When you’re on the road, you often have to traverse what might be the worst nutritional terrain on the planet.

For thousands of miles, there is nothing but fast food joints and gas stations. One meal from these spots could easily consume all of your recommended calories for a day.

There is nothing wrong with splurge, but I would prefer to indulge on amazing food. Not crap food. So I navigate my days on the road carefully.

The Danger

Say you hit the road early and stop for breakfast at McDonald's. You get the Sausage Egg McMuffin and hash browns. By lunch, you’re starving and sick of being in the car. You pull over at Denny’s and choose one of the healthier options, a grilled chicken sandwich.

You’re now well over 1500 calories and there is still dinner and snacks on the open road to navigate.

It could be a lot worse, too.

A Quarter Pounder with Cheese and fries is 830 calories. Make that a double and you’re over 1,000.

I haven’t even mentioned drinks…

Most people know that McDonald’s meals are caloric, but there are plenty of traps waiting to fool you. Take their Fruit & Maple Oatmeal. While it’s 320 calories, it’s mostly carbohydrates, with very little protein. Odds are you will be hungry in an hour and munching on whatever treat you picked up at the last gas station.

Worst of all, these fast food joints make it damn near impossible to assess their nutrition facts. They often provide an unmanageable PDF that only supersonic readers can decipher. When they do create nutrition calculators, they often default to the smallest options (i.e. small fries) when the default order is a medium.

It’s treacherous out there. But, survival is possible.

The Survival Kit

It goes almost without saying that you could pack a full day’s worth of healthy food in your cooler. You could power through this nutritiously barren desert without relying on one single calorie from fast food or gas stations.

But that’s not always feasible and inevitably you will find yourself facing tough decisions.

Here are my recommendations for the least worst fast food and gas station snacks when you are on a road trip.

McDonald’s

I don’t know why, but there is no longer a grilled chicken sandwich at McDonald’s. Did they ever have one? Here are my, admittedly boring, choices:

  • Egg McMuffin (300 cals; 30C, 12F, 17P). I skip the hash browns.
  • Hamburger (250 cals; 31C, 9F, 12P)
  • McDouble (370 cals; 34C, 17F, 21P). I skip the fries (and the soda of course).
There are healthy-ish meal options at fast food joints, such as the English Muffin.
The Egg McMuffin: A decently healthy breakfast in a pinch. Skip the hash browns. 

Starbucks

The ubiquitous coffee chain has upped its game in the food department. There are a host of great breakfast options to get you by in a pinch. If you’re really hungry, pick two!

  • Spinach, Feta & Cage-Free Egg White Wrap (290 cals; 34C, 8F, 20P)
  • Reduced-Fat Turkey Bacon & Cage-Free Egg White Sandwich (230 cals; 28C, 5F, 17P)
  • Egg White & Roasted Red Pepper Sous Vide Egg Bites (170 cals; 11C, 8F, 12P)

Chipotle

I find it shocking that Chipotle's protein with the least amount of fat is steak (I would expect it to be chicken), but I’ll take it. I’m not talking about the new carne asada option, but OG steak. Also, Chipotle has one of the best nutrition calculators available 🙌 so you can build your own ideal meal. Here are my go-tos.

  • Hard Shell Tacos, Steak, Salsa (375 cals; 34C, 15F, 24P) If you prefer soft tacos, that doesn’t change the game much so go for it.
  • Supergreens, Steak, Black Beans, Mild Salsa, Tomatillo Red Chili Salsa, Cheese (460 cals; 35C, 16F, 36P).

Subway

Subway may not be the most delicious meal you’ll eat in a given day and their nutrition calculator interface should be scrapped, but there are 44,758 locations around the world. That’s more than even McDonald’s 😱. Chances are you are never far from one.

Stick to basic ingredients and avoid the creamy sauces. Here are my preferred sandwiches:

  • 6-inch on 9-Grain with double turkey, pepperjack lettuce, tomatoes, green peppers and cucumbers, mustard (370 cals; 42C, 9F, 29P)
  • 6-inch on 9-Grain with rotisserie-style chicken, mozzarella, tomatoes, green peppers and cucumbers, Subway vinaigrette. (430 cals; 41C, 16F, 34P)

Arby’s

What a surprise! Recently, I was in a “dire” situation. Running errands after I worked out; I thought I could get home in time to cook dinner. My husband spied an Arby’s. I was like, “ahhh, there goes my day.” But I was so hungry, I knew I needed to just accept it.

Turns out Arby’s has a fantastic nutrition calculator and meal builder. Plus, it actually tasted good. Next time I am on a roadtrip and the choice is McDonald’s or Arby’s, I am headed to Arby’s.

Here are just a few of the options I would choose:  

  • Ham & Cheese Slider (200 cals; 22C, 7F, 11P)
  • Roast Chicken Salad (250 cals; 8C, 14F, 25P)
  • Classic Roast Beef (360 cals; 37C, 14F, 23)
  • Classic Roast Chicken (370 cals; 35C, 16C, 24P)

You can pair a slider and the chicken salad and you have a high protein meal that is still coming in at less calories than your average sandwich at one of these places.

What about the fries?

Who doesn’t love fries? If you can, skip them. But if you want the treat, consider getting the “snack” or kids size. At Arby’s, this smaller-than-small option comes in at 250 calories (29C, 13F, 3P). You get the satisfaction of fries without falling into the enormous portion size trap. Even the small is 410 calories.

Pick-Your-Fat Salad

Most restaurants, like Denny’s or Perkins, have salads. The challenge is that they are often loaded with fat sources (dressing, eggs, avocados, seeds, bacon, cheese) that quickly add up leaving you feeling like you chose the right thing, but you would have been better off with a McDonald’s burger (calorie wise). If you’re lucky enough to find a salad joint on your road trip, customize your order by removing a couple of fat sources and leaving only the two or three you really love. I usually go for the eggs and the dressing on the side so I can control the portion size better.  

The Gas Station

Land of sugary temptation. You have to stop for gas, but you don’t have to get the King Size Reese’s Pieces bar coming in at 400 calories (45C, 23F, 9P). Thankfully, gas stations have gotten on the protein band wagon. My go-tos:

  • Muscle Milk
  • Yogurts (especially Greek yogurt)
  • Protein Bars (but you gotta read the label, more on that soon).
  • Jerky
  • Fruit
  • Cheese packs

A Day on the Road in Food

Last week I traversed the country from Minnesota to Colorado. We didn’t plan out our food in advance, but I still managed to hit my target caloric and even macro nutrient goals. Here’s what I ate.

  • Breakfast: Egg McMuffin and a Built Bar
  • Mid-Morning Snack: A 3-ounce bag of jerky (much to hubby’s disdain… he can’t stand the smell)
  • Lunch: Taco John’s Softshell Chicken Taco (180 cals; 20C, 5F, 13P) and a Muscle Milk
  • Afternoon Snack: Jolly Ranchers (3)
  • Dinner: Salad with Grilled Chicken
It's possible to eat healthy (ish) on a road trip even if you don't pack your own food.
At taco fast food joints, look for basic tacos without a lot of sauce. 

10 Survival Skills for Road Trip Nutrition

That was a lot of information, but it can be boiled down into the 10 fundamental skills for surviving, nutritionally speaking, a road trip.

  1. Avoid ordering the “meal” version everywhere; just get the sandwich.
  2. Skip things labeled as crispy, fried or stuffed.
  3. Be careful about sauces and avoid if possible.
  4. Sides (fries, hash browns, etc.) are usually not worth it at fast food joints.
  5. If you want a side, consider the kids or snack size.
  6. Bring your favorite protein bars along for the ride.
  7. Skip all drinks with sugar (on the road and off).
  8. Put munchies in the trunk so you have to consciously choose to eat them.
  9. Drink a lot of water. All of the options above are high in sodium.
  10. As soon as you arrive at your destination, find some vegetables.

What’s one situation where eating healthy seems impossible to you? Let me know and I’ll see what survival skills I can offer.