I have been spending a lot of time on the road lately. In September I was activated for Operation Allies Refuge for nearly an entire month and was shuttling refugees from Afghanistan all over the country. In October I participated in numerous training flights in Florida, North Carolina, and other places that I can’t recall (it’s kind of all blending together now). In November we had a large scale mobility exercise in Wisconsin followed by a couple weeks of local flying. I have been spending A LOT of time in hotels lately.

Life on the road usually means most of your food will come from restaurants and convenience store shelves. As part of being on an aircrew in the Air Force many times you will find yourself heading out to eat together as a crew and finding whatever restaurant is open after landing late in the evening. Weeks of being on the road can add up to thousands of extra calories consumed from restaurants and assorted snacks we bring onto the plane for longer flights.

How you manage your time and eating on the road can either pay dividends towards your health or lead you to packing on an additional ten pounds. My job depends on being able to pass an annual flight physical, so a surprise ten pounds is something I must avoid. Here are some things I do on the road to make sure I am doing the best I can to avoid developing bad habits.

1) First, I remind myself that life on the road is never going to be perfect. Restaurant food has a lot of sodium. Restaurant food is rarely ever “clean.” Many days, I will not be able to train or workout like I would like to. When we land late at night, the only thing that will be open to eat is likely fast food restaurants. It’s important to have a mindset of improvement and not perfection. If you’re constantly obsessing over eating quality food on the road you will drive yourself crazy. Instead, just remind yourself that you will do the best you can, and at the very least do your best to not over-consume calories. Many times just eating less is the best step forward, especially when you take into consideration the amount of calories on a restaurant plate. Let’s face it, when you’re with a group of co-workers, sometimes the group will choose to go out for pizza one night. Go out with your group, enjoy the pizza, and don’t be weird (but also don’t eat an entire deep dish to yourself).

2) Next, Plan, plan, plan. Say you’re on the road for a week for work. A week isn’t long enough to necessarily develop habits, however if you have a general idea of what your work schedule will look like you can do some very effective planning. When we get to a new place, I know our exact take off times will probably be very fluid but that doesn’t stop me from finding a grocery store and buying lean meats, vegetables (usually items to make salads), and fruits to pack into easy to go tupperware. This ensures that I won’t succumb to incessant cravings when we land late at night. If I don’t have something prepared I will find myself eating taco belch or something I really don’t want to eat. If I have something in my flight bag that I can eat quickly it will keep me from over eating other items.

3) Oops, you didn’t plan very well and now you’re incredibly hungry and you’re at a restaurant!!! What do you do?!?!?! No matter what restaurant you find yourself at, you can likely still follow my 1/3 rule. When you’re ordering food I want you to visualize your plate cut into thirds. One third of that plate should be a lean meat, one third should be some type of vegetable, and the other third should be some type of starchy carb. Lean meat and vegetable choices are easy, but what do starchy carb choices look like? For me that would be sweet potatoes (preferably not coated in syrup and brown sugar), black beans, squash, zucchini, brown rice, etc.

4) Identify the culprits! Meat takes a lot of the heat for unhealthy eating in this country. Animal protein gets blamed for our obesity crisis and environmental issues. If you want to know what I think pull me aside in the office some time and I’ll be happy to explain my contemplations on that issue. In short, meat is NOT the problem. Let’s use a quick example. Let’s say you were on the road and went out to eat with your group of co-workers at a mexican restaurant. Let’s say you ordered chicken fajitas (my go-to at mexican restaurants). The chicken and vegetables were probably cooked in some oils I would generally avoid, and is probably laden with salt, but all in all, it’s likely your best choice at that particular restaurant. If I were to talk to you the following week and ask what you ate, you would probably tell me “chicken fajitas.” Everyone always remembers when they ate a serving of meat, but if I were to ask you how many grams of carbs you ate at that restaurant, you would have no idea. Let’s look a little deeper at that trip to the restaurant. How many chips did you eat? How many calories did you drink in the form of Modelo, margaritas, wine, etc? How many of the tortillas did you eat with the fajitas? Look, I’m not anti carbohydrate, but the reality is that carbs are where we add in a ridiculous amount of extra calories, and when it comes to eating out, extra carbs are the culprit. Chips at the Mexican restaurant (my weakness), bread and olive oil at the Italian restaurant, and alcohol pretty much everywhere all add up. Don’t lose sleep over doing that once in awhile, however, if you’re out of town regularly, like I am, be very conscious of it.

5) Plan your stay and choose the right hotel (if possible), and adapt/improvise if you can not. In flight school two years ago, I was in San Antonio for 2 months living in a hotel room. Usually I prefer extended stay types of hotels that have a kitchen and a means for me to prepare my own food, however I spent two months in a traditional hotel room on this particular trip. This length of stay can be pretty dangerous when you may be forced to eat out for nearly every meal. To account for this, I went to the store, got myself an instant pot (that I had to hide from room service, back when room service was a thing), and prepared food every day that I would eat for dinner and the following day for lunch. During a two month stay in a hotel I was able to lose five pounds (I was trying to lose weight). It all came down to discipline. I define discipline as doing something you don’t want to do, healthy habits, on the other hand, are doing things because you’ve created habits that you actually enjoy.. Let’s face it, I would’ve been more than happy eating out for every meal! This is where I had to stay disciplined and prepare food on a regular basis to avoid the trappings of being in San Antonio where every restaurant is amazing.

6) Last, prioritize yourself. Traveling for work is not a break from your regular life. You have to prioritize your health on the road. Just because you jumped on a plane and flew home from the work trip doesn’t mean that the choices you made will stay behind. They will follow you. Don’t be obsessive about food choices, but remain cognizant that choices you make will carry consequences when you return home. If you don’t travel for work often, no big deal, but if you find yourself on the road for several weeks each month as I have been doing lately, it can add up very quickly.