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There are 1,668 fast food restaurants just along the US’s Historic Route 66. On long road trips, fast food is more than just the easiest, cheapest option – it seems to be the only option.

But there are ways to avoid wrecking your stomach with Happy Meals and Red Bull. Eating healthy, tasty food on the road is easier than it seems. It just takes a little planning.

What to pack
Having control over your meals is key, insists Rania Mekary, a nutrition specialist at the Harvard School of Public Health. "It's a lifestyle that applies whether travelling on the road or at home."

Pack a cooler with fresh foods. Simple dishes you can make ahead of time include pasta salad, chilled soup or gazpacho, salsa and guacamole. Romaine lettuce can convert the guacamole or salsa into lettuce wraps. To make those wraps more filling, bring steak or chicken strips (which you can sauté beforehand in olive oil).

If you do not have time to cook, pack ingredients for sandwiches and salads. Whole grain breads/tortillas, hard cheeses, cured meats, tomatoes, greens, bell peppers, hummus and peanut butter are good choices. Ripe avocado also makes for a tasty spread.

Mekary recommends eating small, frequent meals to keep your insulin levels in check. "Your stomach is like a pouch," she describes. "If you start adapting to a smaller size meal, your stomach will shrink, so you'll feel full more quickly. Then you'll get hungry again a few hours later."

This is preferable to snacking, says dietitian and nutrition blogger Jenna A. Bell. "Remember that you don't have to munch just because you're driving. Sipping water, singing along to music or listening to an audio-book will do just fine."

Healthy snacks like carrot sticks, celery sticks, apples, cherry tomatoes, strawberries, grapes and granola have enough crunch to keep you awake. For something savory, make a customized trail mix with dried fruit, pretzels, granola, wasabi peas, and pistachios (a good source of fiber and protein). If you are really craving junk food, opt for Baked Lays, SunChips, Goldfish or oatmeal cookies.

As for beverages, coffee and tea are fine choices, says Mekary. Just remember to alternate with water since caffeine dehydrates.

Making it last
Temperature and sanitation are the most important factors in making foods last, says Catherine Strohbehn, director of the Food Safety Project at Iowa State University. "Most bacteria will grow and reproduce very quickly in temperatures above 41 degrees Fahrenheit," she warns. As long as your cooler still contains some frozen ice, it is below 41.

Block ice melts more slowly than cubed ice. As a substitute, freeze several water bottles and use them as ice packs.

Safe preparation also keeps bacteria away. Before preparing and eating meals, advises Strohbehn, wash hands with soap and water. "When my family took long road trips, we'd eat lunch in the car, but we'd make it a point to take rest breaks to wash hands and get back in the car."

Another way to help lengthen the life of foods is to use natural preservatives. Vinegar or lemon juice, for instance, creates an acidic environment unfriendly to bacteria, Strohbehn points out. Onions can also be used to preserve foods, according to a study in the International Journal of Food Science and Technology. The author of that study, Jonathan Santas, of the University of Barcelona, explains that onions have antioxidant and antimicrobial properties that fight spoilage and recommends placing whole, raw, unpeeled onions in the foods you are trying to preserve.

It is also good to be aware of expiration dates for various foods. This food spoilage chart is a great resource.

When you have to stop

When you absolutely have to stop for fast food, you can still exercise choice. Subway has healthy sandwiches and even Dunkin' Donuts offers whole-grain bagels and egg-white sandwiches. If you are stuck with McDonald's, though, dietitian Bell has these tips: "Skip the fried food, no need for soft drinks, watch the cheese, easy on the mayo, hold the croutons, pass on the bacon and focus on the veggies when you can. The unfried variety!"

 

Travelwise is a BBC Travel column that goes behind the travel stories to answer common questions, satisfy uncommon curiosities and uncover some of the mystery surrounding travel. If you have a burning travel question, contact Travelwise here.

 

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