Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Ask the Internet: Eating Healthy at Conferences?

Hey everybody! It's the second installment of our new Tuesday column, Ask the Internet. Today’s question comes from Amber, a student on a student’s budget. She travels frequently to conferences, and finds herself torn between eating healthy and eating for free. She writes:

Q: I am a PhD student, and go to conferences several times a year. The food at these things is deadly - coffee and pastries everywhere you turn. Occasionally you'll luck out and there will be a banana, but that's rare. I hardly ever see protein. The thing is, being a poorer than poor PhD student, I am compelled to eat lots of these free snacks to eliminate the cost of eating out. So I'm torn - be cheap or be healthy? I have tried a few things - sometimes pack some power bars for breakfast or some nuts to snack on, but that doesn't always tide me over. Any advice would be appreciated!

A: Eating away from home is never easy. You’re out of your comfort zone, you’re never sure when the next meal is coming, and the food that IS available is usually muffin-esque in nature. But never fear, Amber. You’re already on the right track, and with a few tweaks, healthy, cheap road food is within your reach.

My friend Rachel frequently tours the U.S. with her improv comedy troupe, and has some experience in this area. She suggests calling up the conference venue or hotel ahead of time and asking what’s on the menu, so you can prepare accordingly. If they’re offering edibles you’re not too crazy about, figure on packing some of your own food, including fruit (cheap, portable), oatmeal packets (cheap, easily prepared), and flatbreads and crackers made from whole grains and seeds like quinoa, flax, and wheat. Rach likes Mary’s Gone Crackers herself. Beyond that, Trader Joe’s should have dozens of inexpensive, healthy options in that realm.

If you can’t prep ahead of time, look for plainer base foods you can customize to your liking. Bagels with peanut butter and jelly will fill you up and sate your sweet tooth, as will oatmeal mixed with raisins and peanut butter. And don't worry if there really isn't anything available. The occasional muffin won't kill you. (Just beware of it becoming Plan A.)

Sweet readers, can you relate to Amber’s problem? What would you suggest? How do you eat healthy at conferences? How do you keep from blowing a bundle on road food? Do you know any good resources for her? The comment section is waiting for your brilliance.

Want to ask the interweb a question? Post one in the comment section, or write to Cheaphealthygood@gmail.com. Then, tune in next Tuesday for an answer/several answers from the good people of the World Wide Net.

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Lucky said...

I used to pack oatmeal when I had to travel. I would also scout out a local grocery store ahead of time and eat dinner from their salad bar -- not free but not horribly expensive. Loved having free coffee everywhere though -- LOVED IT.

Anonymous said...

I’m a grad student and can sympathize. I also get really anxious and can’t focus if I stay hungry for too long. I find the best choices in these cases to be cheese and/or peanut butter. Have a packet of string cheese and a spoonful of peanut butter during breaks and even if you indulge in a muffin or pastry, you’ll feel full and have enough nutrition to keep you running through the day! They are both pretty cheap and small enough to tuck in your backpack or purse. Best! Alexandra

Rebecca said...

N'thing finding a grocery store. When I go to a convention I prefer to have a room with a fridge and/or microwave.

Failing that I spend 20-30$ for about 4 days of food at a grocery store. Stuff like bread, pb, fruit, crackers, quick cooking oatmeal, and granola bars all fit the bill.

If you can find a bulk store, get the ingredients for trail mix and make it yourself.

Anonymous said...

Grad students unite! Not much to add to what's been said, except that nuts are a godsend. Easy to pack & eat, keep well, decent source of protein and they keep me full. I like almonds.

I usually bring some longer-keeping fruits and vegetables with me when I travel (like carrot sticks and whole fruits; apples, oranges) as well. Other than that, I don't worry about it too much.

And to be honest, I usually end up in a pub drinking beer at least once per conference, and that'll undo the best intentions in terms of overall calorie count anyway.

Liz C said...

It took me awhile, but I finally learned to bring a jar of peanut butter, some sort of crackers, some apples, and fruit and nut mix. Better than nothing!

MikeV @ DadCooksDinner said...

The "bring a packet of oatmeal" comment made me think of this video from Alton Brown, where he shows how to use that little coffee maker in your hotel room to make instant oatmeal.

Good Eats Moment - Mr. Oatmeal

I tell you, the man's a genius. I wish I knew this trick back when I had to travel for business.


Lauren @ Let Them Eat Lentils said...

I always bring Larabars. Awesome ingredient lists, very filling with the dried fruit and nuts. You can get them at the local CVS. Going for the fresh fruit is a good choice, also I try to sip the hot tea in the afternoon when the cookies and brownies come out - they usually have a non-caffeinated herbal blend.

Anna N said...

Not much to add. I love grocery stores when I travel... hummus, cheese, and yogurt are all good. Even if you don't have a fridge, I find that they all last fine at room temperature for a few days, if the room isn't too warm and it's not the middle of summer. Or sometimes you can keep them on the windowsill. I like cucumbers if I have a knife for peeling and cutting them -- sometimes I just crave a green crunchy vegetable on my sandwich.

chacha1 said...

All above tips are great, plus consider hard-boiled eggs. HB eggs and yogurt cups or shots will keep well (even if you don't have a fridge in the room) in a container of ice. Use Gladware, a thermos, a lunchbox, an insulated to-go cup - anything watertight will do.

The instant oatmeal packets can be awfully high in sugar; consider packing your own quick-cooking, unflavored oats and add chopped walnuts, dried cranberries, and cinnamon. Use the coffeemaker in the room and then add a little milk (can also be stored in a small icebox arrangement).

SnackSnoop said...

It is just SO terrible what you eat at conferences (I was a grad student too). I say pack healthy snacks like trail mix - dried fruit - etc. and choose very carefully.
Check out http://www.snacksnoop.com for other healthy snack ideas.

Anonymous said...

I am also a PhD student so can relate. I agree with all of the above posts. Another suggestion (and this is a LOT of work)is to volunteer to plan the snacks at conferences happening in your town. One organization I'm affiliated with has grad students plan all the food (cheap labour!) for each of their annual conferences, and they have the best food of any conferences on the circuit: fruit and granola bars at the morning coffee break, veggies and cheese and hummus at the afternoon break, etc... Their annual conference is here next year, and I'm happy to help keep the tradition alive!

Not a very practical suggestion for all the other conferences, though. :)

Anonymous said...

In addition to the suggestions about taking your own food, my advice would be not to worry about it. It's a few times a year -- not daily or weekly. It's not what you eat now and then that matters; it's what you eat day in and day out.

I Heart Kale said...

I travel a lot to rural parts of the country with very few options other than fast food--I am actually on the road *right now.* One of my tricks this time around was bringing those little instant miso soup packets. All you need is hot water and you get a steaming, protein-filled cup of miso, seaweed and tofu. I also dehydrate kale and bring it with me in a small plastic bag. Both are pretty cheap, and much better than subsisting on stale muffins.

coriander said...

Another PhD student here who agrees that a personal food stash is necessary at conferences. I've lost 80 pounds in the last year and there is no way that I am going to let bad breakfast options at panels get me off track.

On the cheapness front, I make my own Larabars since the 'real' ones are so expensive. You can either backwards engineer the recipes based on the ingredient list and nutrition facts or come up with your own flavors (blueberry crumble and peanut butter cup are popular in my house). The dough comes together easily in a blender or food processor and they keep for weeks in the fridge or a few days on the counter.

Anonymous said...

You can also use a coffee pot to hard boil eggs while on the road. I put 4 eggs in the carafe cold, fill up the back part up with water, and turn it on. After 10-15 minutes, put the eggs into your ice bucket full of ice and you should have some hard boiled eggs ready to peel after they cool.

I also like to get the pre-washed greens, and a can of tuna, and maybe some "pre-chopped" vegetables (even better if you can get some for free from a relish tray at a reception). That makes a filling dinner for a few dollars.
I've also found that traveling with a cutting board and a small kitchen knife can be a life saver, if you check bags.

EmilySullins said...

I'm a little late to this party, but as an event planner I implore you: SEND FEEDBACK to whoever was hosting the function. During the conference, find a staffer (who isn't too harried) and ask if there are any healthier options being provided that day - you might be able to resist the muffin if you know lunch includes brown rice risotto and a salad. After the event, send a quick note thanking the event planners and asking them to consider snacks like oatmeal, fruit, and granola bars in the future. That feedback really helps.

sweeticedtea said...

I realize I'm REALLY late to teh party, but Fresh Market has all kinds of dried foods. They aren't particularly cheap, but dried green beans (lightly salted to make them a really yummy snack), zuchinni, etc. I find veggies are the hardest to find, so these are great road options. Seems like there are plenty of protien options here.
Also, I find children's recipe books are seriously useful when planning simple and portable meals, because those are usually desirable qualities to a parent (I guess, I'm not a mom yet). If you can find a healthy kids cookbook at the library or second-hand, that might be useful. I work with Kids in the Kitchen with the Junior League, and the goal is to teach underprivaledged kids how to eat a little healthier. Again, the goal there is simple and similar to how we all cope on the road -- these kids are getting foods from gas stations and such. It's not a perfect system, but perhaps some great ideas at the site: http://kidsinthekitchen.ajli.org/?nd=browse.
I applaud your efforts. I work in one of these educational conference centers, and have to order the food, (menus are not decided by me, believe me... I've tried!). It's always danishs, chips and cookies. Overprocessed juice is the "healthy" choice and I feel your pain!
Do give feedback. Maybe the health trend will catch on, but for now, cheap and healthy do not always go hand in hand.