Beyoncé’s bumping on the radio, your bestie’s sitting shotgun, and you have the open road in front of you. But when your stomach starts grumbling halfway through your road trip you realize—tragedy of tragedies—you’ve depleted your stash of Trader Joe’s snacks. Do you power through to your final destination, or take the next exit and try your luck at Shell?
Indeed, it appears that gas stations might be the final frontier of nutritious eating (heck, even airports are getting healthy makeovers); finding a filling, nourishing snack among the rows of Cheetos and gummy bears is tough even for nutritionists. But that doesn’t mean it’s impossible. If you do opt to fuel up while you, well, fuel up, there are some super-helpful guidelines to follow.
Step one? Look for real food. “Ideally, you want to try to get things that are close to how they exist in nature,” says holistic nutritionist Barbara Mendez, R.Ph. M.S.
That’s not her only tip—here, Mendez and other healthy eating pros share their advice for filling up (your stomach).
Keeping reading for expert advice on navigating the gas station aisles.
To satisfy your hunger…
All three nutrition experts named raw, unsalted nuts as the easiest and best-for-you choice in a pinch. “[Nuts] are packed with protein and healthy fat for a quick snack in the car,” says Angela Stanford, RDN, and certified health and wellness coach. (Almonds and cashews are her go-tos.)
Plant-based diet proponent Julieanna Hever, MS, RD, CPT, is also a big fan of unsalted sunflower seeds. “They’re wonderful sources of minerals, phytosterols, and healthy fats,” she says.
But before you grab any old bag of Planters and consider snack time handled, take a gander at the nutritional facts. “Look for dry-roasted or raw nuts,” Hever says, and steer clear of anything labeled honey-roasted. “Then you’re adding sugar on top of the salt. Ideally, the nut should be the only ingredient.”
If unsalted nuts and seeds don’t satisfy your taste buds (even though you know they’ll quell your hunger), Mendez has a genius hack—and it’s so simple, you’ll wonder why you never thought of it: Buy one packet of each and mix them together. “This way, every handful has a little bit less salt.”
To quench your thirst…
“Water is the best drinking option,” Hever says. But if you want to kick it up a notch, “sparkling water, club soda, or Perrier is ideal, too.”
The experts also give a thumbs-up to unsweetened tea, and Stanford says coconut water is a great alternative to energy drinks. If you’re lucky, you might even be able to find kombucha—Mendez and Stanford both say they’ve spotted the gut-healthy drink at service stations surrounding San Francisco and New York City.
If you don’t keep a dairy-free diet, Stanford says milk is another smart choice. “It’s a healthy beverage packed with protein, calcium, and vitamin D,” she says.
For a protein boost…
The Slim Jims lining the checkout counter are definitely not nutritionist-approved, but a higher-quality jerky might be what you need to power through the last few miles. “If you have a long way to go and you need the energy, eating something like jerky—particularly turkey jerky—would be much better than eating something sugary,” Mendez says. Stanford adds that she was (pleasantly) surprised to find 100 percent grass-fed beef jerky on some gas station shelves.
Other protein-packed snacks that get the stamp of approval include hard-boiled eggs and cheese. And again—say it with me—read the labels. You’ll want to avoid added sugar, sodium, and preservatives.
To satisfy your sweet tooth…
Nature’s candy is the healthiest way to get your sugar fix. You probably won’t find mangoes or jackfruits at a roadside rest stop, but many gas stations do have a few fresh options—and any whole fruit is better than a bag of Craisins (or a Milky Way bar). “Bananas would be good, apples would be good, any fruit that they have on hand would be fine,” Mendez says.
Worried that an orange just won’t cut it? Mendez says it’s okay to venture into the candy aisle for a bar of dark chocolate. “Something with 72 percent cocoa or higher would be great. You can actually have a couple of pieces of that with a handful of almonds and that would be a nice snack.” Now that you’re all fueled up, it’s time to hit the gas. Eclipse road trip, anyone?
The next time you set off on a trip, pack your bags with these snacks nutritionists swear by when traveling. Bonus: Energizing foods like fruit and nut butter can do double-duty at the office.