Vegan on the Road: How I’ve Eaten Healthier than Ever While Driving Across the Country

It took three weeks and 5500 miles, but yesterday, I hit the unofficial halfway point of my book tour — Seattle, Washington.

Fun place, by the way, with tons of vegan-friendly restaurants. And as I head down the west coast and back across the southern half of the country, I’m looking forward to more food options than I’ve had so far.

And believe me, when you’ve spent most of the past week driving long, barren stretches through states like Wyoming, Idaho, and Nebraska, you appreciate options.

To be honest, I’ve never found eating vegan while traveling all that difficult. But the constraints of the past three weeks — owing to the fact that I’m in a car — have made it more challenging. The three big ones:

  • I’m in a new hotel every single night, always without a kitchen and often with no fridge or microwave.
  • The car is packed so tightly that there’s no room for a cooler.
  • I’m without my beloved Blendtec — I left it for my wife and kids — or any blender, for that matter.

Finally, this is all on a budget — I’d go broke if I ate out at restaurants for all or even most of my meals. Selling books has helped to offset some costs of hotels, gas, and food, but this tour is a labor of love, not something that’s financially profitable by any means. So I’ve really got to keep an eye on my food cost.

Yet at the same time as I’m trying to keep costs down, it’s extremely important that I eat well. The book tour has been far more exhausting than I had prepared for, and if I weren’t eating better than ever, I think I’d have crashed long ago.

Yes, you read that right — even under all these constraints (in fact, because of all these constraints), I’m eating as healthily as I ever have, perhaps even more so.

Here’s how.

The Real Way to Eat Vegan While Traveling

Traditionally, the advice about eating plant-based on the road has taken only two words to dispense:

Happy Cow.”

And it really is all you need — assuming you’re on a short trip, and you don’t mind paying restaurant prices in exchange for getting a taste of the local vegetarian and vegan scene.

But that’s not my situation. In most places I’ve driven through, there is no local vegetarian and vegan scene. So instead my focus has been on practicality, value, and health, rather than on fun or fancy or exciting food — and that has made all the difference. (See what I did there? Robert Frost, road, less traveled, etc. :))

The Key: Foods Over Meals

Recently I’ve started learning from Dr. Joel Fuhrman, who advocates a plant-based diet entirely for health reasons.

A big idea I’ve learned from Dr. Fuhrman is that “the salad is the meal.” Interpret salad loosely here … the idea is that instead of worrying about eating a traditional “square” meal and getting your vegetables on the side or in a salad, you do far better by basing your entire diet on the foods in that salad. 

And that’s the trick that has helped me not just survive on the road, but thrive, by eating fresher, more whole, and more raw.

Forget the square meal. Forget about identifying the protein, the carbohydrate, and the fat. Fill up on the handful of foods that you consider to be the healthiest on Earth. And redefine “meal” to mean exactly that.

For Dr. Fuhrman (at least, in my interpretation), these foods are:

  • Cruciferous vegetables like kale, broccoli, cauliflower, and cabbage
  • Nuts and seeds
  • Fruits, especially berries
  • Beans
  • Onions
  • Mushrooms

Fuhrman uses the mnemonic acronym GBOMBS (greens, beans, onions, mushrooms, berries, seeds) to remember these foods.

This is how I’ve eaten over the past three weeks. Combine whole, fresh foods, focusing on the GBOMBS. Do it in a way that fills you up and that you don’t get sick of, and you win.

What this means, for me at least, is that I end up eating a nearly raw diet until noon each day, and many days even longer than that.

Specifically?

Here’s the procedure I’ve fallen into, and it works.

a) Stock up on raw trail mix (raw nuts and seeds and raisins) and fresh fruit, especially oranges, bananas, apples, strawberries, and raspberries — foods that can last a few days without refrigeration. Eat this stuff for breakfast in the mornings, and snack on it throughout the day. (And really, what else are you going to find for breakfast that’s plant-based and not just a bunch of wheat? Certainly nothing in the hotel spread.)

b) Whenever you’re near a Whole Foods, stop at it. Head to the salad bar and make a gigantic salad that includes dark leafy greens (usually kale), chickpeas or black beans, whatever seeds they have (usually sunflower and pumpkin seeds), and whatever other veggies you’re in the mood for — for me it’s usually cabbage, carrots, cucumbers, broccoli, and roasted mushrooms. I’ve stuck mainly to Whole Foods’s oil-free dressings, though I’m not anti-oil by any means.

If it’s meal time (even breakfast), I eat about half of this salad immediately and half for my next meal. If it’s not meal time, I still get the salad and save it until next time I’m hungry.

c) For hot meals, usually just dinner but lunch if I’m lucky, it’s one of three things:

  1. A burrito or bowl from Chipotle, with brown rice, black or pinto beans (they’re vegan now!), onions and peppers, guacamole, tomatoes, and medium or hot salsa.
  2. Something from the Whole Foods hot bar, or one of their built-in restaurants at larger stores. You’ve got to be careful here, because even though it’s Whole Foods, there are plenty of prepared-food options that are less-than-healthy. Mostly I stick to cooked vegetables and grains.
  3. A meal from a local vegetarian- or vegan-friendly restaurant, found either via Happy Cow or recommendation from friends on Twitter or at my book tour events.

That’s it. I can think of almost nothing I’ve eaten that doesn’t fall into one of those three categories, except for the fruit, trail mix, and salad.

Objections

I can anticipate a few:

How can you say Whole Foods is cheap?

I can get a huge salad, including beans and seeds, that will last for one or two meals, for 10 bucks. This isn’t cheap, but not that expensive either for a meal (or two meals) on the road. It’s entirely organic and I consider it the healthiest meal I eat each day, so it’s worth it. Sometimes I get the fruit and trail mix from Whole Foods too, but you can also get these (and even the salad, though not often with so many organic veggies) at most regular grocery stores.

In all, breakfast and lunch of fruit, nuts, and this mega-salad cost $12 or so, total. This is less than half of what I’d pay to sit and eat at a restaurant, and these meals are as healthy as they come.

Trail mix, fruit, and salad doesn’t sound like a breakfast.

No, it doesn’t. But it’s almost exactly the same ingredients as what’s in my smoothie when I’m at home. Eating this way took only a few days to get used to, and I love how it feels. So I’ll likely take this “raw until noon” habit home with me.

Do you really think Chipotle is healthy?

I do, if you get a bowl and avoid the white-flour tortilla. It’s beans, rice, and vegetables, which is a lot like a typical dinner I’d eat at home. The vegetables aren’t organic (as far as I know), but on the road, I’ll take it.

As for variety, if I were eating at Chipotle every day, my diet would be lacking. Thankfully, I’ve only eaten at Chipotle two or three times per week. I try to vary the contents of daily Whole Foods salad tremendously, by changing up the vegetables that I get in it each time, as well as buying different fruits and making different trail mixes from the bulk sections of stores to add to the variety in my diet on the road.

The Secret: Inconvenience is a Great Thing

That’s really all there is to eating on the road. It’s affordable, practical, and really not that hard, once you get used to it.

The key, of course, is throwing out your preconceived notion of  a meal, and accepting that combining fresh, whole, and often raw foods in a way that fills you up is just as good as any hot, “square” meal. In fact, I think it’s better: as I alluded to above, I truly believe that being so constrained in my choices is a tremendous blessing in disguise. And I’ve noticed this even when I’m not traveling: having to plan and prepare is the major reason I eat far better as a vegan than I ever did as an omnivore or even a vegetarian.

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Comments

  1. I recently spent three days at a small town (~3600 people) where I knew I would be away from restaurants or other sources of food for the majority of each day. I ate very similarly to what you’ve described. I brought a quart bag filled with raw nuts and dried fruit, an apple and banana for each day, a loaf of vegan bread (I ended up only eating a few slices), home made hummus and a gallon bag of broccoli florets and baby cut carrots. My hotel room did have a refrigerator, so I was able to chill things overnight, but I just let them sit at room temperature during the day, and nothing went bad.
    For breakfast, I supplemented my trail mix with an orange from the hotel’s complimentary breakfast. I snacked on my trail mix and hummus and veggies throughout the day, and made hummus toast one day. My dinners were a subway salad and (I was shocked) the hotel restaurant had a veggie burger option, and a salad bar and it was pretty good!
    Having plenty of stuff to graze on really made it easy to eat while traveling, and I plan to do the same thing next time I’m on the road.

  2. Thanks for the tips! I LOVE eating Chipotle & WF as a vegan. The only downside to Chipotle burrito bowls is the high sodium in the salsas. Thank you for letting me know that the pinto beans are now vegan! They need to update their signage to indicate that.

  3. It may be too late for this, but I always stay in bed and breakfasts rather than hotels. I think they’re quieter, cleaner and I gotta stay in a place where the window open. Good morning meal is included and you get to meet so nice and informative homeowners. Just my 2 cents.

    Keep enjoying the travel and post some pictures if you can.

    ps. I love the Cliff Z Bars. They market them to kids but I can get a box of 6 for $3 at Target. They’re organic, 120 calories per bar, made with dates, etc. I also bring raw almonds, pretzels, fruit. Those are my travel foods.

  4. Great article, Matt! As another person who is also on the road a lot (with Robert), I have another suggestion that I just recently discovered for us. The beauty of the rice cooker. I take it into the hotel room and, even in the most basic of motel rooms, you can cook up some rice and heat up some beans. Also, I use it to cook steel cut oats in the morning. Put everything in the rice cooker before you go to bed at night, set the timer, and in the morning you’ll wake up to the awesome smell of oats (with cinnamon, dried fruit, and whatever else you want to put in it), all done and ready for you to eat. This is all at a cost of about $1. :) Good luck on the rest of your tour! Perhaps I’ll see you in Portland this weekend.

  5. Thanks for this… I’m about to go visit the in-laws and this is always an issue, espeically if it’s a short visit and we’re not planning to do much grocery shopping. The monster salad is often how I manage best.

  6. I’m not going to lie, you make it sound so easy to eat like this. While getting the foods you want isn’t that hard, its not eating the other foods we see on a regular basis like sugars and pumpkin lattes. I like the idea though.

  7. A bit off topic, but why so u favor the blend tec over the vitamix? Trying to decide which to buy

  8. I often get a salad for lunch at a local hospital. They usually have beans, nuts, and seeds and are fairly cheap – $3 to $4 for a meal.

  9. Hi Matt, first time poster but long time fan. I’ve been doing raw (mainly 80/10/10) before 6 and a cooked vegan dinner after 6 for about 3 months (100% cooked vegan for 9 months prior). I figure it’s about 51% raw for the day. I feel unbelievably great, even more alive than 100% cooked vegan. Seems like a good way to get the benefits of raw or 80/10/10 but not have to go all-in on it as I love to cook too much to be fully raw. Just thought I’d share my experience. Thanks for what you’re doing, keep up the great work!

  10. And now we have this to look forward at Chipotle as well…http://www.chipotle.com/en-us/html/sofritas.html

  11. I can relate – we just moved to a new house and we have 3 young children (6, 3, and 3 month old) so it’s hard to get proper cooking in during all the preparations, the moving, and the settling in but I noticed I actually ate healthier than ever because I had to keep it simple and I couldn’t afford to feel yucky (ie too much sodium, gluten and dairy really get to me) because there was so much to do. We kept lots of fruit on hand, simple vegetables plus lots of hummus, and some frozen food convenience (pre-cooked rice, potatoes in various forms and precut veggie stir fries, etc.). Thanks for the post Matt and best wishes for the rest of your book tour!

  12. My breakfast trick is to bring oatmeal (I use old-fashioned oats for this) for breakfast. Add hot water from the in-room coffee maker, and even old-fashioned oats soften and cook after a few minutes of soaking. You can add soy milk from one of the shelf-stable packs available from the grocery store, or if you’re desperate, the nondairy creamer in the room. I add craisins and walnuts and a cut-up apple or banana and it’s a good filling breakfast and very inexpensive.

    Also, if there’s no Chipotle, Moe’s is a good alternative.

  13. Be careful with the pinto beans at Chipotle. They’re not all vegan yet. I was just at a Chipotle a couple days ago, and the pintos definitely still had bacon in them (or at least they told me they did). Maybe they’re rolling the meat-free ones out in certain regions first? I thought the sofritas were kind of gross, though. WAY too much salt in the batch I had!

  14. Thanks for your small comment about being vegan in WY. It’s almost impossible! Luckily, there’s Smith’s (a Kroger branch). It’s not While Foods, but they have a house brand called “Simple Truth”. It’s not 100% vegan or organic. However, it’s free of alot nasty additives like HFCS. They also more healthier options than Wall-Mart. Hope this helps. :-)

  15. Should we bring healthy vegan food to your book events? Glad you’re making the best of it, but sounds like you could use a change (not that there’s a shortage of good vegan food here in Tucson).

  16. Not all Chipotles serve vegan pinto beans just yet. I live in Columbus, OH and frequent 3 different Chipotles (one by my office and 2 two near my apartment), and only one of them has vegan pintos currently. I asked the manager of one about it and he told me Chipotle would slowly roll out the vegan pintos in all their restaurants.

  17. Chipotle is awesome!!! Especially if you aren’t eating meat, they have great alternatives.

  18. Great post! I’ve been traveling alot lately (between moving and taking a sabbatical). I usually wind up carting a cooler in the trunk of my car with a ton of premade meals, which works great for shorter trips. I’ve found mexican and asian restaurants usually have vegans options (probably not healthy) if you’re desperate, and Panera is actually a decent place as well. Most I’ve been to are more than accommodating to offer me a vegan meal. Its one of the few restaurants in the small town I just moved to where I can eat out without winding up with an iceberg salad. I agree with your defense of Whole Foods salad bars… its expensive sure, but most of the salads I make there last me 2 meals as well, so that’s $6 a meal, which is pretty darn cheap for eating out and not having to make it!

  19. Hi Matt,

    After driving across eastern Washington, Idaho and Montana with my dad, I totally sympathize with the difficulties of a vegan / veggie diet while on the road. I found that people gave me long, suspicious stares when I asked if there was a meat free version of something on the menu.

    It definitely makes me appreciate Vancouver as a vegetarian-friendly city. But these are good tips and I’ll put them ‘in the bank’ for the next trip that comes along.

  20. lisa dungan says:

    hmmm. i asked at whole foods and not much of their prepared food and salads are organic. i was really disappointed!

    • Lisa, I found that Whole Foods vary tremendously in their selections, store-to-store. Most of the salad bars were organic, from what I remember, but I’m not surprised that some aren’t.

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