Why would you care about healthy restaurants when you're heading out on vacation?
Believe me, after a couple days of a road trip, eating junk gets old. It can also make you tired and logy, which is the last thing you want when you're driving 6-10 hours per day.
We're here to help you find some nutritious food on your road trip. First, let's define what we mean by healthy restaurants.
"Healthy" can mean different things to different people. But most would agree that it's a good idea to eat something green once in a while. Avoid ultra-salty foods. Steer clear of the greasy and the fried. And try not to load up on empty carbs.
So, healthy is what you make of it. You could go to healthy restaurants and always order the most decadent dishes on the menu, and you probably wouldn't have very healthy meals.
Having said that, here are some restaurants that offer a wider range of healthy options:
Salad bars: It may seem like a cliche to tell people to load up on salad, but at least at a salad bar, most of the options are natural and you have complete control over what you eat. Be on the lookout for a Souplantation, Sweet Tomatoes, Souper Salad, or Fresh Choice.
Souplantation/Sweet Tomatoes (same chain, different name in different parts of the country) features fresh produce and a number of homemade items. Souper Salad boasts a no-fry, trans-fat-free menu.
Now, you'll read articles where someone has done a nutritional analysis of two or three really unhealthy items at the salad bar and then they proceed to question the healthiness of the whole enterprise. But I'm sure you're smart enough to realize that ice cream still contains calories no matter where you consume it. On the whole, these are healthy restaurants.
The healthier sit-downs: Mimi's Cafe has an extensive selection of healthier entrees. The chicken salads there are an adventure - huge and delicious. The cooking oil is trans-fat-free. Oh, and fresh-baked muffins, which may not be healthy, but at least they're not fried or overprocessed.
Stuck in a rotation of burger-pasta-chicken salad? Elephant Bar is a good place for variety. They offer a wide selection of seafoods and Asian dishes to break up the American fare.
Ruby Tuesday is the only chain restaurant where I've ever eaten bison. Now, I must admit I have no idea whether bison is actually healthier than other kinds of meat. But it shows you Ruby Tuesday is thinking outside the box.
At last check, their website was pushing "Fresh Taste, Fresh Place," and offering "Smart Eating Choices" such as Sauteed Baby Portabella Mushrooms and White Bean Chicken Chili.
Mexican: I had a Mexican meal the other day that was anything but healthy. It was loaded with melted cheese, salt, fatty meat, and starches. Boy, was it good. Maybe traditional sit-down Mexican places aren't very healthy restaurants?
If you're thinking Mexican, try some of the lighter dishes they're serving at places like Border Grill, On the Border, and Chevys. They often use fresher ingredients and put more emphasis on guacamole, black beans, and tomatoes than rice, tortillas, and chips.
Quick options: Depending on how disciplined you are, you should be able to eat a pretty good meal at Boston Market. Think white meat chicken, green beans, steamed vegetables, and a piece of cornbread. Some locations have drive-thru, though this obviously isn't the kind of food you can eat while driving.
The jury is still out on whether bread is healthy. Let's say it's healthy in moderation and then talk about Panera. They take great pride in their bread, and they offer several organic and antibiotic-free ingredients. Plus free WiFi, which is always important for a road warrior.
You could do worse than Panda Express. Yes, there are concerns about the sodium and sugar content of Chinese food, but I can also distinctly remember seeing broccoli last time I visited a Panda Express. That, by definition, makes it a healthy enough restaurant to be included on this list.
Or what about these pita places that are popping up? You can get a light and tasty meal at PitaPit or one of its cousins.
Think outside the box: I have a buddy who spent four years as a traveling salesman in the upper Midwest. One year, he spent 183 nights in hotels.
Eager to conserve his per diem and avoid gaining 80 pounds, he got into the habit of finding the Whole Foods store in each of the towns he visited most. At dinnertime, he would go to the food bar and get soup or a salad, plus a bottle of Kombucha. He would eat right there in the seating area. I think he left that job lighter than when he went in.
So, good luck in your quest to find healthy restaurants on your road trip. With these tips and a little advance planning, it won't be too difficult.