Road Food Redemption: Fresh, Healthy Meals a Relief

After a week of road/restaurant food, I am relieved and happy to be back home with a kitchen stocked with fresh ingredients for a few days’ worth of healthy meals. Last week’s disastrous camping trip (camping food followed by consolation calories) was almost immediately followed by a road trip across the state for a family celebration dinner. There was no meal planning whatsoever, just a weeklong ride on a big downhill slide into fatigue and sodium bloat. I missed two gym days but did manage to get in four short runs. Hopefully those miles helped prevent me from blowing up like a giant puffer fish.

Normally, my husband and I eat a lot of seafood and poultry and only occasionally have red meat. We eat lots of vegetables, simply prepared, and almost never eat white rice, white flour or sugar. We try to avoid processed foods, though I have to confess I do love that Uncle Ben’s Ready Rice that heats up in 90 seconds in the microwave. And I still don’t make tomato sauce. If I ever get my garden to produce more than four cherry tomatoes, maybe I will be more motivated to do that.

When I was working full-time, I’d schedule a week’s worth of meals at a time, planning and shopping on the weekends. Now I’ve eased up a bit — shopping twice a week allows for fresher fish and vegetables.

I wish I could say the whole family was on board with this lifestyle, but despite my best efforts and stellar prenatal nutrition, the 6-year-old is every movie marketer’s dream. If there’s a toy involved or a character on the label, he’s in. He is generally opposed to protein except dairy and fried things. Nutritionally, the family is only bound by strings of whole wheat spaghetti. I’m working on it.

However, I am in no position to lecture anybody about food choices after last week. We started off on a camping trip. Now, you can do healthy camping food and I have, in the past, proudly served campfire-grilled chicken breasts and asparagus, filled the cooler with bagged salads and packed healthy snacks such as nuts and low-fat string cheese. That’s not what we did. It was burgers, chips, bagels and S’mores all the way. We did choose low-fat meats and whole-grain breads, but the sodium count for the weekend had to be off the charts.

Our camping trip was cut short due to thunderstorms, but our consumption of the camping food was not. We followed this with a road trip to the Gulf Coast to join my husband’s family in celebrating his parents’ 40th anniversary. The buttery bridge between these two dietary disasters was a fat-laden seafood feast that we consumed to console ourselves for the aborted camping trip. We could have packed a cooler with healthy food for the trip to the Gulf. We didn’t. For one thing, I was busy making a cake for the celebration and didn’t have time to think about it, and honestly, there doesn’t seem to be much point in worrying about half the week when you’ve already spent four days pumped full of sodium at Dead Sea concentration levels. 

Ruby Anniversary Cake by Laurie Sterbens

I made this cake for my husband's parents' ruby anniversary last week. Though I took a couple of bites in the interest of quality control, desserts didn't play a big part in last week's dietary downfall. I'd rather design cakes than eat them. I must have picked up that habit in the newspaper business. I designed section fronts for 11 years and never ate any of them.

The anniversary dinner was at Maggiano’s Little Italy in Tampa. Italian family-style dining: yum and yikes. Because we are health-concious and my son has a food allergy, we do a pretty thorough online investigation of unfamiliar restaurants before we go. Maggiano’s is admirably proactive in their allergy approach and the chef even visited the table to go over our options. Calories and sodium? You don’t want to know. My strategy: Ignorance, bliss, bread basket — then back in the gym as soon as possible.

We visited the Florida Aquarium in Tampa the following morning and ate lunch there before leaving. They offer salads, but that’s not what we ate. We ate road food. Then we had to actually hit the road, partly because I had a cake decorating class to attend. Fortunately, I didn’t eat any cake. But after two hours of intense frosting, I was too wiped out to do anything but thankfully accept my husband’s offer to make me a delicious, buttery grilled turkey and cheese sandwich. He pointed out that it was Smart Balance and whole-grain bread, but still, it was not a salad.

By then I was tired of bread, period. I couldn’t wait to get some fresh fruit and vegetables into the house, some brown rice and fish. The next morning the first thing I did was check the “What’s in Season Now?” shopping list at florida-agriculture.com. This list includes seasonal Florida produce and fish, and I use it as a starting place for meal planning. However, this week the seasonal produce list consisted of two items: avocadoes and okra. This was not helpful. Scott won’t eat avocadoes and neither of us is a big fan of okra. My mom used to fry it in cornmeal and that was pretty good, but I don’t see myself making that happen. So I decided to just pick some things that sounded good and choose whatever vegetables went with them, regardless of where they came from. When I got to the store, I saw that they had sockeye salmon, so I edited my list on the spot to include that. They also had beautiful fresh, locally caught shrimp, so I had them wrap a couple of one-pound packages to throw in the freezer. I didn’t have shrimp on the menu this week, but good shrimp has been hard to come by lately.

On the menu this week: Cajun-seasoned catfish with South Beach Diet Red Beans and Rice; turkey chili; grilled salmon with red potatoes and asparagus; whole wheat panko-crusted oven fried chicken with pureed cauliflower and blackeye peas; and whole wheat spaghetti with turkey meatballs. I also picked up some whole-wheat pizza crusts, which Scott usually tops with tomato sauce, mozzarella cheese and red and yellow bell peppers (on Mom and Dad’s side only). I think we’re having that tonight instead of whatever was on the schedule because it was our son’s first day of school and we let him choose dinner. The meal plan rarely ever goes exactly as listed on the refrigerator, but at least we always have ingredients to make something healthy and delicious.

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