Meal planning for travel

Like a lot of people I travel throughout the year for my job, about 3-4 days per month. And one of the things that I dread is knowing I’m going to eat like crap. It’s like the previous 25 days of eating clean go right down the drain.

Could meal planning for travel help?

Here is my experience on a quick two day trip to Portland to evaluate the Les Schwab Invitational (LSI). My goal was to eat as well as possible while I was gone. To do this I needed to layout the trip and decide what my target caloric intake would be along with macros. And then I actually had to stick to the plan.

Here’s how I did.

The Trip

This is the schedule we had for the trip (I was traveling with my brother). We’ve done this trip before so I was confident I could put together a decent meal plan.

Day 1 – Our flight left BOI at 6:05 AM and got to PDX at 6:30 AM. Games started at 9:30 AM and the eighth and final game ended around 10:30 PM. There was a short break for lunch around 2:30 PM.

Day 2 – We stayed at a hotel in Hillsboro (near the gym) and games started this morning at 8:30 AM. We got wind of another tournament in Canby (about an hour away) with a player we needed to see and was playing at 4:00 PM. So after catching four games at the LSI we headed over there. Our flight left PDX at 9:30 PM and got back to BOI at 11:45 PM.

Why is it so hard?

Since 2001 I’ve been traveling for work. I’ve found the biggest reasons that I have trouble eating exactly the way I want comes down to three factors: lack of control, peer pressure and fatigue.

The Lack of Control When you travel

When you are on the road, you are likely in an area you may not be totally familiar. You don’t know where restaurants and grocery stores are located, how close they are to your hotel (or workplace) or even how you can get around town on your own. Additionally, you may not have a refrigerator, stove or even microwave to help with meal prep.

Peer Pressure

We aren’t talking high school peer pressure. We’re talking about being professional with those you are traveling or working with. There can be pressure to eat certain things when your company caters lunch or have a few drinks when you go out after work with your colleagues. Nobody is forcing you to consume anything. But with everyone else around you doing it, this can be tough. However, most of the time you can’t miss them because they offer great opportunities to network and build team chemistry.


This may not affect everyone but when I travel I’m way more worn out. Traveling on planes, trains or automobiles (or in our case often buses) is draining. Plus, unless you are at a hotel that uses the same mattress that you do at home, a good night’s sleep is elusive. For me, when I’m tired I tend to eat more and what is convenient. And it usually isn’t healthy.

The plan

Knowing all of these obstacles, I set out to have the best possible experience.

Step 1 – Set a goal

Since I wasn’t going to be working out and was going to spend 90% of my time sitting, I wan’t to bring my calorie intake down a bit. I typical eat a balanced 3,100 calories a day so my goal was to eat around 2,500 calories each day and keep the macros as equal as possible.

Step 2 – Pack what you can control

I wanted to bring as many calories with me as possible. That way I could control at least a portion of what I would be eating.

Spending about 20 minutes designing a daily plan, I factored in things like almonds, protein powder and protein bars. All things that I could measure, seal up and throw in my back pack. I was flying to liquids were out. And I would have access to a fridge so things like yogurt and meats were out too.

I subtracted the total calories and macros from my meal plan to see what I still needed.

Step 3 – Factor in the inevitable

There were a few things that I knew were going to happen on this trip so just factored them in to the plan.

First, I knew I would be having a mocha each morning. This is a bad road trip habit of mine but it was going to happen so I needed to account for it.

Second, I knew that we’d be eating lunch with coaches each day and that we’d be having a beer with coaches the first night. Additionally, I knew we’d be hitting a McDonald’s for breakfast on the way to the gym on Day 2.

I subtract all of these calories and macros to figure out what I have left.

Step 4 – Fill in the gaps, prepare to be flexible

At this point my meal plan was basically done. I only needed a few more items to bring it all together. Since I didn’t know where I would be getting them, I quickly looked up some potential items.

The gym would have popcorn and pizza. The hotel would likely have orange juice, muffins and oatmeal. We might be able to hit a grocery store for apples, protein bars or yogurt. I wrote them all down and was ready to fill in where needed.

When I finished planning there were three things I knew: I was prepared to eat right, nothing goes according to plan and my success was totally dependent on my discipline to stick with it.

How it went

Game time. As expected, in the beginning everything is easy. There are no tests of will power or obstacles thrown in your way. Wake up, eat your first item, don’t miss your flight.

By breakfast I was already subbing in some alternatives, trading future calories for the present. Same thing for lunch. By dinner I was right around my daily goal. Unfortunately my fatigue got the best of me. I ordered a burger with tater tots. The burger is not a horrible choice but the tater tots…probably should pass on those.

Day 2 went pretty much according to plan. The drive to Canby threw things off a bit. Had planned on grabbing some chicken from Fred Meyer but the hour long drive and new area left few options. Grabbed a burrito. But the sides got me again, this time falling victim to the chips and salsa.

It is hard to measure restaurant food because there is know what to know how it was made or how much it weighs. I’d guess I went high each day by about 300 calories and my carbs were off the charts.

What to change and consider

Ultimately, in the bigger picture, the meal planning was a good use of my time. Though I didn’t achieve my goal I certainly had better awareness of what I was eating and made better, though not perfect choices. I hadn’t done so much damage on the road that it would take me a month to recover.

A couple of things that came to my attention:

When traveling with someone, they have to eat too. And they probably aren’t thinking about meal planning. However, with more research on the area, I can suggest some restaurants or grocery stores that offer what I want. That would give a little more control.

Side dishes are killer! I planned for the main items but neglected the sides. That is where a lot of the calories added up.