Ode to the Traveling Pantry

August 3, 2011

Often I remind my patients that it is much easier to make a poor food choice in this country than a healthy one.  Our brains are bombarded by marketing that evokes all senses and arouses all emotions.  Unfortunately, the majority of what is offered is of poor quality (and that’s putting it lightly, in my opinion).

How often have you had a ‘sour stomach,’ felt overwhelmingly tired, or wondered guiltily how many calories were in that meal or snack that you got at a (fill in the blank):  cafeteria, restaurant, county fair, bar, or sporting event?  Washington, D.C. has made great strides in providing nutritional information at restaurant chains so we can be aware of what we ingest, yet I still find the options limiting and unacceptable.  I can make hamburgers, chicken sandwiches, and salads that taste amazing, have more nutritional value, and have a fraction of the fat and calories of some public vendors.  It’s sad to see what could be a healthy meal messed up by poor ingredients and improper cooking techniques.

The Washington, D.C. metro area is unique with its abundance of Whole Foods grocery stores, ethnic restaurants, and healthier chain options.  Still, malls, airports, sporting events, and office buildings often reveal a lack of healthy options.  Also unfortunate is that the cheapest food is often the most unhealthful, and the healthy options are often quite pricey.

Recently I visited a friend in the hospital.  Not sure of what the cafeteria options would be, I packed a turkey sandwich (stuffed high with avocado, tomato, mustard, and sprouts), almonds, an apple, and Greek yogurt.  One would think – hope – that a healthcare facility would have healthy options.  After all, one goes to a hospital to heal and improve their health, correct?  Why then, did I find pizza, fried chicken, and pastries adorning the hospital cafeteria?  Similarly, I attended the Washington, D.C. Health and Fitness Expo last spring.  I was shocked and personally offended to see chicken fingers, French fries, and funnel cake vendors…and what’s more, people were eating them!  Where are the roasted vegetables, lean proteins, and whole grain options?  Why don’t we see dishes with kale, green beans, or eggplant?  Why don’t we see meals for less than 500 calories that actually taste good and make us feel full?

The government has made recent strides in their new choosemyplate.gov movement which promotes that each meal be comprised of half fruits and vegetables.  While a positive goal for us each to work on, the choices that we are presented with don’t support this way of eating.  When I was in India a couple of years ago, I asked a hip woman living in Mumbai if she enjoyed American food when she visited.  She stated that the pizza made her sick, she didn’t like the Chinese food, and the smell of some of the other options made her nauseous.  Pizza?  Chinese food?  Are these really the foundation of the American diet?  I was embarrassed that a foreigner traveling to the US couldn’t see past the fast food and chain restaurants and find the more hidden gems.  Since poor food choices are so prevalent, it’s not surprising that was all she could see.

I recently went to a Nationals baseball game armed with my traveling pantry.  While my boyfriend and I got some teasing from his guy friends for eating grapes, celery and humus, apples, turkey wraps, and homemade tofu cutlets, they all participated in helping us to eat our snacks.  The girl sitting behind us remarked to her friend, “That’s what I want – fresh fruit and vegetables.”

Please, don’t get me wrong.  I am not a party pooper, and there are times when it is ok to indulge in some “naughty food.”  I love food, and food makes me happy.  As I’ve mentioned before in my blog, I used to weigh over 200 pounds.  What I’ve learned over the years is how to still enjoy some of my old favorite tastes and flavors by bulking up on satiating, fulfilling, and nutritionally dense foods.  One of the reasons that I brought my traveling pantry was so that I could save some of my calorie expenditure (and cash) on beer and peanuts.  On this particular day I chose not to have a hot dog, but in my opinion a hot dog at a baseball stadium hits the spot and is appropriate on occasion (Yankee stadium being the best venue!).  (Side note: while not full of nutritional benefits, at about 300 calories, a hot dog is relatively low in calories in comparison to other stadium food offerings.)  Nationals stadium now posts caloric information on all of its foods.  While some may choose to ignore these facts, I find myself wanting to avoid an 800 calorie “snack.”

If a baseball game is at least 3 hours, with travel time and arriving early, the entire journey can be at least 5 hours.  If I hadn’t brought my pantry, I likely would have gotten hungry after a hot dog, some peanuts, and a couple of beers.  I could have tried to tough it out and wait until getting home to eat again, but then I risk the chance of being famished, grumpy, and wanting to make a poor food choice or overeat to feel better.  If I didn’t have my own food, I would have been forced to decide between French fries, pretzels, popcorn, pizza, etc. all of which were ridiculously high in calories and were sure to take my blood sugars out of optimal range.

It should be no surprise by now that you are going to get hungry.  Several times a day.  If you leave your house for more than a couple of hours, chances are you will need to eat before you return.  Maintaining stable blood sugar levels requires you to eat regularly and often, likely every 3-5 hours.  Are you willing to take a gamble and buy an overpriced, nutritionally deficient, calorie laden, poor-quality ingredient meal or snack?

What we eat will affect how we feel for 2-5 hours after each snack or meal.  Food should be seen as a drug – it sets off a cascade of hormonal responses that affect our energy level, brain function, and mood.  Are you looking to lose weight?  Are you fighting a chronic illness like cancer?  Are you trying to avoid an upset stomach and extreme fatigue and mood swings after eating?  Then don’t be at the mercy of American food choices, and take control of your own situation.  Always have a small snack in your purse, desk, or car, in case you find yourself running low on blood sugar and need to stabilize yourself until you can get to a proper meal.  (Roasted and salted almonds work well as they last a long time and don’t melt.)  If you are going to be out for a longer time, know that you will get hungry, and plan accordingly.  I hang my traveling pantry on the back of my office door and refer to it often when coaching patients.  The pantry needn’t be fancy and can be a canvas tote, insulated cooler, or recycled grocery bag.

Remember, the choice is yours, and you are what you eat.

In good health,



4 Responses to “Ode to the Traveling Pantry”

  1. Bonnie Says:

    So true! (and let’s not even get into the availability of drinkable water…) Thanks for getting out there and saying it! 🙂

  2. may benatar Says:

    thanks, molly.
    i am now traveling for what will be a 10 day round trip journey
    from my kitchen back to my kitchen and finding it extremely difficult to eat well. the airport (almost all of them!) are great examples of emporiums of crummy foods.
    you are reminding me to stock up on nuts and such for our trip.


  3. karen Says:

    Dear Molly…I loved this entry
    I think when I don’t take responsibility for preparing ahead it is because (1) I am looking for an excuse to have junk food (2) I am ill prepared at home because I haven’t made this my priority (3) kind of laziness sets in.
    It would be great if there were food regulations that helped and encouraged us to be healthier…BUT come on…this feels like another excuse…When it is important to do something most of us don’t need “regulations” to get the job done…I appreciate your encouragement to take responsibility for my own health and I am working daily to make the changes not excuses to reach my goals..Thanks for all your efforts to teach me how I can help myself………………KjS

  4. Dawn Says:

    To continue along your line of thinking, while breastfeeding I need to be even more mindful than usual about what I eat. Not only do I have urges to eat more often, and in greater quantities, but with my hands full I mostly seek out quick snacks between meals (or during feedings). If I didn’t prepare ahead of time to stock my kitchen with already cut melon, vegetables, hard boiled eggs and whole wheat crackers, I imagine I would be pulling out our stash of miniature candy bars (which I typically save only when really craving a dessert!)

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