A healthy diet is an important cornerstone of good health, but that doesn’t mean it’s always easy.
However, the average American doesn’t eat a very healthy diet. The Healthy Eating Index from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) gave the average American diet a score of 59 out of 100, using the most recent data from 2015 (3).
Healthy eating while you’re away from home and on the go can pose unique challenges.
You may be tempted to skip meals. It may also be hard to find out where to purchase nutritious foods, decide what you should pack in your lunch bag, and determine how to maintain a balanced meal while eating out.
This comprehensive guide explains how to maintain a nutritious diet while you’re on the go.
To eat healthy, you need to get a variety of nutrients from the five food groups — dairy, protein-rich foods, grains, fruits, and vegetables.
Each food group offers a different, main nutritional benefit, so by combining the food groups you can get a spectrum of nutrients that support good health.
Examples of foods from each group are:
- Dairy: milk, cheese, yogurt, lactose-free milk, fortified soy milk
- Protein-rich foods: seafood, meat, poultry, eggs, peas, beans, nuts, seeds, and soy products
- Grains: wheat, rice, oats, cornmeal, barley
- Fruits: fresh, canned, frozen, or dried fruits and 100% fruit juice
- Vegetables (nonstarchy): fresh, canned, frozen, or dried vegetables (raw or cooked) and 100% vegetable juice
MyPlate is a nutritional guide and meal planning tool that helps people eat healthy. The USDA developed it based on the Dietary Guidelines for Americans.
It recommends making at least half of your grains whole grains, varying your protein sources, and choosing low fat or fat-free dairy products.
To build a healthy plate — whether it’s for a meal or a snack — try pairing foods from at least two food groups to get a diversity of nutrients.
How to fill your plate for a healthy meal
- Fill half of your plate with nonstarchy vegetables like spinach or collard greens.
- Then, fill one-fourth of your plate with protein-rich foods, such as chicken, fish, or navy beans, depending on your preferences.
- Lastly, fill the remaining one-fourth of your plate with grains like rice or quinoa.
Healthy meal example 1: baked garlic butter chicken, stir fry vegetables, and rice
Healthy meal example 2: a cheese sandwich made with whole grain bread, cottage cheese, and sliced tomatoes
Pair a grain with a protein-, fat-, or fiber-rich food.
Your body digests mixed meals that include protein, healthy fats, and fiber more slowly than grains alone. This makes you feel full for longer, which can help support a healthy weight and blood sugar management.
Healthy snack example 1: an apple and nut butter
Healthy snack example 2: yogurt with dried fruit and nuts
How skipping meals can backfire
You might wonder what’s so bad about skipping meals.
It’s not unhealthy in itself, but skipping meals can backfire, causing you to be ravenous later so that you overeat at your next meal or load up on unhealthy snacks. We’re often not great at making healthy diet decisions when we’re hungry.
If you find this tends to happen to you, you might find it helpful to have preplanned food ready to grab and go when you’re in a rush.
That said, research has shown that skipping breakfast isn’t necessarily bad for you. If eating breakfast (or food at any particular time of the day) just isn’t part of your eating schedule, that’s OK.
Some people also forego meals intentionally for religious or cultural reasons or when practicing intermittent fasting. However, this is often preplanned and not the same as unintentionally skipping a meal because you’re in a rush.
Here’s how to eat healthy in five common scenarios when you’re on the go.
If you find yourself constantly rushing out the door in the mornings without a plan for breakfast or even lunch, you’re not alone.
This is a scenario that I often found myself in during my dietetic internship. Short sleep times paired with high stress and little meal planning meant I frequently skipped breakfast without intending to.
In this situation, we can recognize the importance of meal planning and preparation.
Even if you’re not able to change your busy schedule soon, you can become more prepared to nourish your body despite the rush.
Planning your meals will help you become more organized and intentional about having nutritious foods in the morning. It’ll also help you stop skipping meals unintentionally.
- Prep the night before. Prepare your breakfast meal and morning snack the night before. For example, overnight oats and chia pudding are simple to prepare for a quick grab-and-go option. Pack a lunch bag with your meals and a reusable water bottle to stay hydrated.
- Smoothie bags. You can prep bags full of premeasured smoothie ingredients to make one serving of smoothie for a quick drink before you head out.
- Buy or make healthy bars. Protein or energy bars can be a quick bite on the way out the door or on the road until you can sit down and have a meal. Make sure to purchase bars with a lower content of sugar and a higher content of protein, fiber, and other nutrients.
Preplanning your breakfast meal and morning snack can help you become more organized and intentional about your nutritional intake. It’ll also help you avoid skipping meals unintentionally due to your busy schedule.
Despite the economic effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, eating away from home — or ordering in — remains a primary source of food for most Americans each week.
In 2020, Americans spent $659 billion on restaurant and food service sales (4).
Of course, dining out has its benefits. The food itself can be very enjoyable, dining with others is a great way to socialize with others, and it’s an opportune time to explore new food cultures and tastes.
Learning how to maintain healthy eating when you’re ordering restaurant food or dining out is key to supporting your overall lifestyle.
Here are some tips and strategies to keep you on track:
- Plan ahead. Many restaurants have online menus that you can review. Decide ahead of time which dishes you might be interested in trying. Keep the basic principles of healthy eating in mind when building your meal combos.
- Portion sizes. Before you begin to eat, ask for a takeaway container and pack away the extra food that will be too much for you to consume. Then, eat to satisfaction, not until you’re stuffed (
- Deserts fit too. Healthy eating doesn’t mean depriving yourself of pleasurable foods. However, consider limiting the amount you eat. You could do this by choosing mini deserts or sharing deserts with others.
Dining out — or ordering in — continue to be popular among Americans. To eat healthy while you’re dining out, review online menus prior to arriving and have a plan, be mindful of your portion sizes, and opt for smaller or shared deserts.
Family and social gatherings, such as potlucks, bring people together to enjoy food and each other’s company.
Even with traditional dishes and soul food, healthy eating is possible.
Try these tips:
- Do not save up calories. Eat consistently throughout the day instead of trying to “save space” for later by avoiding food before the event. This way, you won’t go to the event hungrier than usual, and you’re less likely to eat past fullness and satisfaction.
- Bring a healthy dish. If you have special dietary needs or simply want to share a favorite recipe with your family or friends, you can bring a dish that accommodates both.
- Taste a little of everything. Try a taste of all the foods you like without overloading your plate. Portion size and mindful eating are important to avoid the stomach discomfort that comes with eating a large amount.
- Enjoy the conversations. Remember that the gathering is as much about the people as it is about the food. Sit away from the food and refocus on engaging with others, sharing stories, and enjoying their company.
Healthy eating at family gatherings is possible, even with traditional, calorie-rich foods. Eat during the day without saving up calories for the event, bring a healthy dish, and focus on the conversations and people at the event more than the food.
Traveling may be a stressful time for some people. Many find it difficult to eat healthy foods while they’re traveling. It doesn’t help that food options at airports and other travel hubs tend to be fast-food services.
Whether you’re catching a flight or preparing for a road trip, having a plan will save you the stress and struggle of hunting for nutritious snacks along the way.
Snacking is convenient during travel. It’s also an opportunity to avoid getting very hungry and then overeating at your next meal (
It’s not practical to travel with lots of fresh foods, so here we’re focusing on healthy eating with nonperishable snacks:
- Dried fruit. You can pack raisins, dried cranberries, freeze-dried mango, or any other dried fruit of your choice for a quick bite during your trip. The best part is that these all count toward your daily fruit intake (
- Nuts and seeds. These sources of healthy fats and protein are another convenient and easy-to-pack snack for healthy eating on the go. Pair nuts and seeds with dried fruits to make a trail mix, and pack them in small resealable bags for easy storage.
- Protein or energy bars. You can store an energy bar in your handbag, carry-on luggage, travel essentials bag, or any other convenient slot that’s easy to access when you feel hungry. Choose bars that are low in added sugars.
Travel can be stressful and pose a challenge to accessing healthy snacks and meals. Bringing a supply of dried fruits, nuts, and protein or energy bars will help you to stay fed during meals and reduces overeating later on.
Quarantine has become a part of our “new normal,” as my son and I recently experienced when we returned to Trinidad and Tobago from the United States.
You may be asked to isolate yourself for a number of days in a hotel, in a quarantine facility, or at home with no outside contact.
In any of these situations, access to food may be limited, and it might be hard to find healthy options. Although quarantine facilities provide meals, you may not have many choices on the menu.
It’s important to stay adequately nourished and hydrated during this time. It’s also another opportunity for healthy snacking, especially if you’re going into quarantine with children (9).
Here are some nutritious foods you can pack:
- Dried fruits. They’re packed with flavor, fiber, antioxidants, and other nutrients.
- Crackers. Choose whole grain crackers or any other of your choice.
- Nuts and nut butter. Pair these with crackers or dried fruit.
- Canned tuna or chicken. These are high in protein and come in a variety of flavors. You can eat them with crackers or on their own.
- Protein bars or granola. These are nonperishable and diverse snacks to have on hand.
- Bottled water. Pack small bottles of water if you cannot easily access a water fountain to fill your reusable water bottle.
- Tea bags. You may have access to a kettle and cups in your room to make your preferred tea during your quarantine stay.
Wherever you’re quarantined, it’s important to snack mindfully. You’re most likely going to be less physically active during this time period, so eat to satisfaction but not in excess.
Consider packing dried fruit, crackers, nuts and nut butter, canned tuna or chicken, protein bars, and tea bags to eat healthy during quarantine.
Healthy eating when you’re on the go can be challenging, but with adequate planning, it is possible.
Apply the basics of healthy eating to maximize the nutrition you get from your meals and snacks.
Whether you’re rushing out in the morning, dining out, attending a family gathering, traveling, or even heading into quarantine, these tips can save you the stress of knowing what to do so you can continue nourishing your body.