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Tips from a dietitian: Eat healthy on vacation

Monday - 8/11/2014, 2:21am  ET

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There's no need to avoid all treats on vacation, but there are ways you can eat healthy when driving or flying to your travel destination. (AP Composite)

WASHINGTON -- There's no sense in depriving yourself of lobster rolls and ice cream cones on summer vacation -- or apple cider doughnuts and IPAs as we ease into fall -- but not every meal needs to be an indulgence when traveling.

Toby Smithson, a registered dietitian nutritionist and a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, has some tips on eating healthy on vacation -- whether you're hitting the road, taking to the skies, traveling to Europe or relaxing at the beach.

A road trip that doesn't lead to a spare tire

If your trip involves time spent on the road, the best thing you can do to eat healthy is prepare.

"The good thing about the road trip is, you have a little bit more control over what you're eating," Smithson says.

The highways are littered with fast-food chains and restaurant establishments that serve up high-fat, high-sodium foods, so if you can pack your own food and avoid stopping at all, that's your best bet. But before you start planning what you're going to pack, think about how you are going to pack it.

"Healthy food can start out as healthy food, but if you don't keep your food safe, that could ruin your whole trip," Smithson says.

A simple cooler or cooler bag with an ice pack or two will keep you in the clear for a few hours. And one of the easiest things to throw into it is a bunch of low-fat cheese sticks, Smithson says. There is no mess involved with the pre-packaged sticks, and they pack a bit of protein and some calcium.

Carrot sticks, cucumber sticks, fresh fruit slices and cherry tomatoes are also perfect for the car and are easy to prepare. As for non-perishable items, Smithson recommends whole-grain crackers, soy nuts and sandwiches with nut butters. These options are all filling -- so you're not tempted by those fast-food fries and burgers -- and simple to throw in the back seat.

If you have to stop on your trip, and are limited to the typical chain/fast-food restaurant options, Smithson says you can plan ahead for this too (or use your smart phone in the car).

Check the restaurant's website; most list their menu items and their nutritional content online, so you can see ahead of time what the healthier options are.

For example, a grilled Southwest chicken McWrap from McDonalds may seem like a healthy selection, but a McDonalds hamburger is by far the better option. It has 240 calories and 8 grams of fat, compared to the 520-calorie wrap that has 20 grams of fat.

Smithson also says you shouldn't be afraid to ask for what you want.

"One of the best tips I have is to remember you are the customer. So if there are certain things you need with your meal, whether it's something to be left off or to be modified, you have the option to ask for it."

Because food allergies and dietary restrictions are so common, she says most restaurants abide by requests and are accustomed to making changes to their menu items.

Fill up, don't fill out, when flying

If you're jetting to your travel destination, Smithson recommends packing non- perishables (nuts, nut butters and dried fruit) to tide you over and keep you from ordering a $6 box of candy on the plane.

"Nuts and nut butters are fine to get through TSA, and those are a good source of healthy fats. They're also a source of protein and they travel well," Smithson says.

If your flight includes a meal, you can customize it ahead of time with the airline by choosing a low-calorie or vegetarian option.

Dining at your destination

There are a few different things you can do to keep things in check at your vacation destination. For starters, don't feel obligated to finish meals when you dine out -- especially if you have access to a refrigerator where you're staying.

Ask the waiter to bring half of your order to the table and box up the other half for lunch the next day. That will save you calories and money. Don't have a fridge? Don't be shy about sharing with someone at your table.

If you're traveling to Europe, Smithson says, you might notice a difference in the portion sizes.

"Their portions are a little bit more manageable; they meet the guidelines a little bit closer than what we are super-sizing over here," she says. This automatically helps you to not overeat.

You can also skip a seated lunch and explore a local farmers market or small grocery store and pick up a makeshift lunch of fresh fruit, seasonal vegetables, fresh cheese and locally baked breads. You'll also get a slice of the destination's culture.

If you're renting a house with a kitchen, Smithson says it's fun -- and healthy -- to have each family member bring a favorite recipe. Assign everyone a night to make his or her dish, and try to put a healthy spin on it.

"Going to the grocery store, you have control, too, to pick out the healthier version of different food choices. It doesn't have to be the fat-laden meat; it could be the leaner cut. You have a little more control over making your recipes the healthier version," Smithson says.

But Smithson's biggest piece of advice is to always find a way to add fruits and vegetables to your meals -- something even she forgets to do while traveling.

"I know I'm a dietitian, but when I'm traveling, I tend to eat fewer fruits and vegetables. It's really important and we tend to miss that a lot," she says.

Smithson says that even if her entrée comes with a vegetable, she makes it a point to order a side salad for some extra greens.

"No matter where you're eating, whether it's on the plane, in the train, in the automobile, when you're going away, make sure that you add produce. Adding fruits and vegetables can really fill you up without filling you out."

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