(Health.com) -- Whether you're heading to a spa for a girls-only weekend or chugging down the highway in a car full of Disney-crazed kids, a road trip is the ultimate rite of summer. But along with the classic rock blasting on the radio, road trips often involve the kinds of food you'd never think of eating at home--neon-orange cheese curls, mega-ounce slushies, unidentifiable dried meat in a plastic pack.
"There's something about being in a car that makes you want to eat lots of snacks," says Leslie Bonci, R.D., director of sports nutrition at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. You're also miles away from your kitchen, and you can drive for hours without seeing anything more nutritionally promising than a gas station.
But with a little smart packing and a good plan, you can eat almost as healthy on the road as you do at home.
Here's how to do just that--plus save your vacation splurges for when you get where you're going (and not arrive feeling like you've already put on five pounds without enjoying it!).
If your only option is: A gas station or convenience store
A good rule of thumb: Filling up your stomach where you can also fill up your car and get an oil change should be your last resort. But if the nearest legitimate restaurant is miles away, it is possible to put together a halfway decent meal at a quickie mart.
Best Bet: Food stamped with an expiration date (one that hasn't passed!) is usually healthier than anything that can sit around for a decade or two, because shelf-stable foods are often loaded with preservatives and artery-clogging trans fats.
Hustle past the pastries and chips and go straight to the refrigerator case for calcium-packed foods like string cheese and yogurt (pick up some nuts and dried fruit to mix into the yogurt for added protein and flavor), plus water, orange juice, skim milk, or unsweetened iced tea.
Next Best: If the fridge section disappoints, head back to the shelves and grab some individual-size bags of snacks, but look for ones that your greatgrandmother would recognize as actual food, such as dried fruit, nuts, and whole-wheat crackers, advises Steven G. Aldana, Ph.D., author of "The Stop & Go Fast Food Nutrition Guide."
If you're craving pretzels, nuggets are better than skinny ones because they take longer to eat, says Bonci, who adds that animal crackers and Teddy Grahams are good bets to satisfy a sweet tooth since they're lower in calories than other cookies.
If your only option is: a highway rest stop
After driving a few hours on the interstate, you take the off-ramp to a rest stop, which looks the same no matter what state you're in--there's a coffee chain, a burger place, maybe frozen yogurt or pizza, and a newsstand.
Best Bet: If there's a Starbucks, just say no to the scones, muffins, and cakes (which can screech toward 500 calories a pop while offering little nutritional value). Look for lunch choices like a fruit-and-cheese plate, pasta salad, or wrap--in the 300- to 380-calorie range.
Instead of ordering a Mocha Frappuccino, tone it down to an old-fashioned iced or hot coffee, so you can control the amount of milk and sugar you add to it. (Or go for a nonfat latte, which has less than 100 calories.)
If they're still serving breakfast, even better. "With eggs in a whole-wheat wrap, oatmeal, or a yogurt parfait, you can get a healthy, filling meal that will give you enough energy to make it to the next stop," Aldana says.
Found a Dunkin' Donuts? Skip the crullers and pick a flatbread sandwich--the Egg White Turkey Sausage, for instance, checks in at 280 calories. Tim Hortons? Grab a BBQ Chicken Wrap Snacker (180 calories) and a cup of Hearty Vegetable soup (70 calories).
Next Best: Hit the fro-yo stand for a scoop topped with fruit. (Fresh strawberries or pineapple are only about 10 calories, compared with 90 for gummy bears or chocolate chips.)
If your only option is: fast food
If you usually shun fast food, you may be surprised to find that there are now nutritious picks at many big chains.
Best Bet: Opt for a healthy salad with protein, like the McDonald's Premium Caesar Salad with Grilled Chicken or Wendy's Mandarin Chicken Salad--each around 200 calories. Ask for lowfat dressing; creamy Caesar dressing can nearly double the calories. Keep in mind, though, that just because something's called a "salad" doesn't mean it's healthy or light. Salads with crispy chicken and cheese can pack as many calories as a Whopper or Big Mac.
Next Best: Let's face it, even if you know salad is the healthy choice, sometimes you've just got to have a burger and fries, and that's OK. The secret is portion control. Resist the urge to supersize, and stick with a single patty, piled high with healthy stuff (pickles, lettuce, tomato, and onions). Also, skip the cheese and special sauces (full of fat and sugar). "Most big chains have switched from trans fat to healthier canola and soy oils, so if you want fries, indulge in a small order," Aldana says. Small fries at McDonald's: 230 calories.
If your only option is: a diner in the middle of nowhere
Whether it's one of those mauve-and-silver behemoths with a menu as thick as a Stephen King novel or a little truck stop with a sassy waitress rocking a beehive 'do, diners have lots of decent choices--including dozens of variations of a Greek salad.
Best Bet: "Diners cater to truckers, so they usually offer breakfast all day," Bonci says. "You can't go wrong with oatmeal or a vegetable omelet--made with egg whites, if possible--and whole-wheat toast, but ask for the toast dry so they don't slather it with butter the minute it pops out of the toaster." Or consider the soup of the day. (And even if it isn't called " 'cream of ' something," Bonci says, check to see if there's cream in it.) Stews and chilis are also good bets, Bonci adds.
Next Best: A meatloaf or roast-turkey plate (ask for double veggies instead of mashed potatoes, and hold the gravy) will fill you up. If the portions are huge, split with someone or leave half on your plate. Want a sandwich? Order turkey on whole-wheat with lettuce and tomato, and no mayo. If it's really thick, remove some turkey slices and eat just half. You can always have what's left over wrapped to go.
If your only option is: Italian or pizza
You can find one at almost any strip mall in America: a pizza-pasta-hero place with the aroma of garlic twists luring you through the front door.
Best Bet: Order a small bowl of pasta with marinara sauce and a small green salad, Aldana suggests; marinara is low in fat and made mostly with tomatoes and spices, so it gives you a healthy dose of nutrients and vitamins. A veggie-packed pasta primavera is also a top choice, if it's made with broth rather than cream. (If it's made with olive oil, order an appetizer size.)
Of course, depending on the restaurant, a single portion might be served in a bowl big enough to do the backstroke in. Look around to gauge how big that bowl of spaghetti is, then ask for a half order. Or ask for a separate smaller plate, transfer a smaller portion onto it, and eat just that, Bonci suggests.
Next Best: "Fresh, good-quality pizza is pretty healthy, but most people simply eat too much," says Timothy Harlan, M.D., an assistant clinical professor of medicine at the Tulane University School of Medicine.
A large slice of a New York--style pizza can have more than 500 calories and 20 grams of fat. (Hint: If you need two hands to hold a slice, eat only half.) Eating with a group? Ask for the pie to be sliced into 16 small slices, rather than 8 large ones. And skip the pepperoni, sausage, and meatball toppings, which can add gobs of sodium and saturated fat; go for fresh veggies (broccoli, peppers, extra tomatoes) instead.
If your only option is: a Mexican chain
If you're traveling in the Southwest, taco joints abound. But even if you're nowhere near the border, you're bound to see a Baja Fresh, Chipotle, or Taco Bell.
Best Bet: Start by eliminating anything that's goes crrrrunch when you bite into it--all those fatty fried chalupas, taquitos, and nachos. "Tacos that are made with soft corn tortillas are a smart selection," Harlan says.
Once you find a healthy wrap, ask to have it filled it with grilled chicken, fish, veggies, or shrimp. Choose black or pinto beans over the refried variety, which are traditionally cooked in lard. Nix the sour cream and cheese. (If you think a taco just isn't a taco without some cheese, simply request half as much, Aldana suggests.)
"And load up with salsa, pico de gallo, beans, lettuce, tomato, and onions." Go ahead and have the guacamole, too--avocado contains heart-healthy monounsaturated fats. And since it's the most expensive condiment, the restaurant will probably only serve you a tiny portion (2 tablespoons are about 60 calories).
Next Best: Burritos contain roughly the same ingredients as those healthy tacos--they're just twice the size. (A Burrito Supreme with chicken at Taco Bell weighs in at 390 calories, while a Chicken Soft Taco is 200.) If the burrito you order is roughly the size of a fireplace log, share it with a friend or just cut it in half and wrap the rest for another meal.
Whatever you do, beware of the word "salad" at most Mexican chains: One stuffed in a crunchy tortilla shell and slathered with cheese often tops 1,000 calories.
If your only option is: a sandwich chain
A sandwich can be the perfect food for a road trip--it provides that super combo of carbs and protein, and it's easy to wrap up and take in the car.
Best Bet: The great thing about sandwiches is that, even at big chains, you can usually customize them, from the bread on up. Pick whole-wheat (a 6-inch roll or the equivalent, or a wrap), then add a lean meat like turkey, ham or grilled chicken, and as many vegetable toppings as you can pile on without the whole thing collapsing.
Be sure to skip the highfat mayonnaise--just one little packet of mayo adds about 80 calories and 9 grams of fat; add tangy oil and vinegar or spicy mustard instead.
Some top picks at Subway: The 6-inch oven-roasted chicken, turkey breast, and ham sandwiches have about 300 calories and less than 5 grams of fat.
Next Best: Choose Swiss cheese or grilled veggies as a main ingredient. And pass over the calorie-busting Italian subs with pepperoni and salami, since they're loaded with sodium and saturated fat.
BYO: (food, that is)
Before you set off on your adventure, pack your car with healthy snacks that will satisfy the need for crunch and that can be eaten while driving (skip anything that requires utensils or several napkins). Whatever you pack, try to plan designated snack times--otherwise you could spend the entire ride grazing.
In the cooler: Bottles of water, bags of baby carrots, plus refreshing fruits that are low in calories and high in fiber (such as grapes, apples, and blueberries). For a protein boost, stock up on low-fat organic cheese sticks, single-serving hummus packs, and drinkable yogurt. (Single-serving packs also encourage portion control.)
Outside the cooler: Bananas, trail mix, granola bars, 100-calorie packs of crackers, single-serving boxes of cereal (grab a few from the breakfast buffet at your hotel).
Copyright Health Magazine 2011