How to Eat Healthy at Gas Stations

Guest Post for #PHABack2School by Frank Beard, Analyst/Evangelist for Convenience Store and Retail Trends, GasBuddy. Follow Frank on Twitter or Instagram for additional insights.

Image of healthier food options like fresh fruit at a Sheetz convenience store. Image courtesy of GasBuddy's Frank Beard for #PHABack2School. This may come as a surprise to some, but today’s convenience stores have become destinations for healthful food. 

Customers can find fresh fruit and vegetables, mixed nuts, healthful made-to-order meals, and eggs and milk to pick up on the way home from work. The industry has experienced a true evolution from “vice to nice” – to borrow the title of a recent keynote presentation by Walt Doyle, GasBuddy’s CEO. Convenient choices can now be healthy choices, and this is great news whether you’re traveling for Labor Day, rushing to take the kids to sports practice, or just looking for a quality meal on your lunch break. 

But how does a person navigate a convenience store? What should they look for? As someone who has visited more than 1,000 convenience stores in 24 states, I recommend following these six simple steps. 

#1 Find the Cooler

Open-air coolers are the go-to location for many of the healthier options in convenience stores. That’s where you’ll find salads, yogurts, fruit and vegetable trays, hard-boiled eggs, freshly packaged sandwiches and other similar products.

Coolers have become a standard feature at stores nationwide. Whether visiting an independently-owned store or a state-of-the-art Sheetz or Wawa, it’s reasonable to expect an open-air cooler.

Examples of stores and products include:

  • QuikTrip sells a variety of snack packs one that contains carrots, cheddar cheese, pretzels and grapes
  • Love’s Travel Stops sells 12oz to-go containers with an assortment of fruit and vegetables that vary from store to store
  • Pilot’s PJ Fresh locations sell fruit and hard-boiled eggs
  • 7-Eleven often has fresh salads and fruit
  • Buc-ee’s sells large salads and beef jerky
  • 7-Eleven frequently offers a large variety of fruit, veggies and salads
  • CEFCO sells fruit and salads
  • KCI Car Care next to the Kansas City Airport has single-serving cheeses, healthful snack bars and various snack packs
  • The 36 Lyn Refuel Station in Minneapolis sells eggs, kombucha, and numerous vegan products

Photos of these and other examples can be found on my Instagram account.

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

Image of the made-to-order food stand at a Ricker's convenience store. Convenience stores are rapidly expanding their foodservice options, and many leading brands cater to customers who are looking for healthful meals.

At Ricker’s, Sheetz, and GetGo, orders are placed through touchscreens, and customers can modify their orders to suit individual preferences. Each store offers a variety of healthful and lower-calorie meals, and GetGo even has a separate menu for vegetarian items.

#3 Look for fresh fruit

Many convenience stores sell whole fruit near the front doors and registers.

At QuikTrip, bananas are frequently located within an arm’s reach as you check out. The new GetGo Café + Market locations also have bananas, apples and oranges displayed about ten feet away from the registers. And let’s not forget truck stops. Popular brands like Love’s Travel Stops and Pilot Flying J often have a wide variety of options.

Customers who visit Kwik Trip’s stores will sometimes encounter more twenty types of fresh produce. Not just apples and oranges, but vegetables and less common options: avocadoes, potatoes, onions, tangerines and other products that are normally found in grocery stores. It’s a convenient option for those who only need a few items and are short on time.

Images of fresh and healthier food options such as fruits and veggies available for purchase at a Kwik Trip convenience store.

#4 Stick to the basics

What about stores that don’t sell fruit or vegetables?

That’s when it makes sense to stick to the basic items. There are certain products that are found in most convenience stores, and many of them are quite reasonable.

  • 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. Single-serving products can help customers avoid that temptation.

#5 Choose sparkling water instead of soda

Sugary sodas are delicious, but they’re not the healthiest option.

That’s why sparkling water is great. The carbonation contributes to a nearly identical mouthfeel, and the subtle flavors make it interesting. Most varieties are also calorie-free.

But always check the label to be sure. Look for sparkling water with no sugar—products like Perrier and Topo-Chico.  

#6 If you choose an indulgent product, choose a lower calorie version

Image of a hand holding a Nature's Touch water bottle with PHA's Drink Up initiative logo on it. Sometimes there are few healthful options, and other times we want something indulgent without going overboard. In those situations, it makes sense to choose the most reasonable meals and products.

Last year, I visited a large gas station about an hour outside of Detroit where the only healthy option was mixed nuts. But I wanted a hot meal. I’d had a long day at work, I was tired, and I missed the opportunity to get dinner.

Between pizza and other fried food, however, there wasn’t a lot to choose from.

I eventually settled on popcorn shrimp. Although it was fried and certainly not the healthiest choice, it was the best option at the time since I didn’t feel like indulging on pizza or burgers. The portion size was reasonable as well, and I didn’t have to worry about overeating.

Conclusion: Shop with a strategy

Convenience stores are like grocery stores: it pays to have a strategy. If you walk inside without a plan, then you may not make the best choices. Do what you came there to do and be intentional.

Our Work In Motion