Help me not go to Mars and get more candy bars
February 14, 2013 7:49 AM   Subscribe

Help me eat well during a conference! I'd like tips for food that travels well on airplanes, as well as anything specific to the Hyatt Regency McCormick Place in Chicago. Many picky eater details within.

I’m headed to a multi-day conference next month at the Hyatt Regency McCormick Place (full address: 2233 S Martin Luther King Dr., Chicago, IL 60616). I hate conferences, I hate traveling, I hate staying in hotels, I hate not eating the food I’m used to. What usually ends up happening is that I get sad and homesick and start trying to “comfort” myself by eating readily available junk food, thus triggering a feedback loop of feeling crappy and eating crappy food. This time, I’d like it to be different.

What I normally eat: vast salads, lots of beans, nuts, fresh eggs, corn tortillas and occasional fish. I almost never eat out. I’m ardently against factory farming on ethical grounds, and it would have to be pretty exceptional circumstances for me to eat an egg from a battery hen (for instance). I mention this because it makes ordering in restaurants difficult. If I go with a salad with no animal products, I get a sad little affair that leaves me hungry fifteen minutes after dinner.

I’m wondering what else I can do. Are there any decent grocery stores in walking distance? I’m going on my employer’s dime, and our time there will be pretty tightly controlled, so will probably not have much time to go on food-gathering trips. Being from a small town, I’m also stupid when it comes to “how to take a bus or taxi,” making longer trips to get food somewhat challenging.

And if that’s not an option, are there any types of foods that travel well on planes? Cans of beans are probably out, but I was thinking bags of nuts, free-range meat jerky of some kind…other options? I need something that will fill me up and keep me running but not give me a carb crash. Energy and protein bars of all stripes give me carb crashes. Breakfast is especially challenging. I need something protein-y, and the fruit and bagel options just don't cut it.
posted by silly me to Health & Fitness (23 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
You are staying very close to Chinatown. There will be tons of Chinese restaurants and markets, but that doesn't help you much if you're avoiding factory-farmed animal products. There's a Trader Joe's a mile and a half from the hotel at Roosevelt & Wabash. Grabbing a cab is trivial: if the light on the roof is lit up, the driver is looking for a fare. Just put your hand up and make eye contact when a cab comes by. Or let the hotel hail one for you. Program a cab company's number in your phone contacts and you can call one from anywhere - I like Flash cab - (773) 561-4444 (no affiliation).

For traveling, I really like those soup cups that you just add hot water to. You can get hot water on the plane, at the conference, from the coffeemaker in your hotel room... the McDougall's varieties are vegan (example) and you could even have Amazon deliver them straight to the hotel for you. There are tons of instant oatmeal cups, too, for breakfast - not sure if this will result in a carb crash.
posted by payoto at 8:01 AM on February 14, 2013 [2 favorites]

Call the hotel to see if you can get a mini-fridge in your room. Usually one can be provided at no charge.

Mapquest says there's a Publix up the street, but that's not right (and how WEIRD is that?)

When you arrive, get a cab to Whole Foods and check out some of their prepared foods, lunch meats, etc.

I'd do line caught tuna over a salad that you can procure from the restaurant in the hotel. Breakfast can be nut butter on dense grain bread and a greek yogurt. They may have hard boiled eggs.

You can make this work and it won't even be that hard.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 8:03 AM on February 14, 2013 [1 favorite]

My other suggestion is to bring homemade granola or granola bars. I do this frequently for conferences and it is very helpful, particularly in the morning.

Taking a cab to Whole Foods is an excellent idea. However, keep in mind that a lot of the networking at the conference may take place over dinner - so you might want to eat a big, self-prepared lunch every day so that you can just get the sad salad at dinner (although I'm finding that salads are becoming a bit higher quality in general when I eat out).
posted by k8lin at 8:10 AM on February 14, 2013

Chicago is a great place in general to find restaurants that cater to specific needs and tastes. To add to the great advice above, talk to the hotel staff or conceirge and mention your needs, and ask about advice or directions.
posted by ZeusHumms at 8:10 AM on February 14, 2013 [1 favorite]

If you can get to a grocery store that sells eggs you would eat, but can't get a kitchenette, ask for an electric kettle, because you can cook eggs that way.

I don't know if Larabars count as protein bars or too carby, but they are real food and have gotten me through many a grumbly tummy.
posted by looli at 8:11 AM on February 14, 2013

Also, if you find a compelling restaurant that works for you, make an adventure of going there, and drag someone along.
posted by ZeusHumms at 8:12 AM on February 14, 2013 [1 favorite]

Get a fridge in your room. Even if all the rooms don't have one, often the hotel will send a maintenance man up with a small portable one.

Cans of beans would travel fine in checked luggage. Bring an extra bag, check it, and put cans in there. I eat garbanzos straight out of the can.

All sorts of dry grainy things travel well: Clif bars, cereal (I like Alpen), pretzels, raisins, nuts, bread if you protect it from smooshing. For your first meal (perhaps aboard the aircraft) you can take all sorts of things that only need to stay cold for awhile: salads of all sorts, or hot soup. Get a Thermos jar; those things work for hours.

Many fruits travel well: apples, all citrus. Bananas not so well unless you can baby them; they get smooshed. Carrots hold up well and can even be warm for a few days.

I traveled to Baltimore for a marathon and chowed down thousands of calories to get ready, with only a few of them coming from the hotel restaurant. I needed carbs and I couldn't leave it to chance.

Plan your meals. The Internet is amazing because you can get menus for restaurants ahead of time.
posted by massysett at 8:12 AM on February 14, 2013

Chicago is a great place in general to find restaurants that cater to specific needs and tastes. To add to the great advice above, talk to the hotel staff or conceirge and mention your needs, and ask about advice or directions.

This is a great suggestion, especially because it sounds like you'll be there with coworkers ("our time there will be pretty tightly controlled"). If you have to go out to eat with your group, having some restaurant names in your back pocket will help you steer people in that direction, instead of being That Person (I can say that because it's usually me) who has a bunch of dietary restrictions that rule out everyone else's suggestions but can't recommend a place that does work.
posted by payoto at 8:15 AM on February 14, 2013

For your first meal (perhaps aboard the aircraft) you can take all sorts of things that only need to stay cold for awhile: salads of all sorts, or hot soup. Get a Thermos jar; those things work for hours.

You can't bring liquids through security (except for the 3-1-1), and if TSA catches you trying, they will give you the choice of either forfeiting your thermos or exiting the security area to empty it out and you'll have to wait in line again. IME.
posted by payoto at 8:22 AM on February 14, 2013

There really isn't much around McCormick place itself, as people have mentioned above, there's a Trader Joe's up at Roosevelt and Wabash, or a Whole Foods at Roosevelt and Canal, both should be accessible using the CTA. Catching the bus is pretty simple (although I avoided it for a while, preferring to take the train), all CTA bus stops are marked with a sign that will show the route numbers that will stop there. Buses have the route number and destination up on an LED sign on their front. Just stand at a bus stop and wait for the bus to come, it'll stop and you get on and pay your fare at the farebox. There are 1-day, 3-day and 7-day passes for the CTA, depending on how long your conference is. And for getting off the bus, there are usually announcements and an LED sign in the bus that say the next stop (but sometimes this is broken). There's a "rope" running along each side of the bus, pull it down to signal the driver you'd like to get off at the next stop.
posted by borkencode at 8:26 AM on February 14, 2013

I don't have Chicago specific info, but many Kind Bars are good on protein, lower in carbs than nearly all energy bars (bonus: no maltitol!), and travel very well.
posted by gnomeloaf at 8:35 AM on February 14, 2013 [1 favorite]

For an alternative to Whole Foods or Trader Joe's, I've heard good things about Mariano's. Would be a quick trip up Lake Shore Drive in a cab.

For quick protein options, how about sardines, almond butter or avocado? On the plane, I'd bring nuts, dried fruit, pumpkin seeds, jerky and clementines.
posted by hooray at 9:06 AM on February 14, 2013

I love sardines, but man, don't eat them on a plane.

On plane trips (and road trips and lots of other kinds of trips) we bring: mixed nuts; hard-boiled eggs; cheese - either aged cheese like a 3-year Gouda or string cheese or those baby bel things; jerky; celery.

If your room doesn't have a fridge and one can't be provided, maybe you can bring along a small soft-sided cooler/insulated lunch bag. Get ice from the hotel machine, and once you've been to the store, put your yogurts/cheese/other perishables in that. Ice will have to be replenished, of course, but it works fine on a temporary basis.
posted by rtha at 9:18 AM on February 14, 2013

Cans of beans are probably out, but I was thinking bags of nuts, free-range meat jerky of some kind…other options? I need something that will fill me up and keep me running but not give me a carb crash.

In addition to roasted nuts, nut butter, and free-range jerky, try roasted chickpeas. Soybeans, too, if you eat soy.

Ready to eat wild salmon comes in vacuum-sealed bags. It's popular for camping. I imagine you could add it to a salad, alongside some nuts, seeds, and avocado, all of which will help you to feel full after eating the salad.

Make some high fiber muffins with flaxseed. Google around for a "muffin in a minute" recipe. These are very popular with people on low carb diets as flaxseed is nearly all fiber. You can make them the night before, at home, with the free-range eggs that you prefer, and bring them in a tupperware. I actually did this with some coconut flour before Superstorm Sandy, and we ate them for breakfast for days while we had no power. I like them with some pumpkin pie spice.

If you have access to a fridge, there are lots of low carb ideas here.
posted by kathryn at 9:35 AM on February 14, 2013 [4 favorites]

Can't speak to restaurants, but for snacks I really recommend this granola for density of satisfaction and deliciousness.
posted by acm at 10:05 AM on February 14, 2013

They make squeeze packages of apple sauce now. The brand I love is Go Go Squeeze. 100 percent fruit no added anything. Just twist the cap off and squeeze out the apple sauce. You don't even need utensils. Makes great desserts or jazzes up the sardines or nuts or you could even put it on a salad.
posted by WalkerWestridge at 10:14 AM on February 14, 2013

Chicago's bus system is quite good. Use Google maps on your smartphone if you have one - it will even tell you when the next bus is. Whole foods is a great hotel stay food source. They do a pretty good breakfast and lunch with some healthy and not so healthy options, a big salad bar and of course everything else that is for sale in the store. Most of the nicer restaurants in Chicago use pretty ethical food sources (or at least claim to).

Chicago is delicious. Good luck!
posted by srboisvert at 11:10 AM on February 14, 2013

This doesn't directly address your request, so forgive me if this is unwelcome advice, but the image of you coming to Chicago and spending your entire time at a conference center and its attached hotel, gnawing on granola bars, is a little heartbreaking. Chicago's a fantastic restaurant town and your dietary restrictions aren't hard to accomodate here. Here's a list to get you started. (My two cents: I've heard great things about Mana; skip Handlebar). These really don't have to be expensive meals.

In Chicago, you can use the Uber app to request a cab at their regular rates. It works great, and the fee and tip is included in the service fee that's charged to your card, so there's no awkwardness at the end of your ride - just say thanks and leave.

I don't love travelling for work myself, but getting out, trying some restaurants, and seeing the sights makes the whole experience a lot more worthwhile.
posted by ndg at 11:27 AM on February 14, 2013 [2 favorites]

I realize that your normal routine is to eat at home. But it sounds like much of that comes from living in a small town where restaurants have difficulty accommodating your dietary needs.

There are soooooooo many places in Chicago that will be more than happy to accommodate you... wonderful places with wonderful food, many of them close to your hotel/convention.

For example, while I understand that you eat cruelty-free eggs and fish, try a quick Google search for "vegan restaurants." There are dozens. Karyn's on Green is a beautiful place with terrific food that is a quick cab ride away from McCormick. It's adjacent to Greektown, too, so you might be able to talk co-workers into a group trip out that way. And, while they have their steaks and saganaki, you can drop in on Karyn's and meet them for drinks before or after.

If you want to eat quietly in your room for social reasons or simply out of habit, there are good bits of advice in this thread. But if it's simply because you're not used to being able to find options that suit you... welcome to Chicago. We can help you here.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 11:32 AM on February 14, 2013 [1 favorite]

I had this experience -- in New Orleans, of all places! I knew it as food heaven, not as a desert when you start eating ethically and healthily. I don't disagree with the Chicagoans here who have restaurant recommendations, but here's what I did when I wasn't going out -- to places I suggested, which served at least some healthy things I could/would eat -- with conference folks:

I brought some basic things like can openers and silverware packed in my luggage.

I got a fridge in my room -- it was a very small additional charge to the room per day.

I went shopping at a great local grocery store and stocked up on salad stuff, a cheap plate, beans, unsalted nuts, and a lovely oil and a lovely vinegar. That made for great lunch or dinner. And fruit and almond milk and oats (very easy to cook up with hot water in a cup or purchased bowl -- just get the hot water from the coffee maker by running it without coffee pod in it) for breakfast.

Sometimes I took a brisk walk to a restaurant that serves what I eat -- like organic salad places -- and had lunch there.
posted by bearwife at 1:35 PM on February 14, 2013

My most epic travel food secret is to always have a dehydrated camping meal in my backpack. This is my favorite, but there are lots of varieties. While these meals tend to be on the carby side, they've saved my life on many an overnight flight where there was no vegetarian food to be found. In the air, wait until the meal/drink service is over to ask for hot water. On the ground, Starbucks is your friend!
posted by justjess at 1:37 PM on February 14, 2013

Response by poster: Whew! I feel much less daunted by this trip with all of these suggestions in mind. There are some definite foodies going with us on the trip, so hopefully we will venture out to nicer restaurants. Also, will see what I can do about getting myself to a nice grocery store. Finally, thanks for the suggestions about portable foodstuffs. I LOVE the suggestion of having McDougall's soups delivered to the hotel!

posted by silly me at 3:46 PM on February 14, 2013

BTW, taking taxis in Chicago is easy, even without the Uber app (but that might make it easier).

Your hotel will likely have a taxi stand at one of its doors, and/or doorman or porter who can get one for you.

When you're heading back to the hotel, you can walk out to the curb and stick your arm out above your head when you see a cab 1/2 block away (or closer).
posted by Heart_on_Sleeve at 6:05 AM on February 15, 2013

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