Open air coolers

How to eat healthy at gas stations

By Frank Beard on Monday, July 9, 2018

Convenience retail has evolved in a true “vice to nice” fashion.

Once considered the domain of roller dogs, chips, doughnuts and other indulgent products, gas stations today frequently have a range of healthier options. I once spent an entire month eating at gas station convenience stores to prove it.

This is great news for anyone who plans to travel this summer. Eating on-the-go doesn’t have to come at the expense of your health, and there are options available if you know where to look.

I’ve been on many road trips to convenience stores across the United States, and you’ll be well-positioned to make healthful choices as long as you follow these simple tips.

TIP #1: Find the cooler

Many of the healthier options at convenience stores are located in open-air coolers. Depending on which brand or store you visit, you might find salads, yogurt, fruit or vegetable trays, hard-boiled eggs, freshly packaged sandwiches and other similar products.

cooler food
Look to open-air coolers, now available in many gas stations, for fresh and healthy options.

Open-air coolers have become a standard element of convenience store designs. If retailers do not have them, it’s either because they don’t have the space or have yet to make the transition.

Examples include:

  • QuikTrip sells a variety of containers with mixed fruit and other healthful snack combinations. They also have delicious salads.
  • Love’s Travel Stop stores sell 12 oz. to-go containers with an assortment of fruit and vegetables that vary from store to store. Sometimes they come with wooden skewers that help keep your hands from getting sticky.
  • Pilot Flying J’s PJ Fresh locations sell fruit and hard-boiled eggs.
  • 7-Eleven often has a wide variety of salads and fruit.
  • Kwik Trip (Kwik Star) locations have expansive coolers with a variety of healthful products. Kwik Trip is one of the first convenience retailers to partner with the Partnership for a Healthier America.
  • Many independently-owned stations have quality options, too. The 36 Lyn Refuel Station in Minneapolis sells eggs, kombucha and numerous vegan products.

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healthy gas station food

A selection of healthy snacks from 36 Lyn Refuel Station in Minneapolis, an independently-owned gas station.

TIP #2: Look for healthful options on made-to-order menus

Convenience retailers are rapidly expanding their food service options, and many leading brands cater to customers who are looking for healthful meals.

At Ricker’s, Sheetz, GetGo, Wawa, Buc-ee’s and others, orders are placed through touchscreens, and customers can modify their choices to suit individual preferences. Each store offers a variety of healthful and lower-calorie meals.

TIP #3: Look for whole fruit

For convenience retailers, bananas are frequently considered the first step towards healthful offerings — making them relatively common from store to store.

QuikTrip places bananas near the registers, and they’re often priced affordably. The new GetGo Café + Market locations also feature bananas, apples and oranges displayed about 10 feet away from the registers. And let’s not forget truck stops: Popular brands such as Love’s Travel Stops and Pilot Flying J typically have a wide variety of options.

Customers who visit Kwik Trip stores will sometimes encounter more than 20 types of fresh produce. Not just apples and oranges, but vegetables and less common options like avocados, potatoes, onions, tangerines and other products that are normally found in grocery stores. This is great whether you’re stocking up for a long drive or need a few items to take to someone’s home.

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TIP #4: Stick to the basics

When stores lack fruit, vegetables, salads, and made-to-order options, stick to the basics. Certain items are likely to be available no matter where you stop:

  • Nuts (cashews, almonds, peanuts and mixed varieties)
  • Beef jerky (many are low in calories and sugar)
  • Low-sugar snack bars (stores frequently sell snack bars from Quest, KIND, and other brands)

Trail mixes and other snack products are sometimes packaged in larger quantities that include multiple servings, so keep that in mind. Long drives and road trips can lead to boredom, and boredom can lead to constant snacking. You can avoid this temptation by purchasing single-serving options. Additionally, always read the label on beef jerky. There are some brands that put a considerable amount of sugar into their products.

basic snacks

Nuts and protein bars are found in nearly every gas station.

TIP #5: Choose sparkling water instead of soda

If you struggle to resist soda, grab a sparkling water. The carbonation provides a similar mouthfeel. Brands such as Perrier and La Croix provide a range of flavors and Pepsi’s new alternative — Bubly— is currently making its way into many convenience stores. I often purchase the canned variety at home.

My personal favorite, however, is Topo Chico but it can be difficult to find unless you’re in Texas. If you do see it, make sure to try the grapefruit flavor. (If you pass through Springfield, Missouri, be sure to visit Farm 2 Counter. They sell Topo Chico.)

Be careful though. If you’re unfamiliar with a brand, always read the nutrition label. Some products may look like calorie-free sparkling water while they actually contain sugar or other sweeteners.

topo chico

Topo Chico is a brand of sparkling water, most commonly found in Texas, and a great alternative to soda.

TIP #6: If you choose an indulgent product, choose the lowest-calorie option

Sometimes there are few healthful options available, and other times we want a taste of something indulgent. In those situations, it makes sense to choose the the “least bad” option.

A few years ago, I visited a large gas station about an hour outside of Detroit where the only healthy option was mixed nuts. Normally that’s fine, but I was craving a hot meal. It was late and I missed dinner.

Between pizza and other fried food, however, there wasn’t a lot to choose from. I eventually settled on a small amount of popcorn shrimp. Although it was fried and certainly not the healthiest choice, it was the best one at that particular station. It certainly had the least amount of calories. In the end, I thoroughly enjoyed my meal and didn’t think twice about it.

BONUS TIP: How to find clean restrooms

In addition to maintaining a healthful diet, it’s no secret that locating clean restrooms can be a major source of anxiety and frustration during summer travel. I can help with this as well. I even talked about it recently on NPR’s All Things Considered.

Here’s how to find clean restrooms when traveling:

Familiarize yourself with the top brands. At GasBuddy, we recently produced a list of the top-rated gas station brands in each state for restroom quality. This can be very useful when you’re out of state, and it’s a great starting point. The list is based on millions of individual ratings submitted through the GasBuddy mobile app.

  • Check the station ratings and reviews before you go. Leverage mobile apps such as GasBuddy and Google Maps to see what others have said about gas stations. Ratings are generally a reflection of the customer experience. A station with 4.5 out of 5 stars is likely to be better than one with 2.5 out of 5. Written reviews can provide additional details and help you determine why a rating is either good or bad. And if you’re lucky, you’ll discover comments about delicious and unique foodservice. If your co-pilot or kids need something to do while you’re driving, tell them to investigate some gas stations.
  • Look for visual quality signals. Many interstate exits have clusters of two, three, or four or more stations. Discerning travelers can quickly vet these without getting out of their vehicle. How does the area underneath the fuel canopy look? Is the trash overflowing? Are the pumps filthy? Is the concrete covered in untreated oil spots? Areas with high traffic flow can be difficult to clean, but you want to look for indications that the store is trying to keep up. That’s what matters. And what about the store itself? Does it appear well-maintained? If it’s dark, how is the lighting outside? In my experience, the brands and stations with the cleanest restrooms are the ones who take a holistic approach to a quality customer experience.
  • Consider the truck stops. Major truck stop brands such as Love’s and Pilot Flying J have invested significant resources into the customer experience. I’ve been in many locations that have large, modern, expansive restrooms that are maintained as frequently as every 30 minutes. Sapp Bros Travel Centers are also worth visiting for this reason. When I visited the location south of Kansas City in Harrisonville, Missouri, I encountered their new "Mom Approved Restrooms" — some of the cleanest I’ve found in any retail setting.

frankFrank Beard is a speaker, writer, and convenience retailing advocate from Des Moines, Iowa. He is also a regular contributor to NACS Daily, NACS Magazine, and an analyst/evangelist for convenience store trends at GasBuddy. You can find Frank on Twitter @FrankBeard, on Instagram @30DaysofGasStationFood, and on LinkedIn