Anatomy of a Vacation

by Melissa Hartwig, who almost always works while on vacation, but didn’t this time

On Thursday, I met my sister Kelly in Napa, CA for a girls-only long weekend. We planned to eat some good food (some of the best restaurants in the country are in wine country), relax in the sunshine, and, of course, drink some wine.

As I was preparing for this vacation, I thought of the number of times people have asked us, “How do you handle a vacation without (a) feeling like junk the whole time you’re on the trip, (b) coming home five pounds heavier, and (c) needing a month to recover, mentally and physically?” For us at this point,  navigating what we call “Nutritional Off-Roading” is second nature, but this trip, I decided to document what I was doing, so I could share it with our readers. So, start to finish, here is the anatomy of a Whole9 vacation.

Not surprisingly, it starts with the Whole30®.


What you do in the days leading up to your vacation can make or break you, health-wise. I cannot stress this enough—if there is only one tip you pay attention to in this whole article, it’s this one.

Do not go off the rails before your trip even starts.

You know what I’m talking about… the whole, “Well, as of Saturday I’ll be drinking margaritas, so I may as well have that glass of wine when I get home from work.” The thought is tempting, but do not do this. In fact, do the opposite of this. My best healthy vacation strategy?

A few days of Whole30 before you start your trip.

Get back into the groove of clean eating in the week(s) before you leave. Remind yourself how amazing it feels, how righteous it feels, to eat only foods that make you healthier. Get back to a place of good sleep, rockin’ energy, a flatter stomach. Remind your body that this is how good you can feel—and that feeling any less good than this is kind of a bummer.

For me, this takes three days. For you, it may take ten days, a week, five days. Figure it out, and commit to the program right up through the moment you set foot in your vacation destination. Going into the trip feeling clean, light, fresh, and amazing will do wonders for your willpower when tempted with so much of the not-worth-it-but-it’s-sitting-right-there-and-I’m-on-vacation! foods and drinks you’ll encounter on your trip.

During Vacation

Here’s the part that should now be easier following your mini-Whole30… choose your indulgences carefully.  Eat and drink with awareness. Do not allow yourself to get the idea that just because you’re on vacation, your choices have no consequences. A margarita is still a margarita, even if you are in Cabo. You feel me?

Evaluate each meal, each option, with a critical eye. Follow our Guide to Nutritional Off-Roading, in theory. Ask yourself, is this really worth it? Is this special enough, is this delicious enough, is it going to mess me up? Pass on the stuff that doesn’t cut the mustard, and enjoy what passes your test. Again, going into your trip with a Whole30 mindset will make this process that much simpler.

When you do indulge, enjoy it. Savor it. Be in love with your food or drink! But if you take two bites and discover it’s nowhere near as good as you expected, ditch it immediately.  Don’t waste your oh-so-good feeling on an experience that’s mediocre at best.

Finally, when you do indulge, resist the urge to give into the “what the hell?” effect. You know how that goes: You’ve just been seated at the table and the waiter brings out a fresh basket of warm cornbread with honey-apple butter. You evaluate and decide heck yes, that’s worth it. You eat, enjoy, and then scope the menu for the next course.

And you find yourself saying, “Well, I’ve already had the cornbread, so… what the hell.”

Now you’re ordering stuff that you don’t really want to, because your reward-driven brain tricked you into believing that your health is an on-or-off proposition… that one indulgence in your day “ruins” the health quality of the whole day.

That is just silly. You know that logically. So don’t do it. Evaluate each individual instance on its own, and don’t let your previous choice hold any weight. Some days, you may find you stick to basically Whole30 friendly foods all day, because nothing was worth it. Cool. Other days, you may decide to indulge in something every single meal. Also cool. As long as each decision was carefully, deliberately made… and not the product of the “what the hell?” effect.*

*Note, it is a scientific fact that alcohol amplifies the WTH effect by 178%. Indulge in booze carefully, or you may find yourself face-first in a pile of churros after those one (no, two… make it three!) poolside tequila shots.


Your post-vacation mindset (and body-set) is going to depend on what you chose to eat/drink during your trip, and whether or not you let yourself slide down the slippery slope of the WTH effect too often. Ideally, you return feeling almost as good as you did when you left—not heavy and bloated, digestive system intact, and cravings relatively under control.

Or, it’s the opposite, and you return home feeling like a chubby, tired, sugar-driven shell of your former self. If that is the case, I hope you had a really great trip.

Either way, the plane ride or drive home is the perfect time to prepare yourself for what is ahead. It could go either way.

Scenario A: You’ll return home with wicked cravings, and far less resolve to make good choices, which means your “vacation” continues for a few extra days (if not weeks). You’ll want to clean it up, but your resolve is shot, because your Sugar Dragon is in overdrive and your old habits have come back in full effect.

Scenario B: You’ll feel like such doo-doo when you get home that you cannot wait to dive head-first into a giant, protein-laden salad; drink your bodyweight in water; crawl into bed at 8 PM; and hit the gym the next morning.

Either way, your plan is exactly the same. Your job is to get right back on the Whole30 as soon as you get home. Not the next day, or after the weekend, but the very first meal you eat when you return. And then stay on it for as long as it takes to get you back on track. It’s going to be way easier for you Scenario B people, since you’re already desperate to clean out your system, but latent cravings can sneak up on you, too, so be on your guard. Proceed as long as you need to, until you’re back to a healthy, balanced place.

In some instances, you may need to add some additional “rules” to your program. I always add the clause that I can’t eat after dinner (no “dessert”) for the first few days after a vacation, because when I come back my cravings are always stronger than they were when I left. You may decide not to snack, or not to eat too much dried fruit or Larabars, or to make sure you exercise for the first three days in a row post-vacation. Do this for as long as it takes for this healthy living thing to feel effortless again.

My Vacation

So here’s how my vacation went down.

Pre-vacation, I did the Whole30 for four days (including the day I flew out). When I landed, I hit the local Whole Foods to beef up my supply of healthy snacks and emergency food—Gourmet Grassfed jerky, kale chips, pistachios, fresh fruit, carrot sticks, guacamole, turkey slices.  My first day in Napa was 100% Whole30 compliant.

From Friday morning breakfast through dinner Saturday night, I chose not to indulge in less-healthy foods. Breakfasts, lunches, and Friday night dinner was Whole30-ish—no grains, no dairy (save heavy cream in my decaf), no legumes, no desserts. This was not on purpose, and it wasn’t difficult—I was feeling so fantastic that there was just nothing worth going off the rails for at any of these meals, and what I did order was without exception so delicious, I never felt like I was missing out.

Of course, I drank wine.

We went to three tastings on Friday and two on Saturday. I had a few sips of each glass before pouring it out, and if I didn’t like the wine, I didn’t bother drinking it. I never felt tired or headache-y, because I knew I had to keep consumption of booze to a reasonable amount in order to continue feeling fantastic. (Even in Napa, y’all.)

But Saturday night, I knew ahead of time that I was going to indulge. We had reservations at Ad Hoc, the funky younger sister restaurant of Thomas Keller’s famous French Laundry.  They serve one menu a night—you get what you get, and they don’t post it ahead of time. But it’s always locally, responsibly sourced, and drop-dead-delicious, so I was prepared to go with the flow, avoiding only those things that I knew would absolutely wreck me if I did indulge.

Let’s break it down, course by course:

So there you have it – the anatomy of a vacation (mine and yours). Use this strategy to maximize the enjoyment factor of your next vacation (and the inevitable return back to the real world). Do you have a favorite happy, healthy vacation strategy? Share it in comments!

A very special thank you to Angelica & Jason Moore of Silenus Vintners; Ryan Callahan of Girl & the Fig, and Belen Callahan of Boon Fly Cafe for the hospitality, and to Kellie & Kevin Macway for introducing the Whole30 to the chefs at French Laundry! Keep us posted as to how they’re doing – we’re sorry we missed you while we were in town.

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  1. says

    Great points! I actually find that I enjoy vacations MORE when I stick to my healthy diet. You get better food and you feel good enough to enjoy your free time. I once went to Italy and spent all day hunting for pizza (oddly hard to find), finally settling on a cheap greasy place, which I immediately regretted, both because it tasted bad and I felt bad afterwards. Lesson learned.

    Since then, it’s always been good food, and even the occasional workout if I’m feeling like I need it. A trip to Portugal a year later was perfect for Paleo (they do a lot of wild caught sardines), and I didn’t drop my standards just because I was traveling. The result: the best vacation of my life and nothing but fond memories.

    Thanks for sharing your experience Melissa. It always helps to have the details, because that is where people get caught up.

  2. Sam says

    Totally needed this post. Its great stuff to consider when on vacation, but even for at home. So often I get stuck in the “what the heck” eating pattern which then turns into 5 days of off-road eating and suffering the consequences of those food choices. Perfect post to start my renewed whole30 eating for this week and beyond. Thanks!

  3. Jordan says

    Hey Melissa, great post. Just wanted to give you a heads up that you are missing the “t” in “Yountville” in your Ad Hoc Sign photo caption.

    Jordan: Thanks! Corrected. Melissa

  4. says

    Great post – I love being able to read your book and then read about how you walk your talk. I’ve always wanted to go to Napa, now I know how to do it right and I have to add that restaurant to my list!!

    Just wanted to add, we did a condensed version of this over the weekend. We live in San Diego and just purchased passes to Sea World which means we can go any day for the next year. Just because Sea World feels like a vacation doesn’t mean we wanted to go crazy.

    They allow you to bring in your own food and drinks – a blessing – so my boyfriend and I packed up tons of food; homeade chicken salad, nitrate free roast beef & salami, carrot sticks, cherry tomatos, sliced cucumbers, plantain chips, cherries, apples, bottled water and Nom Nom Paleo’s Liar Bars that I whipped up the night before. We got to the park at 9am, and stayed until 6:45. It was a hot day with long lines, tons of walking and a 4 and a 6 year old that we had to keep happy. We stayed on plan except for one small indulgence that we felt ok about considering the rest of our food was healthy.

    We treated the kids, and ourselves, to ice cream. It was hot, we were sticky, a little energy zapped from the lines and it was totally worth it! We came home and had an on plan dinner and spent Sunday making all on plan meals. As far as I’m concerned no harm, no foul and no feeling like we didn’t enjoy ourselves 100% nor did we “deprive” the kids of a Sea World experience because we ate veggies all day.

    Thanks again for your post – great stuff!!

  5. Donna says

    My nutritional off-roading on vacation last week was not as successful as yours (though I didn’t indulge as much as I thought I would) but I am on-track now and will be until my trip to France in September where I will follow this guideline. Thanks for the posts!

  6. Susie says

    Perfect timing!! I am about to go on a 3 week vacation spree – a week in Yellowstone with family, a weekend in Vegas for a wedding, and then 5 days in NAPA! I’ve been so dialed in with my diet so I’ve been thinking a lot about how I’m going to handle these vacations. I am NOT willing to lose all the progress I’ve made over the past several months. I basically came up with what you said above – super clean leading up to, in between, and after all the trips, as clean as possible when on the trips, and picking a few special indulgences and enjoying the hell out of them. And drinking wine in Napa. I’m not going to worry about that too much.

  7. Linda says

    Wow, perfect timing. I am leaving on an Alaskan cruise next month, and this is very helpful. I have never been on a cruise before, and all I hear about is how much food there is to eat. I’ve been worrying about how I am going to handle it. My husband bought us “unlimited” drink packages, but I think that is just a guarantee of over-indulging. I think I’d better cancel that package and just pay as I go for only those drinks I really want. Thanks for this timely info!

  8. laura t. says

    great post! i am definitely printing this out and bringing this along on my 2-week vaca in september, where i know i’ll be faced with many, many challenges and decisions. its an awesome reminder of why i eat the way i do!

  9. Laurent says

    why oh why didn’t you post this a week ago!
    the last week in cancun wrecked me and i believe it all starts with alcohol like your article says.
    but i’m on day 4 of whole 30 now so no probs there.
    i also would add to your blog entry that going to all-inclusives should be avoided because it makes it that much harder to avoid the junk.

  10. says

    Glad you’re finding the post helpful! Donna, it’s not about comparing who was “better” on vacation – it’s about learning from your experiences, and using what you’ve learned to make a better plan for next time through. Maybe that means you indulge MORE – is there anything from your last trip that you’re still thinking about, wishing you had taken just a bite or two, or raised just one glass with your friends? Or maybe you indulge less – you knew that dessert wasn’t worth it, but you ate it anyway, and you won’t bother with that again. Make sense?

    Robyn, I love how you used these same principles for your one-day “mini-vacation!” Well done.

    Linda, I think canceling that unlimited drink package is a smart move. “All you can eat” (or drink) is a recipe for overindulgence, because (a) you CAN, and (b) you’ve already paid for it, and you’d better get your money’s worth. You’ll be forced to think about whether you really want to indulge every time you pull out your wallet… and that “pause” seems to set you up for better success.

    One thing I should have mentioned above, too… sleep deprivation makes this all so. Much. Harder. I’ve had vacations in the past where I get two or three days of short sleep, and all of a sudden I’m eating everything in site, no critical thinking involved. So watch your sleep, take naps if you can, and if you do come up short, be on your guard, because the cravings and lack of good judgment are sure to follow.


  11. 84clarkb says

    Great Post! and very timely with so many people going on vacation this time of year. This Post brings a great prospective on how to enjoy your vacation without the guilt/crappy feeling associated with poor eating on vacation.

  12. says

    I appreciate your off-roading approach, Melissa. For me, food is a big part of the travel experience – especially when going abroad – and it’s a tricky balance trying to stay healthy, eat well, and still enjoy the local cuisines, which aren’t always on-track. Thank you for sharing your own travel philosophy and the gorgeous meals you ate along the way!

  13. cate says

    This is an awesome post! I like that you addressed the “what the hell” attitude as well. By nature, I’m pretty extreme – I’m on / I’m off; I’m in / I’m out, something that I’ve been working through with the Whole 30 for almost a year now, so in the past I’ve come off a Whole30 and just gone bat sh*t crazy off the rails. I went to NOLA a few weeks ago, just a week and a half after finishing a Whole30, and for the first time, I didn’t let my cravings determine everything for me. I knew I wanted beignets, jambalaya, and Abita beer. I had beignets once, despite the fact that I gave myself permission to have them as many times as I wanted. Once ended up being more than enough, b/c fried dough isn’t as awesome as it once was. After four days, I still came back feeling bloated and over it, with a food hangover rather than an alcohol hangover. I started my new whole30 that Monday morning, the day after I returned, and this time I also through a candida diet into the mix so no fruit either. My first week was easy peasy, but last week was as hard as the first time I ever tried these whole30 shenanigans. However, I know now that the hard stuff passes, and I can remember the sugar and gluten bloat and haze that is so not worth diving into right now. PLUS, this is my first whole30 since I read “It Starts With Food,” so I’m feeling extra motivation!

  14. says

    Thanks Melissa, great article. Getting ready to go to the US in 11 days time I can’t help but feel a little nervous. I remember on my last trip the sheer abundance of unhealthy food available and the difficulties I had with finding anything that didn’t have bread, pasta or sugar in it. Great tip about WholeFoods: I find the main reason why it’s so easy to slip on vacation is because you don’t get any home-cooked meals and because you find yourself in a unknown territory starving hungry (ripe for the picking by street food outlets) We’ll be sure to stock up on jerky, nuts and cold meats. And I know I’m definitely trying this Larabar everyone is going on about :)

  15. Nicole says

    Great post! I needed it about a month ago when the WTH!? attitude killed me on vacation. I went from being super clean eater to a donut, hash brown eating slug. And the strange thing is I wasn’t a donut, hash brown eating slug before going on vacation or for about the past 20 years. I went from one extreme to another and suffered the consequences-belly ache, puffy, generally feeling gross. I was shocked at how slippery the slop became since I have no problem eating clean while at home. I have learned my pendulum swings hard back the other way-the cleaner I eat the “dirtier” I eat when I off road. This has led me to try to find a better balance and keep my clean reasonable instead of super stringent.

    I am better prepared for the next vacation and won’t make the same mistake again (I hope!)

    Great restaurants abound in the Napa Valley, Ad Hoc looks delicious!

  16. Nancy Coyle says

    So.. I should have followed this at the end of June when I was in Sonoma with my girlfriends (still recovering) but my husband and I are on a staycation in San Diego next week. This time it will be different. A much needed post this time of year. Just because I am on vacation doesn’t mean a “free for all” even at home.
    I’m glad you met my son and daughter-in-law,
    Ryan and Belen while you were up there. And I got Ryan a copy of ISWF too!

  17. Amanda says

    Great timing on the post – heading out to Vegas in a few weeks and don’t want to feel like crap the whole time : ) Melissa, how close to Whole 30 eating are you usually? – just wondering why you choose to do a 4-day pre-trip Whole 30, as I assumed you guys stay pretty much on track in your day-to-day food choices…

  18. says

    I must be an enigma. I am usually even more conscious and careful about what I eat while on vacation. There is something great about using that time to be busy and active, and that doesn’t lend itself well to eating all kinds of junk. Hmmmm, perhaps I should vacation more :) Thanks for another great article.

  19. says

    Because I am just coming off of a vacation (well, visiting family, even trickier for me), the resolve you demonstrate sounds practically impossible. This is why I can tell that the pre-vacation cleanse is key. I know that feeling of effortlessness, and what a brilliant idea to carry it into vacation with you. I definitely have the habit of “starting” a day or so early, and continuing the trend a few days (or weeks) post. I am starting the whole30 on the 1st, so I have been indulging in what I call “Last Supper Eating” (After August first, I’m never eating this again, so a trip to the following restaurants/pastry shops, etc. are all necessary this week). Your inspirational post reminds me what I have felt like when I’ve been more “on the wagon” so to speak. Can’t wait to get that effortlessness back! (well, I guess I can, b/c I have no intention of starting before the 1st). Sigh. I DO, however, use some of the “is it worth it” process even when in this indulgent space. I think the frequency with which I conclude that it IS worth it goes way down when I haven’t been “on a bender”. Such a vicious cycle. I am certain it’s this program above all others that will really help me reign it in!

  20. says

    Hey Melissa! Thanks for the post, it was really fun to read. I am envious of your awesome-sounding Ad Hoc meal… and the ideas on how to deal with inevitable vacation off-roading were unique and useful.

    I recently posted on my blog about the ideal components of a vacation, but I didn’t address any diet-related factors. Check out, where I discuss activity, logistics, social factors, etc… now I’m going to think about how dietary factors fit into my ideal vacation! Cheers-

  21. LC says

    Completely agree with this post! I just went on a bachelorette weekend and spent the 5 days before eating clean and avoiding alcohol. I felt great going into the weekend and it made me feel so much better throughout.

  22. says

    I was on vacation this weekend, too! My husband & I hiked seven of the summits on the Superior Hiking Trail (MN), for a total of 31.5 wonderful miles over 4 days.

    Anyway, cystic acne makes all grains, dairy, & legumes 100% not worth it, 100% of the time, so I avoided them as I always do. Instead, I ate plenty of eggs, meats, nuts, & paleo-ized desserts at the campfire…but zero fruits/veg. I had intended to find a local grocery store & stock up, but we did not see any.

    By the end of only DAY TWO, I was jonesing for vegetables like nothing else. I craved crunchy crispy cold ANYTHING. I found a tiny grocer on day three, finally, and ate a bag of snap peas in about 3.2 minutes. They were the best damn thing I ate all weekend!

    It shocked me to feel that way, as I was expecting to be craving real s’mores, or ice cream, or fudge, or any (all) of those touristy treats, but all I really desperately wanted was a Big Ass Salad. Yay for health!

  23. amy says

    Great post! Like Linda, I’m going on a cruise to Alaska next month. I’ve been eating well and feeling a little anxious about what will happen once I go on vacation, but I’m going to follow your guide. There will be tons of food on the cruise, but probably nothing I’ve never had before or can’t get in LA. I’m happy to be traveling with someone who is like-minded in eating well and staying active (we’ve booked tours for kayaking and ice hiking and plan to use the gym on ship). Yippeee!!!

  24. says

    Bridgedurso, I want to stress one thing… it wasn’t “resolve.” I didn’t white-knuckle my way through Napa, avoiding temptation by the skin of my teeth. I just made careful, deliberate decisions every step of the way, and to be honest, Napa is a really excellent place to eat really clean. I may have made different choices if I were somewhere else, but for this trip, that’s just how it shook out.

    Amanda, we eat pretty much Whole30 at home, with the occasional treat. (Hot buttered popcorn, dark-ish chocolate, maybe some hummus now and again.) But I had just come back from Toronto, visiting Dallas’ family, and I was sleep deprived and not feeling so hot from making some choices that didn’t agree with me there. So it was 100% Whole30 the moment I got home, just to clear me back up. And except from a kick-ass Moscow Mule at High West Whiskey in Park City the other night, I haven’t deviated since I got back from Napa, either. Still feeling great!


  25. Diane says

    I just returned from vacation. I drove from Southern California to Wyoming for a backpacking trip. I went for austerity. It was not a vacation for food. I brought a cooler and put some pemmican and fixings for lettuce wraps in it. The cooler was in the back of my truck out of reach. I figured I’d make the drive almost like a fast. I set off on 20 hours of driving. I would stop at a gas station, eat some of my food if I was hungry and continue on. I stayed at BLM campgrounds and KOA campgrounds along the way just long enough to sleep. When I got to my destination I went backpacking so I had all my food planned. It was really good backpacking food, stuff I dehydrated myself. I hiked with a mushroom expert so every day my dinners were overflowing with wild mushrooms and wild greens. I celebrated my arrival to Wyoming before the hike and my successful completion after the hike by going out for egg breakfasts, the only meals out the entire time. I lost 5lbs and felt great the whole time! It was nice to get away from the temptations of wine and chocolate at home.

  26. Laura Flack says

    Ugh. I really wish I had read this post earlier. I got home 2 weeks ago from England, visiting my son and daughter-in-law. One thing I did learn – be prepared. I wasn’t. I was in awe of England, but being with family and not having the ability to just go shopping, and the restaurants that our kids wanted to go to weren’t paleo friendly – I failed. Just totally failed. This usually also happens when I visit my mom back east. Don’t have a car, and have to field the questions – I feel so out of my element.

    I have to plan my vacations better. When I can go where I need to go, and just eat at home, then I do much better.

    I’m starting my Whole30 on the 1st and am ready to get back to that.

  27. says

    Ok… that pork belly is just CRUEL! Deliciouuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuus :-) I really resonated with what you said here: “Your reward-driven brain tricked you into believing that your health is an on-or-off proposition” regarding stopping yourself from throwing in a whole day for one snack. I fight with this one CONSTANTLY but am definitely getting better at seeing each naughty-ish meal as an isolated decision and moving on.

  28. says

    We lost a few comments last night, as our site went down and we had to restore it from a back-up.

    Last night at 8 PM, Natalie wrote:

    “I always figured you and Dallas ate whole 30 100% of the time! I hate to say this but I love knowing that you are not perfect all the time either! It makes you so much more real in my eyes. Thank you for another great post! You have changed our lives and we are now healthier and happier for it thank you!”

    Natalie, we practice what we preach! We’ve never, ever told anyone that they should eat Whole365, and that’s not how we eat either! It’s not about being perfect, it’s about finding the healthiest balance for YOU. And we think we’ve done that really well at this point (but it took multiple Whole30’s for us to get here).


  29. says

    Today is my last day of Whole 30, and Thursday begins my 12-day trip to Washington state to see friends and family and attend a conference. This post was VERY helpful, especially since I’ll be in the reintroduction phase. I plan on eating as close to Whole 30 as possible, but I also know there will be those few instances where I deem it worth it to go off the grid. I want a brief encounter with cheese and chocolate if the situation presents itself, but otherwise I’m good. Thank you for Whole 30. It’s been wonderful.