I have been asked repeatedly since returning from Eastern Europe how I managed to eat healthy while traveling. Often with a tone of incredulity, as if healthy eating and travel are oxymorons. At first I was baffled by this response, especially the subtle hint of a challenge, as if I might be lying about what I ate on the road. Is it really that difficult to believe that an individual can maintain a healthy diet while they travel the road?
As I have transitioned back into everyday life here in the United States, I am beginning to understand where that hostile disbelief stems from – we are surrounded by giant monuments to unhealthy eating. When I shop at the mall, choosing a smart lunch option in the food court is almost impossible – everything is deep-fried, layered in sugary sauces full of sodium, or pack an undisclosed wallop of calories and saturated fat. In the grocery stores, at least here in the Midwest, about 9/10 of the store shelves are filled with processed boxes, cans, and jars filled with sugar, sodium, and unpronounceable chemicals and additives. Organic produce and grass-fed, hormone-free beef are scarce. In our society, we are bombarded by unhealthy, but tasty food choices, and the smarter options are often difficult to find. As a result, habit forms and it is the norm to eat lots of meat, starches, and processed food, but neglect the lean proteins, vegetables, and fruits.
My family and friends know that I am vigilant about my diet. I admit I slip up now and then, especially when I am in the midst of a fibroflare. The lure and ease of cooking out of a box occasionally snares me. But mostly I focus on cooking whole foods and avoiding anything processed. I bake my own breads and include lots of fish, veggies and fruit in my diet. My health and energy level as a fibromyalgic depend on it.
So why when I mention that I keep up this diet while traveling do people lean towards disbelief and astonishment? Sure, ducking into a fast food restaurant when you’re traveling seems easy and fast. But it actually is not too difficult to find healthy choices and is a great way to dive into the local culture.
The easiest option doesn’t even involve a restaurant. While traveling through Eastern Europe, I assembled a picnic at the local produce market or grocery store within a few minutes. Fresh fruit, freshly baked breads, juice or the local wine, a wedge of local cheese, and you have a meal perfect for savoring while watching the sun set over the lagoons of Venice. Europe is a fantastic place to assemble a picnic – locals often shop at outdoor farmer’s markets on a daily or weekly basis and much of the produce is organic. Europe has more stringent guidelines and laws regulating the use of chemicals, pesticides, genetics, and hormones in produce and meat than in the United States. Maybe it was just the magic of travel, but the strawberries I bought from the farmer in Ljubljana were sweeter than any I have ever bought at a grocery store in the States.
The key is to make eating healthy part of your cultural experience. I sampled fruits I had never seen before, tried the multitude of freshly baked breads in groceries all over Eastern Europe, sampled local cheeses and sausages, and sipped wines from nearby valleys. In Dubrovnik, my host gave me a fresh pomegranate picked that morning from a neighbor’s tree. In Venice, I sampled octopus salad at the Rialto fish market. In Budapest, I cooked my own meals in the hostel kitchen using the sweet paprika I picked up down the street.
I also cooked a lot for myself. As mentioned previously in this blog, I stayed in a number of hostels in Europe that provided a kitchen full of utensils. An easy and healthy meal option is always to grab some pasta, tomato sauce, and vegetables and fruit, and assemble a pasta with side salad. Cooking for yourself gives you ultimate control over your food and friendships formed while cooking in the hostel kitchen. In Warsaw, I learned how to make a zesty omelette and a strong cup of Turkish coffee from my new Israeli friend Ade. (By the way, hostels are not just for the young. Ade is in his 50’s.)
What about the fun of eating out in restaurants, you ask? Sure, I splurged on meals out. But I avoided the American chains and fast food joints, and ate where the locals ate. This was an opportunity to sample local recipes. Not every local delicacy was healthy. The gelato in Croatia, while memorable for my taste buds, was not exactly a healthy choice. Poland is heavy on meat, potatoes and sausage-stuffed pierogi. Austrian cuisine features fat-fried Weiner Schnitzel. Don’t avoid trying local foods just because they are unhealthy. The key is frequency and portion control. In Warsaw, I ate at a little family run restaurant specializing in pierogi. I ordered a small plate of 5 pierogi. While the portion was small, I savoured every single bite and left completely satisfied.
And for the picky eater who wants a taste of home? There are always the ubiquitous apples, oranges,and bananas.
My travel food philosophy? Cook for yourself, picnic, shop where the locals shop and eat where the locals eat. Try local recipes and foods. Eat out only once a day. Allow myself to savor a treat, but in small portions. This is what works for me.