Photo by Shutterstock.

I have discovered the last stronghold of processed food. Even after we’ve rooted out high-fructose corn syrup from our school lunches and vanquished preservatives from our weeknight dinners, even when whole carrots and fruit salad reign as the snacks of choice, processed food will still cling desperately to one last dominion: the on-the-go market.

When we’re strapped for time, the kids are shrieking, and we’re starving, is it any wonder that we become vulnerable to some of the food industry’s most bizarre convenience products? I’m looking at you, Go-Gurt.

On my mission to remove processed foods from my diet, travel-related consumption has been the toughest. (My other challenges tackled desserts/restaurants and dinner parties.) It’s the one that requires the most planning and offers the fewest easy alternatives. But of course, if you can dream it, you can do it. These hard-won lessons prove it:

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

Road trips

I ran up against the full range of healthy-food challenges on several trips over the past two months: A drive + ferry journey to a friend’s wedding, a four-hour train ride, and a three-hour bus trek. It became clear that, whether you’re traveling by plane, train, or alternative-fuel automobile, you’ll face some of the same food limitations. Namely, your options are restricted to whatever the gas stations, roadside joints, and onboard cafes can offer (can you believe I’ve yet to find a decent lentil salad?).

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

Now, I see some of you waving your hands high in the air, eager to share a solution. What’s that? Just pack your own food? Very good! Pre-packing a cooler or backpack full of healthy munchies is indeed the easiest way to ensure the integrity of your foodstuffs. You run into the slight hiccup of how to stash said foodstuffs, however. You have only limited space for food storage, especially on public transit, and perhaps no capacity for cooling perishables.

Wrappings create a conundrum, too. Disposable baggies, foil, and plastic wrap are the popular way to go — light, and won’t weigh you down when you’re done — but of course, they involve creating trash. On the other hand, hauling a stack of dirty reusable containers in your suitcase doesn’t exactly qualify as packing light. My best compromise has been tucking the après-snack baggies and foil into a pocket and reusing them at home ad nauseam.

Once you’ve solved the wrapping dilemma, the sky’s the limit in terms of unprocessed road-trip foods. Try sliced-up veggies, mixed nuts, crackers, cheese slices, whole fruit (especially berries), natural-peanut-butter-and-homemade-jam sandwiches on whole-grain bread, and popcorn. If you really want to be the envy of everyone on the peace train, you can even prep crazy stuff like turnip chips.

In theory, that would be the way of things every time. But let’s be real: There are times when shopping, chopping, and packing in the madness before a trip just aren’t gonna happen. Though you might be stuck relying on convenience-food joints, all is not lost. On my various trips, I scouted fruit cups, hard-boiled eggs, string cheese, dried fruit, vegetable juice, bananas, apples, pears, and Larabars (ingredients: dates, nuts, fruit) in our country’s bastions of processed foods. We’re making inroads, people.


Sad to say, not even foot travel is safe from the invasion of processed foods. When you’re physically hauling your own sustenance through the wilderness, you want foods that are light, nonperishable, and convenient, in that order. For me, this usually translates into a pack full of sugary instant oatmeal packets, store-bought trail bars, and packaged pasta dinners, with a few sausages and pepperonis thrown in for protein. Not quite living off the land.

I knew I could do better. So when my boyfriend, Ted, and I set out on a weekend trip through the North Cascades, I announced the following unprocessed menu:

Instead of our usual instant oatmeal, we’d start the day with quick whole oats from the bulk bin with brown sugar* and coffee. Lunch typically features sausage and cheese in a tortilla; luckily, Ted could be persuaded to cook up a batch of his homemade beef jerky in our dehydrator to replace the old indestructible meat stick. I decided to hit the kitchen myself to whip up homemade cherry trail bars (recipe follows); additive-free dried mangoes filled out our snack roster. And in place of the ultra-easy, powdered cheese-heavy pasta pack, we’d feast upon couscous with tuna, dried mushrooms and mixed veggies.

We hardly noticed the swap at breakfast. Lunch, however … “This is kind of tough,” Ted said as we gnawed our jerky rolls overlooking a deep mountain valley. “Really tough,” I agreed. “Maybe jerky just isn’t meant for wraps.” A moment passed. “Wait, was it supposed to be totally unprocessed? Because I marinated the meat in Worcestershire sauce,” he said. Another pause. “Well, it was organic Worcestershire sauce.”

(Better unprocessed lunch options: peanut-butter-and-dried-apricot wraps with a  splash of honey or anything tuna-based.)

Our snacks fared better. “Best I’ve ever had,” Ted enthused as we busted out the trail bars on a rocky ridge. And they were: Sweet, chewy, and richly flavored, the fruits of my kitchen beat the soy protein isolate out of every store-bought bar I’ve tried. My victory was even sweeter because I’d successfully caught an emulsifier trying to sneak into the batch by hiding in some organic chocolate chips. “Aha! Out with you!” I’d muttered, putting the chips back on the shelf and replacing them with a bar of straight-up dark chocolate.

And dinner? The freshly rehydrated mushrooms and veggie pieces melded with protein-rich tuna into a pleasing medley. And with grated real cheese on top, we didn’t even miss the powdered stuff.

So is it possible to thrive on a totally unprocessed diet? It sure is. Just know that it requires a lot of home cooking, a keen eye for ingredient labels, dedicated menu planning, and a serious examination of your relationship with our old pal sugar. As we move into the annual October Unprocessed challenge, I offer you this blessing: May your back never lose the strength to turn on a Dorito, your heart never melt for a Twinkie, and your belly never lack for a decent lentil salad.

Chocolate-Cherry Peanut Butter Trail Bars

Makes six.

Adapted from Laurie March’s A Fork in the Trail.

1/3 cup honey
¼ cup brown sugar
¼ cup natural peanut butter
2 cups natural flake cereal
½ cup dried cherries
1/3 cup slivered/crushed almonds
½ high-quality dark chocolate bar (Green & Black’s Dark 85% passed my criteria)

Heat the honey and brown sugar in a saucepan and simmer one minute (not longer, or bars will be brittle). Remove from heat and stir in peanut butter. Add remaining ingredients and stir to combine well. The chocolate will melt to form a coating.

Coat the bottom and sides of an 8-inch square pan with vegetable oil. Scoop the mixture into the pan and pat down evenly. Freeze for 30 minutes. Transfer the pan contents to a cutting board and allow to return to room temperature, then cut into bars.

*Brown sugar’s degree of processing is debatable, but hey, it’s less processed than regular sugar. Honey would have been even less processed, but the entire honey bear is too damn heavy.