Vacation is a time many people look forward to all year long; an opportunity to finally relax and let loose. And for most people, this involves a little flexibility with certain aspects of their everyday routines—particularly in the food and exercise departments.
Often, vacation means moving less and eating more—and our options might not always be quite as nutritious as what we have readily available at home. “We’re faced with overflowing buffet breakfasts, meals out at restaurants, or fast food on the road,” says California-based dietitian Sharon Palmer, R.D. “The choices may be more decadent, higher in calories, saturated fat, sugar, and sodium, and lower in whole grains, fruits, and vegetables.”
It can be fun to give ourselves an opportunity to indulge, but going overboard can leave us feeling bloated and lethargic upon returning home. That’s why most dietitians recommend that their clients don’t completely abandon their usual routines when vacationing. “Making an effort to eat regular meals and maintain some sort of movement will help you stay on track,” notes dietitian Nora Saul, R.D., of Silver Fern Healthcare in Hartford, Connecticut.
This doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy yourself while on vacation, though! Here, five registered dietitians share the tactics they use to eat healthy on vacation while still indulging in their favorite treats.
1. They Set realistic goals
If you find your goals hard to follow at home, it’s safe to assume that they will be even more challenging to accomplish while you’re on vacation and out of your normal environment and routine.
When taking a vacation, Saul recommends shifting your goals to keep them realistic. “If you have been trying to lose weight, for example, decide that your aim is simply to maintain your weight,” she says. “If you always have four cups of vegetables a day at home, say you will choose two vegetables instead of a starch at dinner and buy baby carrots to snack on during the day.” Creating a realistic framework for yourself ensures you don’t set yourself up for failure.
2. They Reach For Local Cuisine
Before traveling, Saul likes to research the cuisine native to the region she’s visiting that she has not tried before. “Whether that is paella in Spain or beignets in New Orleans, these should be on your list of fun foods to try (assuming you are not allergic or need to follow medical dietary restrictions),” she says. “Knowing you’re going to include these foods can make it easier to avoid other unhealthy, ubiquitous offerings that you can find anywhere, like French fries or bread before dinner.”
3. They Stock Up at a grocery store upon arrival
When she first arrives at her destination, Monica Auslander Moreno, M.S., R.D., founder of Essence Nutrition in Miami, always stops at a local grocery or convenience store to stock up on basics like fruits (think oranges, bananas, and/or apples), nuts, seeds, jerky, low-sugar bars, and dark chocolate. “Keep these in your hotel room or at your lodging so that you always have a healthy option to snack on should you get hungry when all that’s around you is indulgent offerings,” she says. To stay healthy on vacation, you’ve got to be prepared when hunger strikes!
4. They play a game of ‘give and take’
Another tactic Auslander Moreno uses to enjoy herself on vacation without feeling like she’s overindulging is to strategize about when and how she treats herself. “If you know you’re going to a killer ice cream place in the afternoon, try to make the rest of your meals feel good for you by choosing healthy options,” says Auslander Moreno. “If you know brunch is going to be decadent, maybe you’ll feel better with salads the rest of the day, and if you know it’s going to be a heavy social night with alcohol, maybe don’t drink for a few days before or after.”
5. They Drink a full glass of water before each meal
Hydration is important, especially on vacations in warmer climates or filled with alcoholic beverages that can be dehydrating. For this reason, Florida-based dietitian Lee Cotton, R.D.N., always aims to drink one full glass of water before meals. Not only does this ensure she stays hydrated, but it also helps balance her hunger cues and aids digestion.
6. They communicate their health goals with others
Friends and family you travel with but don’t live with may not seem encouraging of your goals, often because they’re simply not familiar with your lifestyle. That’s why The Vitamin Shoppe nutritionist Brittany Michels, R.D.N., recommends having a conversation prior to trips about everyone’s needs and wants in order to create a plan for food and drink. This way, you know you’ll be able to eat healthy on vacation in advance—and save yourself from a lot of stress while away.
“When I go on a girls’ trip, food intolerances are on the top of the discussion list, since we all have at least one,” she says. “We’ll send restaurant menus in a group text for voting and also talk about eating regimens, such as keto, intermittent fasting, or elimination diets so we can successfully accommodate everyone.” Communicating—and in advance—is key.
7. They build their plates wisely
Though you can’t always anticipate what types of foods will be on a restaurant menu, you can usually ask for substitutes when eating out. Michels aims to build each meal she orders around lean protein (such as steak, chicken, tofu, or fish) and makes sure half of the plate contains non-starchy vegetables—a formula you can accomplish at most restaurants.
8. They Have Light breakfasts
Since people tend to sleep in more on vacation, many find themselves eating breakfast awfully close to lunchtime. To avoid feeling overly stuffed for that next meal, Palmer likes to keep breakfast light on later mornings. She recommends opting for a piece of fruit or handful of nuts to start the day off on a healthy note and hold you over until lunchtime. “I like to get in touch with my body’s feelings and be more mindful during vacation,” she says. “I enjoy a special meal so much more when I’m looking forward to it and my body is actually hungry instead of when I feel like I already overindulged.”
Bonus Tip: They Incorporate physical activity
Even if you’re hoping to take a break from your standard exercise regimen while on vacation (totally understandable!), it’s still a good idea to sneak some movement into your day. “I like to fit in activities that are physical, such as kayaking, hiking, or biking into my daily activities,” Palmer says. “This can help provide more energy and good feelings, and improve digestion.”
If your trip doesn’t quite lend itself to these activities, you can still get moving by opting to walk instead of taking a cab or Uber as often as possible, she suggests. This not only helps you get more steps in but also gives you a chance to see the city or countryside you’re visiting.