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Real food on the road

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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{ 22 comments… add one }

  • Kira June 6, 2010, 5:54 pm

    This is something that plagues me as well. I am very choosy about what I eat, and road trips (or even being in an unfamiliar location) often make it tough for me to enjoy food without feeling like I’m compromising on quality or content.

    I often pack homemade bread, local jam (no HFCS!), seasonal veggies, and cheese, etc., or if I’m pressed for time, organic fruit leathers or granola bars. Nuts, dried fruit, and water are definitely necessary inclusions on a trip especially if I’m not able to pack a cooler, and I often start out with some tea as well, having made the unfortunate mistake of attempting to obtain a palatable version of that beverage from too many roadside stops.

    By the way, I get made fun of, too, for refusing to use the margarine or jelly packets offered by restaurants. I also shun fake syrup in all its HFCS-y-ness, I would rather eat my pancakes dry.

    • Christina June 6, 2010, 6:22 pm

      I’m with you on the syrup. In fact, not sure whether you saw this post, but I actually bring my own real maple syrup when we’re going out for breakfast. At home, anyway. I don’t travel with maple syrup, but I have been known to buy a small bottle while traveling for the sole purpose of using it in a restaurant (especially if we’re in Canada or New England or some other maple-y place). Oh, for the record: My husband eats the same way I do. He just likes to tease me about it.

  • Melodie June 6, 2010, 8:43 pm

    Depending on how long the journey will be I’ll make a grain, bean and veggie salad and put it in a cooler and eat it until it’s gone. Homemade muffins are good too. I love your idea about bringing along smoothies. My kids prefer mine to the store bought ones but I usually end up relying on those ones anyway. Also like the frozen yogurt tubes idea although I haven’t seen any stores here that carry organic ones.

    • Christina June 7, 2010, 11:43 am

      Great idea about the salad. I’ve also made a brown-rice loaf that travels well.

  • Kate June 7, 2010, 12:26 pm

    Great post! Can you recommend a particular water bottle? I hate that ours drip, but I can’t find a good thermal one…and I’m picky about the style of opening, too. Geez, do I sound high-maintenance or what?!

    We’re pretty lucky that, when we travel, we’re towing our camper behind us. I pre-chill the fridge so I can stock it ahead of time and we can just pull over and chow down.

    • Christina June 7, 2010, 12:46 pm

      Not high-maintenance at all. I’m picky about the opening, too, which is another reason I’m not crazy about a lot of the uninsulated stainless thermoses out there. We use the Thermos brand thermoses. Ours have a locking pop top with a drinking spout, and our daughter’s has a pop top with a flexible straw (though hers is in a Hello Kitty theme, natch). I bought them all at Target.

      • Deb Giampa July 21, 2010, 5:34 pm

        Try the Klean Kanteens. They make double-walled insulated stainless steel bottles in a variety of sizes and they all have interchangeable caps with the option of a wide mouth “cafe cap” (similar to the lids on travel coffee cups, but this screws on) so you don’t have to chug it like a regular water bottle!

        • Christina July 21, 2010, 7:27 pm

          Thanks, Deb. When we started using the Thermoses, neither Kleen Kanteen nor Sigg made insulated bottles (that I knew of, anyway). So it’s good to know there are more options now.

  • Esther June 7, 2010, 12:54 pm

    Thank you so much Christina – we’re going to Los Angeles in July (by plane of course) and plan on doing a lot of day trips while we’re there. I’ll definitely try out your healthy alternatives on the road…trying to figure out how to incorporate them into our plane trips too!

    • Christina June 7, 2010, 1:08 pm

      With the notable exception of the plug-in cooler (well, and the knife), most of these adapt quite well to plane travel. Then just stock up on good stuff when you land!

  • Melissa June 8, 2010, 1:34 pm

    It’s so nice to hear that there are other crazy moms like me! I too spend more time packing food than clothes. Haha! We’re taking two road trips this summer, one in late June and the other in mid July, and I’ve already got the road menu planned out. Glad I found your blog!

  • WordVixen June 8, 2010, 6:30 pm

    Your husband may curse me for causing you to pack more on your trips, but I just couldn’t let this one go by- I can’t remember the brand, but there is an organic milk that is sold in individual servings that is shelf stable. If you go to where they have juice boxes in your local grocery store, look for the chocolate milk in boxes (easier to spot) then in the immediate vicinity. Your store might not carry it, but my local Giant Foodstores has it. I know that sounds just wrong buying shelf stable milk even if it is organic, and I don’t think the boxes are recyclable, but if you chill them before travel you can have nice cold organic milk with your PB & J without having to search for it.

    We only ever go to Walt Disney World, and since I’m a huge fan of their food, I only pack for the actual road trip and hotel snacks (mostly raw almonds, dried fruit, and chocolate as well as some awesome raw cheddar that I found locally). We don’t do sit down dinners, but the food courts at the hotels offer a lot of variety and there’s usually at least one not-just-burgers counter service at each park so that I’m able to eat reasonably, though with less control than I have at home. Biggest tip ever if you want to eat well at Disney? Check out the menus on AllEars.net so that you can pre-plan where to eat and what you want to order so that you don’t just wander into the nearest burger joint. And, of course, there are tons of just-off-the-highway places that you can get great produce cheap in that area.

    (BTW- I came to visit from FedUpWithSchoolLunch)

    • Christina June 8, 2010, 6:36 pm

      So glad you found the blog. We have bought the Organic Valley individual milks for travel, but lately we’ve been avoiding ultra-high-temperature (UHT) pasteurized milk. Still, once in awhile isn’t going to kill us. (And those boxes actually are recyclable!) Thanks for the Disney tips, too. Haven’t been yet, but I suspect it’s in our future.

      • WordVixen June 9, 2010, 2:22 pm

        You’re welcome, and thanks for the info on the boxes. I’m trying to get away from pasteurized milk altogether (I’ve never seen low heat pasteurized in our area) except for cooking (because, at that point, what’s the difference?), but I have to nab my friend that knows where the raw milk is- not easy since she’s a new mom. :-)

  • Beth June 9, 2010, 9:31 am

    Thanks for sharing your post on Real Food Wednesdays! I love that you inspired me to take a road trip because of all your great ideas on what and how to pack food-wise. I’ve always been a fan of those picnic tables that are located, oddly enough, in the most idyllic of spots…the interstate rest stops. On our trips from Pittsburgh to Edisto Island in South Carolina, we’ve made it a point to stop for a picnic lunch each time. Now I’ll be able to pack an even more mouthwatering cooler. (Your idea for the portable refrigerator is compelling, too!)

    • Christina June 9, 2010, 9:37 am

      So glad to hear you’ve been inspired. Love those picnic tables. We’ve even spread a picnic blanket on grassy patches between fast food joints. How’s that for irony?

  • Nikki Moore June 9, 2010, 2:25 pm

    such great ideas! i came over from Simple Organic’s similar post. Hubby and I are taking our first road/camping trip soon and I definitely need to be thinking about what to pack…not only for the driving hours, but meals for camping. thanks for the inspiration to stay healthy too!

  • Holly June 9, 2010, 3:09 pm

    Thanks for the great tips! My husband and I have been eating organic for the last year (that first month was rough!) and are always at a loss at what to eat on the road. I am ashamed to admit that we frequently end up not eating anything until we get home which isn’t very healthy either, but we’re still new to this and with a baby on the way, it’s going to get more complicated!

  • Scatteredmom June 10, 2010, 12:50 am

    I love this post! Such great ideas. We’re planning to take Food Revolution Fridays on the road through an 8000 km, 8 state road trip and I’m looking forward to the challenge! I am going to look for the “Healthy Highways” book to take along.

    Want to see how it goes? Look for it this summer at Notes From the Cookie Jar (http://tinyurl.com/2ao222e)

  • Audrey June 10, 2010, 9:53 am

    I loved this post. I wish I had read something like this when my kids were little. They are all in the their twentys now. We did a lot of travelling with our three kids when they were little and we did pack what I thought were healthy snacks but we could have done so much better. Excellent suggestions here!

  • Angie June 14, 2010, 12:28 am

    I hear ya about spending more time packing food than clothes. I waaaaay over-pack food for road trips. I worry about what’s out there. last couple hotels we stayed in I filled the fridge up to capacity and I still had food on the counter by the coffee pot. (I like the portable kitchen idea.) Camping is even harder because I’m packing for a week in he ADK. Fortunatly there is a small local fruit stand not far from where we camp so I will go there to stock up if necessary. I feel like I’m missing a family member if I don’t pack half my pantry and fridge for a road trip!

  • Shelly April 18, 2011, 7:34 pm

    I had to comment and tell you that I loved this post! I especially love the tip about using an ice bucket if you don’t have a fridge in your hotel room. We’re doing a road trip at the end of this summer and I’m printing this post out so I can follow your tips.

    This is a great blog. I’m trying to become more educated about food, especially for my son’s sake. It’s moms like you that help make it easier. Thank you and keep up the great work!

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