I’m no Gordon Ramsay or Jamie Oliver, but I love to cook. I’ve even been told that I’m pretty good.
But it wasn’t always this way. I used to be eighty-pounds overweight, and my love for cooking was borne out of necessity.
Back in 2012, I decided that it was time to reign in my out-of-control relationship to food. After years of frozen pizza, delivery pizza, and boiling things that came in boxes with flavor packets, I knew that it was time to change.
And I did. I learned to live a much healthier life.
But last year, I took a job that requires travel for four to five days each week—which meant that I’d have to eat out almost all the time. And let’s face it: the narrative about “healthy living” isn’t kind to restaurants, gas stations, and fast-food. There’s a pervasive message that “eating out” makes us fat.
But I never did gain weight. Nor did this change affect my running, cycling, or climbing.
That’s why I decided to eat at gas stations for 30 days. After years of hearing that eating out is bad for our health, I wanted to put this myth to rest once and for all.
We lead busy lives, we work long hours, and some of us simply don’t want to spend our evenings preparing food. Visiting a restaurant or a gas station? It’s a perfectly rational choice in this modern age. The narrative needs to change.
Fortunately for those of us who want healthy options on-the-go, I discovered that the convenience-store industry is already moving in that direction. They know that there’s a market for healthy food, and some stores have invested a lot of time and effort into making it available.
According to a 2015 report by the Hudson Institute:
Consumers desire for convenience is a growing trend and a notable c-store opportunity. The number of c-store shoppers interested in healthy foods that can be eaten ‘on-the-go’ has increased from 59% to 66% in the past seven years, and healthier snacking has become the norm, with 75% of shoppers “interested in snacks that are nutritionally healthy.”
That’s why stores like Kwik Trip and Kwik Star have taken the lead and made big changes. Not only did they partner with the Partnership for a Healthier America, but each of their stores sells more than four-hundred pounds of bananas every day.
But I get it: the negative perception still exists, and when we think of gas station food, we often imagine rows of glistening, greasy roller-dogs spinning endlessly in all their shiny splendor. That’s why so many folks reached out to express astonishment that I managed to stay healthy while doing this for a month.
It’s also why I’ve decided to show you how it’s done.
Here’s six, actionable strategies.
#1: FIND “THE COOLER”
If you want to locate healthy food at gas stations, then begin your search at “the cooler”. I’m talking about the open-air, refrigerated coolers that are often visible from the moment you walk through the door.
This is where you’ll find things like yogurt, salads, hard-boiled eggs, string cheese, fruit cups, vegetable trays, sandwiches, and healthier drink options. Large stores like Sheetz may have two or three coolers, but many places have at least one.
Not everything in the coolers will be healthy, but many of the healthy options are found there.
I was concerned at the beginning of the experiment about finding fruit and vegetables. After all, they’re a major part of my diet. But more often than not, convenience stores sold some form of fruit and veggies in their coolers:
- QuikTrip sells a snack pack that contains carrots, cheddar cheese cubes, pretzels, and grapes
- Sheetz sells cups of various fruits as well as vegetable trays
- Kum & Go has vegetable trays and containers of grapes, pineapple, etc
- Hy-Vee Gas sells cups of various fruits and veggies: strawberries, mixed berries, grapes, celery and peanut butter, carrots, and occasionally broccoli
- GetGo sells vegetable trays and containers of fruit
- Love’s Travel Stops almost always has some sort of fruit or vegetables available in 12oz containers
And many places sell salads. That’s a great way to get carrots and other veggies.
#2: STICK TO “THE BASICS”
Not every gas station is like Sheetz, Kum & Go, or Kwik Trip. Sometimes they’re small, their choices are limited, or they’re just slow to adapt to this change in the industry.
In those situations, I often stuck to the basics.
Mixed nuts, low-sugar snack bars, small packs of salted cashews, beef jerky—you can find them almost everywhere. Packs of tuna are common as well. I often found them near the microwavable soup and condiments.
Some folks might disagree with me on these items, but let’s be honest: you can do much worse than a pack of salted cashews. It’s certainly better than pizza and cheeseburgers.
And this strategy is especially important if you’re on-the-go and just need a quick snack. Rather than reaching for a high-calorie choice—like some sandwiches—just grab a snack bar or a pack of nuts. 150 to 250 calories should get you at least another few hours.
My favorites options?
- Planter’s salted cashews
- KIND bars
- Peanut butter Bear Naked bars
- Quest bars
- Planters Sustaining Energy Mix (chocolate)
- Sahale’s cinnamon pecan bars (in my opinion, the most delicious snack bar on the market)
#3: LOOK FOR FRESH FRUIT
Fresh fruit is everywhere at gas stations these days.
More often than not, you’ll notice a basket or shelving system as you walk in the door. Bananas, apples, and oranges are the most widely-available options.
Or sometimes it’s located next to the cash register. I’ve seen Casey’s General Stores do this with apples, and many of the QuikTrip locations in Des Moines do the same with bananas.
Occasionally, however, you’ll stumble into a store like Kwik Trip or Hutch’s. Those take an approach more like actual grocery stores. Kwik Trip sells things like potatoes and onions, and I visited a Hutch’s in Kansas that has an entire produce cooler. Avocados, corn…you name it. This was great, of course, because local residents can just stop by to grab-and-go when they don’t want to drive all the way to the grocery store.
And as I’ve mentioned, many places sell fruit chunks in to-go containers. Sometimes you’ll find an above-average variety. I’ve been to CEFCO locations that sell mangoes, of all things, and Love’s Travel Stops have different choices from store-to-store—which keeps things exciting. I’ve seen cantaloupe, pineapple, watermelon, and even a wide assortment of veggies.
#4: CHOOSE SPARKLING WATER INSTEAD OF SODA
We’re all better off without sugary sodas.
Don’t get me wrong though: I love the way they taste. The re-release of Surge was one of the highlights of my life these past few years. I sat on the computer mashing F5 the day that Amazon made them available—just waiting for “buy now” to appear.
But sugar messes with me. I get jittery, have a difficult time speaking eloquently, and the crashes…the crashes are just god-awful!
Sugar also adds a lot of extra calories to our diets. I’ve known folks who regularly drink a twelve-pack of soda every day. That’s almost two-thousand calories! In college, I went through at least five or six cans each day.
That’s why sparkling water is awesome.
If you're struggling to stop drinking soda, then you might consider trying something like this. I normally drink Perrier or San Pellegrino, but this type of sparkling water has a bit more flavor. Obviously some people will criticize the fact that they contain artificial sweeteners, but hey…it's not thirty grams of sugar. That's what I'm concerned about. #30daysofgasstationfood #iowa #fairfield #healthyliving
I find that it satisfies the urge to drink soda. The carbonation, in particular, really helps. I know I’m not drinking Surge or Coca-Cola, but I feel like I’m drinking something other than boring-old-water.
My favorite? Perrier. The grapefruit and lime flavors are fantastic.
Some brands do contain artificial sweeteners though. These are usually the ones with bright colors and more aggressive flavors. Some folks have a problem with this, but I don’t. Say what you want about artificial sweeteners, but they’re not thirty grams of sugar. That’s what matters to me.
#5: IF YOU HAVE TO EAT SOMETHING NON-IDEAL, CHOOSE THE LOWER-CALORIE OPTION
Sometimes I didn’t find anything healthy.
Despite the fact that I believe Kum & Go and Sheetz should be available in every town around the United States, some towns just aren’t big enough to have those kind of stores.
That’s when I sometimes encountered sparse options and was faced with a choice: 1) something unhealthy, or 2) nothing.
But I’m of the opinion that the sky won’t fall if you eat an occasional unhealthy item. Nor will doing so destroy your diet, make you fat, or screw up your diary on MyFitnessPal.
Case in point: my coworker and I stopped at a behemoth of a gas station in Middle-of-Nowhere, Michigan. The sort of place with aggressive bumper stickers about gun rights and shirts with political messages.
Most of what they sold was either fried food or pizza—sometimes a combination of the two. After surveying the options, however, I chose a reasonable portion of popcorn shrimp. Was it ideal? No. Should I eat that food every day? Definitely not.
But I was fine. I’m sure it contained less calories than the pizza, and it seemed like a better choice than a towering cheeseburger with fries.
And you know what? I enjoyed every bite. Sometimes it’s okay to eat those things.
I stopped at this Speedway next to Detroit's airport, and while there weren't any vegetables, I did like their made-to-order system. Tons of options, customizable, and everything was clearly labeled with the total number of calories. Their website also has PDFs with complete nutritional info, and that makes it easy to enter into MyFitnessPal. #30daysofgasstationfood #speedway #speedycafe #detroit #michigan #gasstationlife #MyFitnessPal
#6: BE STRATEGIC
Gas stations are sort of like grocery stores: to have a successful shopping trip, you need to arrive with a plan and a purpose.
If you know, for example, that you’re going to pass through an area with small towns and a general lack of civilization, then stock up at a good convenience store before you leave. Buy enough for breakfast and lunch, or at least grab a few extra snack bars.
Or check what’s on the way before you leave. Love’s Travel Stops are often located in the middle of nowhere. When you enter the route for your road trip or lengthy drive into Google Maps, search to see if you’ll encounter one. Or check for a Pilot Flying J. Their PJ Fresh locations are phenomenal.
Regardless of what you do, however, just be intentional. Shop smart, and you’ll have no trouble staying healthy on-the-go.
Did I miss anything? Do you agree or disagree with something I said? Leave a comment and let me know!
You can also learn more about my “30 days of gas station food” experiment here. I link to my daily diaries on Reddit’s /r/loseit, and you can view my MyFitnessPal data.