We’re hearing from loads of you that one of the biggest pitfalls you face when trying to make healthy food choices is that your lifestyle or job often takes you to locations where these choices are difficult to find. From stays at travel taverns and boozy curries with clients to long-haul deliveries and nights on the hard-shoulder, many of us find it tough to fit in a healthy, square meal.
One of the worst offenders is the petrol station garage forecourt and this guide aims to show you that it is possible to make (relatively) better choices. We can’t promise you’ll find anything we’d call healthy – if you want that, your best bet is to pack a lunchbox – but we can try to steer you towards the lesser of two evils at least.
Beat them at their own game
The first thing you need to do is understand the psychology of the forecourt. They know what you want and why you want it, and if you can enter that arena knowing that too, that’s half the battle.
We know you’ve got a busy lifestyle and sometimes grabbing a Ginsters and a Dr Pepper from the petrol station can feel like a necessity rather than a convenience. Whether it’s the daily commute or a long drive to Center Parcs, the weary, hungry traveller is easily reeled in by the siren call of the “services 5m” sign, or the gentle red glow of the Texaco forecourt roof, which drags slimmers to their doom like the lure of a giant, steel anglerfish.
Once they’ve got you, they stick the things you’re likely to grab right under your nose – familiar, comfortable sources of quick energy like Lucozade, Mars bars and other things that Daley Thompson wouldn’t touch, like Walkers crisps and egg mayo sandwiches. But it isn’t just the carbs and sugar tempting you.
Temptation abounds at the petrol station because the prices are all geared around the idea its customers are aware they’re entering a shop where convenience trumps value. You expect things to cost more at a petrol station, so when you rush in and out to pay for your fuel and grab a snack or meal, you don’t look far past the deals that are in your line of sight. After all, why would you buy one Snickers for 95p when you can get a pack of 4 for £2? Why grab just a sandwich for £3.49 when you can add a packet of crisps and a fizzy drink to the £4 meal deal? You’d be crazy to pass up that kind of deal, right?
Predictably, the answer is no – because while these kinds of deals can seem like a no-brainer in the moment, long-term they’re the worst kind of false economy. They help to keep you entrenched in the kind of bad habits that see you regularly spending on the kinds of convenience food you should be looking to cut out.
All this means it’s easy to make poor choices, and this can lead to feelings of guilt and anxiety that can see you either go hungry or fall off the wagon. But we’re not here to tell you how it beats you – we’re here to tell you how to beat it.
Look a bit further
It’s well worth having a quick browse beyond the route between the door and the till to find some healthier alternatives. But realistically, what are the alternatives to sandwiches, chocolate, crisps and fizzy drinks?
Healthier snacks like Graze boxes have crept into the petrol station, although they’ve reserved the tastiest stuff for their online offering. Protein bars can often be found, but it can be tough to find one that doesn’t have the taste and texture of Chinese newspapers and apple cores. If you can get your hands on a CLIF bar, they’re actually delicious and satisfying, and should keep you going for a while and the same goes for Nakd bars, although the healthy image of these bars versus chocolate bars is questionable and you might find yourself justifying the calorie spend on a Kit Kat instead for that reason.
If you’re really craving a chocolate hit, fork out for something a bit more expensive – a good quality dark chocolate if you appreciate the taste, or a high-ender like Lindt if you must have milk – and don’t scoff the whole thing in go, have one square and really savour it. Chocolate coated raisins are also a good shout, although these are higher in sugar and should be consumed in moderation too.
If you want something in the sandwich family, try to avoid the pastry and bread – get wraps instead of sandwiches, and if you’re looking to the chiller for more snacks, remember, the less processed the meat, the better. That said, if you must, look to the reformed chicken rather then the smoked sausages.
Some forecourts have hard boiled eggs without sausage or breadcrumbs wrapped around them (I know, weird, right?) and those Dairylea snack boxes are also fairly good – if nothing else, petrol station chiller food boxes are a masterclass in portion control. If you manage to find sushi, you have hit the jackpot – if you’ve never tried it and you think it sounds disgusting or poncey, be brave and give it a go.
Away from the fridge, jerky is a great snack that’s growing in popularity – a delicious concentration of everything that’s great about beef, with the added benefit that it’s difficult to eat, so it lasts a while.
Instead of crisps, choose nuts. They’re packed with fiber, fats and protein, and are a great alternative to crisps. Even the salted ones tend to be low-sodium these days, but if you can find unsalted, all the better. If you just want to keep the calories down, puffed maize snacks like Wotsits and Quavers are low-cal and popcorn is even better.
Fizzy drinks is a tough one – I’d normally satisfy that craving with a kiwi at home, but if you find anything resembling one anywhere near a petrol station, don’t disturb it as it’s likely to be some kind of hedgehog. Water is best of course, but avoid flavoured waters as these are full of sugar. Diet pop is better and sugar-free energy drinks are available, but again, these are only better choices relative to the regular versions. Milkshakes are usually comparable in terms of sugar and calories to milk, so take a look at these too.
Finally, if you’re at one of the more hip petrol stations, you might find they have facilities for making hot drinks and a microwave for heating meals. Hot meals can be metabolised by your body more efficiently, so this is always a great choice where available. Pasta pots and cup noodles are often low in calories and these days there are a few competitors to the old Pot Noodle, so look out for other brands that more closely resemble food. Soup’s a low cal favourite but can be deeply unsatisfying without bread – mulligatawny and roti is a great substitute here – and you can probably find some decent microwave ready meals.
And if you’ve got a Costa Express? Lucky you! Stick to the Americano, white or black is much less calorific than all the alternatives. Of the milky ones, cappuccino beats latte thanks to having less milk and more air in the foam, which also makes this a more intense coffee than the latte, which also has a real danger of sending you to sleep. Don’t forget, coffee can also have a laxative effect, so make sure you use the conveniences before you set off again.
So now we know what we want when we go to the garage forecourt, why we want it and what we can do about it. We can’t always make the best choices, but we can make better ones if we keep our eyes peeled and our minds sharp, aim to nourish when we can, and when we can’t, at least stick to our calorie goals, and most importantly don’t fall for the so-called bargains.