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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. 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.

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 compact fabric grocery sacks (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, 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.

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. 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.

Spoonfed is now on Facebook. You’ll find links to blog posts, news and commentary on raising food-literate kids, questions and comments from readers, voices, viewpoints, the works. Stop by, like the page, chime in, spread the word. (Thanks.)

This post is linked into Real Food Wednesdays and Fight Back Fridays.

This post contains affiliate links. If you purchase a product through an affiliate link, your cost will be the same, but I will receive a small commission to help fund the work of writing this blog. Please know that I link only to products I value and support. Thank you!

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{ 4 comments… add one }

  • Barefeet In The Kitchen June 17, 2011, 11:12 am

    We are on the road a good bit in the summertime. We do everything possible to avoid those arches. I always have a small cooler in the car with us and it is stocked with portion size bags of raw veggies; cherry tomatoes, carrots, cucumbers, mini bell peppers, snap peas etc. I also put dehydrated apple slices, pineapple, strawberries and bananas (LOVE my dehydrator for that) in portion size bags. Cheese slices, bags of grapes, pre-washed apples, just about anything that can be eaten easily on the road. If at all possible, I try to make sandwiches in advance and put them in the cooler as well. I portion our favorite trail mix into small bags as well. I make a quick trail mis with almonds, cashews, macadamia nuts, craisins, golden raisins and sometimes dark chocolate chips to make it extra special.

  • Kira June 17, 2011, 10:07 pm

    I always pack fresh and healthy snacks and beverages for road trips (fruits and veggies, homemade goodies, lots of the stuff you’ve already mentioned). There is often absolutely nothing that I’m willing to eat at most convenience stores or rest stops (I read labels until I walk out in disgust) and definitely nothing to tempt me at fast food places. In a pinch, I hold out for a Wendy’s… plain baked potato with a dash of salt since their “sour cream” and “buttery spread” are so far from real foods it’s not funny. A plain potato is pretty decent though as far as most fast food goes, and then I can stop to hit the bathroom!

  • Dreena Tischler June 22, 2011, 10:58 pm

    Aside from wanting our kids to eat real food, taking our own food really enhances our experience of travel. We make it a rule that we don’t eat in the car (except for the occasional crying baby emergency); water only. If it is time to eat, it’s time to stretch our legs!! I pack similar things and all in bite size so the kids can grab a handful of whatever (cheese cubes, trail mix, etc) and jump around and move their legs. In our “lunch box”, I include jump-ropes and sidewalk chalk. Some of our best family memories are of roadside parks and picnic areas, like the tee-pees in west Texas and 4 feet of snow at a picnic area near Vail in mid JULY!

  • Dina Rose July 5, 2011, 1:54 pm

    A lot of parents forget to get their kids ready for a trip by telling them what foods will and won’t be available. This is particularly important if your child has, for instance, a morning raspberry habit and you’re not going to be near anywhere that sells raspberries. (Especially if you’re taking a plane vacation not a car vacation.) Kids are more resilient than most parents think and, with a little preparation, can handle almost anything.

    If you are traveling by plane, pack emergency foods (real things like dried fruit, PB&J sandwiches, self stable milk) to get your kids through to the next restaurant. When you’re in the restaurant, think about ordering something from the hostess while being seated so your kids don’t have a meltdown (please bring some cut up cucumbers…), and consider letting your kids order the adventurous food while you order the safe thing. Switch if necessary. Dina

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