use protein powder to be prepared for those times. Hopefully, you take water with you wherever you go. You can get small 12 oz shaker cups, and put the serving of dry protein powder in the cup, and keep it with you. Then when you do have those hunger emergencies, all you have to do is add about 8 ounces of water, chug it down and you get a good serving of protein that will keep your blood sugar steady a little longer until you can make time for a real meal.
I know that everyone’s next question is always “what kind of protein powder is best?” Don’t overthink it. Read a few labels, go with something that has at least 20g of protein per serving but other than that there are countless great brands of protein powder out there. Too many people overthink this as if they’re looking for me to say “Here is the only brand you should ever buy” but there is no answer like that. Try one. If you don’t like it, try something else. There are certain kinds I would stay away from such as pretty much any brand that is sold at Walmart or Target — a lot of those have fillers in them. Whole Foods carries a lot of high-quality brands.
Another comment I always hear when discussing protein powders is “but it’s so expensive!” but it only SEEMS that way. With even some of the most expensive brands if you break it down per serving, it might cost $2-$3 per serving but people think nothing of spending that much on a snack bar or a drink of some kind at a gas station or Starbucks, so you might need to mentally reframe how you think about that if you struggle with justifying the cost. Plus on top of that, you’re doing it for your health! Let’s say one of the pricier brands of protein powder might cost $60 for a tub, but you might easily spend $60 going to a drive-through just 4-5x and it leaves you feeling like garbage. Which is a smarter way to spend your money? Boom. There you go.
If you arm yourself with the meal prepping, the snack bars, fruit, better restaurant choices, and protein powder as a backup to the backup for emergencies, you will be SO PREPARED!
It’s also totally ok to ease into this. One small change at a time. I’d much rather see someone take small steps like starting out with being prepared with snack bars the first week, then making it a goal to prep 2 meals the next week, and build off of that than see someone feeling that they have to do all of these things starting on Monday then it feels overwhelming, they convince themselves they don’t have time and they’ve ended up changing NOTHING and continue with their unhealthy ways and self-loathing. Small steps. Small victories. Sustainable changes—that all lead to bigger victories.
I hope that you found this useful and if you did, share it with a friend!
I’m Kelly Wilson, owner of fitfizzstudio.com and I’m a personal trainer, nutrition coach, behavior change specialist, autoimmune disease educator and I’ve worked in the health and fitness industry for over 25 years.
I’m here to help you ditch the gimmicks, finding strength through your struggles, give you the knowledge for making the smartest choices for your own health and to remind you to celebrate victory all along the way.
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