So you're driving down the road and have been for eight hours. You see a sign up ahead that says "McDonald's," and you're hungry so you pull onto the off-ramp. But you don't have to. It may seem like the only options for food, while you're traveling, are either cheap and very unhealthy or too expensive to fit into your budget. Though it may seem that way, it isn't usually the case and we're here to give you a little insight into what can be done so you don't get hangry with your groupmates.
First of all, when you're literally on the road, driving toward your destination, fast food is an easy choice. But you have to consider your health as well as your budget when you're optioning for a Whopper Deluxe when you could be eating a full meal at a diner down the street for the same price. Whether or not you're on a diet is irrelevant, though diets are broken so often while traveling it's scary. What matters is overall health and happiness, and most people can't honestly say that they feel like they can conquer the world after a meal at Burger King. Moreover, eating fast food on your vacation will inevitably keep you from eating local delights once you get where you're going. Would you choose Taco Bell over one of the best Mexican restaurants in the American Southwest? It sounds ridiculous but it happens all too often. Let loose, be happy, and that starts with the food you consume.
Now, I don't intend to sound preachy but this is a concern that migrates into other areas of traveling, namely the budget. Eating fast food seems cheap but most people who eat fast food are hungry again way sooner than those who opt for a traditional meal, and have to buy more to supplement their cravings. Indulging on vacation isn't a bad thing, and in fact I encourage you to go all out. But do it intelligently, with options like these:
- Farmers Markets - Depending on your destination, farmers markets might be a daily occurrence, as they are in many SoCal cities. If so, lucky you! Farmers markets are great for getting fresh produce, healthy proteins (often grass fed beef and free range chickens) plus you get the added benefit of people watching. If you're on the go, most farmers markets have baked goods, sandwiches, and food stalls to take on the run.
- Food Trucks/Stands - Food trucks have swept the nation in recent years and it's paying off big time. Not limited by a brick-and-mortar establishment, food trucks can roam the streets looking for hungry customers. They can also change up their menus and offer you weird and strangely delicious foods wrapped in paper or served in a basket. Would you ever think you could find a gourmet grilled cheese food truck or one serving Asian-Mexican fusion at two in the morning? The best part of the food truck industry is the price. You often get gourmet food for a fraction of what you'd pay in a traditional restaurant, plus it gives you a fun story to tell when you get home.
- Grocery Stores and Delis - Most people don't think to eat in grocery stores but many have their own restaurants and delis built in which deserve mentioning. Since they have direct access to supplies, grocery store eateries are often much cheaper than your average restaurant, and often healthier (don't quote me on that, it depends on where you go). There are restaurants in a number of Whole Foods around the country but you can also find several local groceries such as Puckett's Grocery in Nashville, serving comfort foods and Southern meals. Plus, even if the grocery store doesn't have a built in restaurant, chances are it does have a deli counter where you can either buy or build your own sandwich.
- Diners - Diners can either be the best thing ever or completely awful. You just have to use your own discretion when choosing this fast food alternative. Instead of picking Denny's or similar diners, we recommend local. That way you get the interesting story even if the food is bad which, if you eat at a locally popular spot, it probably won't be. They often have great options for budget conscious people, such as a $5 and under menu serving basic hamburgers, hot dogs, and sandwiches. Menus are so big and varied at most diners that even picky eaters can find something. It may not be the healthiest of options, but it sure beats out fast food and diners are almost always quick eats.
- Bring Your Own - Lots of people overlook this as an option, especially young people who see only the convenience of fast food. One way to cut out the middle man is to bring a cooler full of your healthy favorites: sandwiches, baby carrots, fruit, drinks, etc. If you're staying in a hotel with a mini-fridge, all the more reason to buy ingredients and eat healthier for less moolah. An apple at midnight is much better for you than a bag of chips from the vending machine.
- App Found Restaurants - Here's the biggest thing with modern age travel: smart phone apps. If you don't know where to eat, or have a stipulation such as gluten-free meals or vegan, just type it in to apps like Yelp, FourSquare, and Urbanspoon, and watch the ratings pop up. Ratings for quality, service, price, and more are available at your fingertips on any number of restaurants in the country. It's a beautiful thing, technology.