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Summertime. When the living is easy, road trips entice, and that road is paved with fast food and greasy spoons. What to do, what to do.

Road trip!

As a longtime vegetarian, I’ve been bringing food on the road for years, if only a few bananas and granola bars to get me through the gauntlet of golden arches. When we started traveling with a little one, though, I needed to think bigger (and beyond the dreaded children’s menu). Which is why I now spend more time packing food than clothes. We can’t eat on the road exactly like we do at home, but we can try.

Drink up

A staple, no matter how long the trip: stainless-steel water thermoses. We fill them with ice and water when we leave and just keep refilling along the way. I like the insulated ones because they keep water cold and don’t sweat. I also whip up a blenderful of smoothies and fill a thermos. It at least gets us through to our first destination and possibly to breakfast the next morning. Then we have an empty thermos to use later if needed.

Cool it

For short trips, we bring just a soft-sided cooler and ice packs, then transfer food to a refrigerator at the hotel or, in a pinch, an ice bucket topped with a towel and set atop the air-conditioning unit. On longer trips we bring a small hard-sided cooler. And for this summer we’re planning to buy a cooler/mini fridge that plugs into the car lighter. I’m more excited about that than I should be.

I also always pack a small cooler bag for day trips. Even in situations where we can’t freeze ice packs, like when we were on a weeklong cycling and camping trip, or if we’re staying somewhere without a fridge, the bag protects food from the heat. At least for a little while.

Portable kitchen

Just the basics: a small cutting board and a knife with a protective sleeve; forks and spoons; cups (which can double as bowls); a few empty food-storage containers; some plastic baggies and cloth snack bags; paper towels and wet wipes; dish soap and a dish towel; and those fabric grocery sacks that fold into little pouches (for shopping). Oh, and a corkscrew/bottle opener. Just sayin’.

The food

I don’t go crazy with perishables, since we restock along the way, but it’s nice to have a small reserve. Typical fare: carrot sticks and red pepper strips, clementines, grapes and apples (pre-washed), cut cheese, hummus and whole-grain wraps. Sometimes we’ll bring Stonyfield Farms squeezable yogurts. I don’t like the sugar, but they’re organic and the cows are treated well and pastured, and we freeze them before leaving so my daughter has a healthier alternative to rest-stop popsicles.  She loves frozen peas and berries, too, so sometimes I throw in bags of those. Like the yogurt, they double as ice packs.

Otherwise it’s things like nuts, seeds, raisins, other dried and freeze-dried fruit, trail mix, popcorn, granola bars, whole-grain crackers and unsweetened applesauce cups. Also cherry tomatoes and sugar snap peas if they’re in season. And still-green bananas. (If you’ve ever traveled with ripe bananas, you know why.)

If we’ll be away more than a few days, I pack jars of almond or peanut butter and jam, and some bread. Also granola for breakfast. (Then we hope to find organic milk or yogurt on the road.) Unsweetened instant oatmeal would be good, too. On a recent quick trip, I opted for individual squeeze packets of organic peanut butter, so we had a better option if our breakfast toast, say, came only with margarine (trans fats) or those little jelly cups (high-fructose corn syrup). Yes, these things occur to me. As my husband is fond of saying (fondly): “It’s not easy being you, is it?”

Basically, I pack a variety of things to serve as snacks and small meals. I don’t pack for the apocalypse. We have only so much room in the car, plus part of the fun of road trips is discovering local groceries and farmstands along the way.


Sometimes those groceries and farmstands just pop up on the horizon, so we try to take full advantage when they do. Other times we go looking for them, which is when books like “Healthy Highways” come in handy. HH is geared toward vegetarians, but really it’s for anyone trying to eat better on the road. Organized by city within each state, it lists natural-food stores, as well as whole-food, organic and ethnic eateries. Each entry has full contact info, plus a highway exit number and driving directions. And you can get updates through the website. It’s a glovebox fixture.

Local Harvest and the Eat Well Guide are web directories that let you search by zip, city or state (or Canadian province) to find stores, farmers’ markets and restaurants serving local, sustainable and organic food, either before you leave or, if you’re traveling wired, on the road. I also check the Edible Communities publication for areas we’ll be visiting. And I’m about to get a smartphone, so I’ll be researching locavore apps soon. If you have one you like, please share.

Eating out

Of course there are times we just want to sit and let someone else do the work. So we check restaurant listings in “Healthy Highways” or the web directories, or ask someone for a recommendation. But if all else fails, we do what road-trippers have done for generations: pick a place that looks good and hope for the best.

How do you eat on the road? Tales to tell? Tips to share?

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