How to eat healthy food on a budget while traveling

roadtrip tips 3

It’s time for the third installment in my too-infrequent Road Trip Tips series. The first post discussed tips for sleeping in your vehicle while traveling, and part two focused on must-have gadgets for the budget road-tripper.

Now it’s time to talk food. Before my big cross-country journey two years ago, I was very concerned that I would pack on the pounds while I was on the road. I imagined that eating fast food and snacking all the time would result in huge weight gain.

To my shock, I ended up losing 10 pounds throughout the summer. And I managed to stick to a $7/day food budget. So I’ve put together a few tips for how travelers can eat a somewhat healthy diet while sticking to a budget.

Log your daily calories

Here’s the single most-important thing I did to watch my waistline. I created a spreadsheet and logged every item I ate everyday. I tracked my calories and fat content, making sure to keep my calories below 2,000 per day and fat content at less than 30% per day. If you track those two things religiously, you are pretty much guaranteed to lose weight.

These days, it’s even easier to do because your can find apps for your iPhone and Android that will calculate these totals for you if you simply punch in what you’re eating. Additionally, websites like are great resources for looking up the nutritional info for pretty much any food in the world.

Tracking everything allows you to indulge a bit without wrecking your diet. If you’re in Chicago and want to indulge in a couple slices of deep dish pizza, that’s totally cool! Just balance out your day with a big salad or other small dinner.

I actually went to the crazy extreme of also tracking sodium, carbs and cholesterol, but found these additional values to be mostly irrelevant. Here’s a sample daily menu from August 5, 2009:

sample daily menu

Eat fast food

Yes, I’m really suggesting that you eat fast food. You’re on a budget, remember? So you have to eat cheaply. Fast food is likely to be one of your most common meal options on the road, and that’s perfectly fine.

But it’s all about making smart choices. Just because you stop at Wendy’s doesn’t mean you have to eat the triple cheeseburger. Why not a chili, plain baked potato and side salad? In fact, that meal option is super affordable, because each of those items is on the dollar menu. So it’s better for your waist and your wallet.

Always use the dollar menu. It’s way cheaper than a “value meal,” and you don’t need the empty calories from a soda. I can’t tell you how many fast food meals I had on the road for less than $4 each.

Taco Bell has a dollar menu and a “Fresca” menu of items with low calorie content. Subway has the legendary $5 footlong, which is big enough to supply both lunch and dinner and provides lots of servings of fresh vegetables. Just remember to hold the cheese – and don’t add cookies on the side!

in n out burger

In-N-Out Burger may be delicious, but this stuff is going straight to your arteries!

No one’s forcing you to eat French fries. Make smart fast food choices and you can feed yourself for less than $7/day when you’re following these habits.

Keep water and snacks on hand

Aside from a few adult beverages (if you’re into that sort of thing), never drink anything other than water. The empty calories will go straight to your gut. And don’t keep buying bottles of water – those can cost up to $2 depending where you are, and that’s way too expensive.

Go to Target or another department store and load up on full gallons of water at 69 cents each. Then, use them to keep refilling your sports bottle as you go. It won’t be ice cold, but so what? You’re making sacrifices to save a few bucks.

You should also keep staple snacks around so you don’t find yourself wandering into the nearest 7-11 for donuts or Doritos. Granola bars, pretzels and nuts work great. I have a sweet tooth, so I always had a bag of low-fat Tootsie rolls on hand to satisfy that urge.

Stay active

I tend to do a lot of hiking, even in big cities. Walk whenever possible. A one-mile walk is only 15-20 minutes. There’s no reason to take a bus or cab if you’re within a mile or two of your destination! The extra steps add up to a lot of burned calories.

I suspect that, in addition to my diet, my weight loss was largely due to staying physically active and participating in activities like a grueling Grand Canyon hike.

grand canyon hike

Consider cooking your own food

I’m not one of those people who insists that you should always avoid restaurants and cook your own food. In fact, I think that’s a horrible idea. For me, a huge part of getting the full cultural experience of a place is sampling the local cuisine. I would feel like I missed out if I spent a month in some foreign city cooking all my meals in my hostel kitchen.

But it is a smart idea to cook your own food every once in a while. One option is to take a small grill with you and buy chicken and veggies from local groceries to grill up.

Or, bring along a portable stove like the one I wrote about in my list of must-have gadgets for the budget road tripper. Just plug the stove into your cigarette lighter and cook up canned items right inside your vehicle. Cans of low-fat chili and ravioli usually cost only $1, and they’ll do a lot less damage to your arteries than curly fries and chicken fingers!

And don’t forget to seek out fresh local produce at farmer’s markets. Failing that, a giant $3 bag of apples from Walmart will last two weeks and help keep the doctor away.

Road Trip Tips Conclusion: Eating healthy food on a budget

Eating cheaply while traveling is not hard, and with some smart choices, your diet can be both affordable and reasonably healthy. How sweet will it be to come home from your trip with not only with great tales from the road, but also a noticeable weight loss?


  1. XDDD I see you ordered a protein burger from in-n-out ^^ Do you know how hard it is to log the calories T_T Especially you have to face the hard reality of how much you ate that day….eeek

    But this is a useful post though. I know I can easily gain 5 pounds in a week while traveling. ^_^

    1. You caught me with the in-n-out burger meal! I had to use the pic since it was the only fast food pic I had. I would obviously not recommend eating there often 🙂

  2. We’re huge fans of homemade quesadillas – we just grab some whole wheat tortillas, a can of black beans, some frozen or canned corn, cheese, and a tomato and we’re good to go! It’s our lazy meal that’s relatively healthy and super easy to cook. Which is why we eat it at least twice a week, lol.

  3. Nice tips. I normally eat fruits and drink fruit juices… Also, since I am a veggie, there is such a huge variety of dishes here. Also roadside food, I love it!!

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