Food & Drink

Vegan and Health-Conscious Truck Drivers Share Their Tips for Eating on the Road

You don’t have to only stop at fast food restaurants.

vegan truck drivers truckers eat on the road
Emily Carpenter/Thrillist

I associate road trips with my favorite snacks: spicy corn nuts, sour gummy candies, and a Vanilla Coke, and stops at whatever fast food joint pops up on the highway that can provide a bathroom break and a value menu. Food isn’t usually the priority for me; getting from point A to point B is. Having unhealthy treats seems like a fun facet of going on a road trip in the first place.

That being said, living fully on a fast food diet while on the road is not the best method for getting all of your nutrients in. In fact, long-haul truck drivers are more likely to have heart disease, obesity, hypertension, and diabetes compared to the average office worker, according to the CDC. Between the long days and irregular sleep schedules, the limited physical activity for hours at a time, and the stressful delivery schedules, food might not be prioritized for truck drivers, too. Accessibility is also an issue: off the highways are an endless supply of McDonald’s and Burger Kings that seem like the only efficient and available options for hungry and tired workers. There should be a better system in place to provide for these truckers who are an essential part in literally driving America’s economy. 

The good news is that there are ways to maintain a balanced diet on the road; it may just require a little bit of extra effort. Shelby, a vegan truck driver who runs a website and Youtube channel devoted to all things trucking called Happiness By the Mile, knows firsthand the challenges that come with being vegan on the road. 

“We’ll be able to sometimes stock up but we have a small refrigerator and sometimes our freezer is [tiny]. That’s all we have. So we have to be really, really careful about what we choose to eat,” she explained on a recent video call. “So if you’re eating healthy you’ll get things like potatoes and a big thing of oatmeal. You can get a pressure cooker or an Instant Pot; those things are really good for truck drivers that have an inverter that can power those things.” Shelby also stocks up on canned beans, rice, and canned vegetables -- anything that can be cooked in her Instant Pot while she’s driving. Her tip is to pick up foods that have longer shelf life. For snacks, she reaches for nuts, granola, and Clif bars, occasionally picking up hummus and veggies if she has the opportunity to visit a grocery store while out on the road. The problem, Shelby mentioned, is that not all trucks are built the same. 

If you don’t have the means to power a fridge, Instant Pot, or mini grill, food options become much tougher. Fast food and highly processed foods, for the most part, aren’t recommended. “A lot of us out on the road will tell you, we hate fast food. We absolutely despise it,” Shelby said. “We eat it because it’s quick, it’s available, and that’s mainly it. But if there were other options, drivers would pick other options because [fast food] makes us feel sick too.”

But as of now, fast food on the road is often unavoidable and one of the quickest and most convenient ways to fill yourself up with fuel. It doesn’t have to be all bad; you can still sometimes find a plant-powered meal out in a drive-thru. “When it comes to fast food, Google is your best friend and sometimes if you’re lucky you may run into all vegan restaurants. Lots of restaurants are now offering vegan options, and if it comes down to it French fries and a side salad are served in the majority of places,” Chris Lee, a vegan truck driver who provides resources for truckers on his website and Youtube channel, told me via email. “My go to spots and things I order are: McDonald’s for their oatmeal but not the fries, Taco Bell for their bean burritos, and Dunkin’ for their hash browns. I’m hoping one day to be able to try a vegan donut; it’s at the top of my bucket list.”

If you do happen to have the tools to make or reheat food, meal prepping is the key to having a balanced diet when out on the road. It also helps if you’ve had experience cooking with limited appliances before. “If you have a camping background, if you were a backpacker or a hiker or something like that, you probably have some of those skills to be able to eat healthy and prepare food and keep it for a period of time,” Kellylynn McLaughlin, a member of the non-profit organization, Women in Trucking, told me via video call. “I was that person when I was younger so I think it helped me out when I came into this industry because I wasn’t at a loss for food ideas.” 

McLaughlin isn’t vegan, but makes it a point to eat a diet rich in proteins, fruits, and veggies. “I make certain things ahead of time and freeze them in really secure containers that have locks on them.” Her meals consist of chicken breast, fish filets, veggies, and whole grains. The frozen blocks of food slowly defrost over time so they stay fresh enough to eat over long periods spent driving. 

So much of trucking is about the community. This is a community that uplifts one another and works together to tackle challenges unique to this career. In the case of Shelby, she says that she and her band of approximately 20 other vegan drivers are like a family. “If we are in a truck stop together, we’ll get together and we’ll have a little cookout. And we’ll all cook together and share. It’s really cool.”

For McLaughlin, she turns to her fellow members of Women in Trucking. “We have an internal log where we network and share ideas with each other,” she explained. “Different people have different kinds of dietary requirements; a lot of them are on Whole30. So we share ideas and recipes that way.” In addition to that, her company requires new hires to shadow drivers for a week, where they learn the challenges of eating on the road and how to tackle them.

But even with the support of an entire community, truck stops need to change to better serve the people that frequent them. “Right now, truck stops don’t cater to the drivers. They don’t care about us. We don’t have anywhere else to go -- when that’s your only option, it’s kind of hard to do anything about it because we’ve been living in it for so long,” Shelby said. “These mega chains got so big so quickly, what happened is the mom and pop truck stops that used to cater to the drivers have all died out for the most part.” When it comes to chains, Shelby mentions that having the option to stop by a Chipotle over a Taco Bell, or visit a Tropical Smoothie Cafe, would be better than nothing at all. 

McLaughlin’s vision of bettering the trucking community extends beyond food. “I saw all these opportunities for advocacy for drivers, whether it be pay or working conditions and health, safety, food. Just trying to change the perception of who people think of when they think of a driver and elevate our importance,” she said. “If we could change our food desert and give drivers more options to eat healthy and have a place to walk and exercise, that would be my Taj Mahal of a truck stop rest area for us.” 

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Kat Thompson is a staff writer at Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter @katthompsonn