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.
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.
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.
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. I’ve been researching coolers that plug into the car lighter (and later into a hotel wall outlet), but I really want to see options in person, to better gauge size and capacity. So that purchase is on hold until I find a good source.
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.
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 compact fabric grocery sacks (for shopping). Oh, and a corkscrew/bottle opener. Just sayin’.
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, nut butter and whole-grain wraps. Also bags of frozen peas and berries, which my daughter loves and which double as ice packs. In the past we’ve brought frozen Stonyfield Farms squeezable yogurts as an alternative to rest-stop popsicles. I don’t like the sugar, but they’re organic and the cows are treated well and pastured. My daughter doesn’t love them, though, so they’re off the list for this summer.
Otherwise it’s things like nuts, seeds, raisins, other dried and freeze-dried fruit, trail mix, popcorn, granola bars, whole-grain crackers and cookies, 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.)
For quick in-room breakfasts, I pack granola, unsweetened oatmeal packets, and whole-grain sprouted bagels or bread. Also organic milk or yogurt if we’ll have a fridge. Or sometimes I shop for milk or yogurt when we arrive. (We’ve occasionally brought shelf-stable boxes of organic milk, but we try to avoid them because they’re ultra-high-temperature (UHT) pasteurized, which basically obliterates the nutrients.)
If we’re staying someplace with a free breakfast buffet, we skip the highly processed spread, but still use the hotel’s toaster, dishes and utensils. For times when we do eat restaurant toast, I bring squeeze packets of organic peanut butter so we have a better option than margarine (fake food) or 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 selling 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. Farmers’ markets are worth finding not only for the food — on a recent trip we managed an in-room meal of market salad greens, cheese and sweet potatoes cooked in the microwave — but also because they’re attractions in their own right.
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. I also like the mobile app AroundMe for finding nearby restaurants in a pinch. It’s amazing how often there’s whole-food fare just a couple miles off the highway. 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?
Also check out this piece I wrote for Kiwi magazine about eating well while road-tripping. The article has tips like these for packing your own food and finding healthy fare along the way, but also for avoiding the children’s menu rut. (Examples: Order family-style and share. And don’t be afraid to ask for substitutions, even if it costs an extra buck.)
The original version of this piece appeared on Spoonfed last June.
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