There's a time to live it up, and there's a time to dial it in. Bodybuilders know this better than anyone, and it's most apparent when we travel.
Case in point: When I was in Texas recently with fellow IFBB pro and Universal athlete Antoine Vaillant, he was in the offseason and could fill up on barbeque all he wanted. But me? I was nine weeks out from the stage. No brisket for me.
I could have half-assed it and eaten kinda clean, but that's not me—and that's not why people hire me as a nutrition coach. My version of prep is all about consistency, no matter where you are. I get up at the same time on the road as I do at home. I eat the same. I train the same.
Texas Universal Road Trip Tuttle Talks Travel
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Is it easy? No, but it's possible. With a few hours of prep, I can clear my mind to have fun on the road—and eliminate the risk of getting smashed by spoiled food. Here's how I do it, and how you can as well.
Step 1 Days Before You Leave
If you wait until you arrive at your destination to start figuring out what to eat, you're already losing the battle. That is, unless you've hired a meal-prep service to deliver meals to your destination. If that's the case, good for you. Everyone else needs to do it the hard way.
Know your location: Does your hotel room have a kitchenette or a mini fridge? If not, see if you can get one. Does your hotel provide free shuttles to nearby locations such as, say, a grocery store? Is there a solid grocery store like Whole Foods nearby?
Have your gear: You still need to eat during travel, right? Purchase at least one quality cooler—don't scrimp here—and depending on the length of your trip, possibly two: one day-bag for travel, and the other to carry ingredients for meals while you're at your destination. Check the airline website for dimensions of what's acceptable for carry-on luggage. Also, make sure your day bag has plastic utensils, or the TSA will throw them away.
Do the math: If you're carrying ingredients for a few days, you'll have to calculate the food you'll need while traveling. For example, say you need 5 ounces of cooked chicken for four meals a day across a four-day trip. That equals 5 pounds of cooked chicken. That sounds like a lot to carry, but a vacuum sealer can make it pretty small. Consider investing in one.
Bring your essentials: Is there a food or ingredient that you just can't live without, and that you're not sure you'll be able to get where you're going? Bring it with you. I brought a loaf of Ezekiel Sprouted 7-Grain Bread to Texas in my checked bag. I also brought my favorite flavored oils and vinegars, double-bagged and wrapped in bubble wrap (don't skip those steps). Overkill? Maybe. But this way, I have to scramble less and don't have to worry about my surroundings.
Never check your cooler! This might seem self-explanatory, but it's serious business; never check your cooler with the rest of your luggage on a plane. It's not worth losing your food for a show and having to purchase and cook food in your hotel room. Just as bad, your cooler could leak, get damaged, or otherwise put your food at risk of spoiling. It's certainly not worth the stress before a show.
Step 2 Meal Prep and Travel
This step is what separates the men from the boys. If you get to the airport and have to throw out all of your ice packs—and all that food that would spoil otherwise—then your fellow travelers just might get to see a grown man cry. Follow these steps to ensure your food makes it to your destination with you.
Pack like a pro: You can't pack each meal separately; your cooler space is limited. So only make the individual meals you will need for your travel day, and then pack the remaining food in large containers in your coolers. The nice thing about vacuum-sealed bags is that they can be tossed in as-is.
Make an ice sandwich: Right before your departure, fill gallon-sized freezer bags two-thirds full of ice and double- or triple-bag them. (Remember, the TSA will throw away ice, ice packs, and all liquids over 4 ounces, so leave your ice packs at home, but I'll explain in the next step how to get around that with the bags of ice.)
Place containers of cooked meat in one cooler and starches in the other. Place the ice-filled freezer bags both on top of and below the food, because cold air travels downward. But also remember to pack your travel-day meals toward the top of your cooler for easy access once mealtime arrives.
Make it through TSA: Once you get to the airport, but before you get to the security checkpoint, empty all the ice out of the freezer bags in both coolers. Don't throw the freezer bags away. Once you get through security, go to any fast-food restaurant and look for a soda/ice machine to refill your freezer bags with ice. Make sure you bring extra freezer bags so you can double-bag the ice once filled. The airline attendants won't appreciate your cooler leaking in the overhead compartment of the airplane.
Step 3 At Your Destination
Buy essentials: If there's no refrigerator available, or if all your food doesn't fit when you reach your hotel, purchase a 1.5- to 2-inch-thick Styrofoam cooler. It costs about $3 at most grocery stores, and it's a great alternative to a refrigerator. It kept my food frozen for 16 hours at Nationals (with replacement of ice at regular intervals, of course).
Replace your ice: I'm a big fan of keeping a small refrigerator thermometer in a cooler. You want to know if you're safe? It'll tell you. Then, replace it in the cooler every 2-4 hours or as needed. Pack it right, and you might be able to keep your cooler under 30 degrees for as much as six hours.
How to Not Get Sick
I'm a serious stickler about food safety, particularly when I'm traveling. Make fun of me all you want, but I don't get sick from expired food. Getting food poisoning is stupid, especially because it can be prevented. Here's how.
Take your time with prep: Once your food is cooked, let it cool for about 10 minutes at room temperature in 3-inch-deep containers before placing it in the refrigerator to cool overnight. Placing hot food into the refrigerator can raise the temperature of the whole refrigerator, which can potentially increase the rate of bacterial growth. The next day, portion out the amount of meat you will need for two meals, and vacuum seal it into a vacuum-sealable bag (vacuum sealer needed), then repeat for the remainder of the meat.
Place proteins in the coldest part of the cooler: Meats in particular are at high risk for bacterial growth, so take this into consideration. I further advise freezing 75 percent of your vacuum-sealed meats to further reduce the risk of spoilage and bacterial growth when you travel on a plane. Keep enough unthawed to eat on the day you arrive.
Know your refrigerator: If you have a small, cheap refrigerator in your hotel room, it may not be cold enough to keep bacteria from growing on the high-risk foods such as meat. In that case, pack the meats in the Styrofoam ice cooler and the starches in the refrigerator.
Seriously, replace the ice: With each day that passes on the road, it gets easier to ignore that ice. Don't do it.
Why All This Matters
Experienced bodybuilders know that the more you keep things consistent, the easier it is to figure out what needs to be changed. On the other hand, if your water intake has been up and down and your food has been a bit off for the last week or so, you don't know what needs to be changed.
Believe me, an inconsistent week can set you back. Even a week that's kinda clean, but not really, is a wasted week. You've come this far and have committed to stepping on stage. Don't start half-assing it now.
You may think it's impossible to enjoy a vacation with all this in my mind, but the opposite is true. Having all of this hammered down is what allows me to enjoy my time with a clear mind on the road. If you're serious about your results, you know what I mean.
Have a plan, and then have fun.