One question I get asked all the time is “what should I do about food while I’m traveling in the car?” Let’s face it, you either love road trips or absolutely hate them – no in between. Especially when you’re driving in the Midwest. There’s only so much corn and soy I can look at without going crazy! Not only are road trips often long and boring, but there also tends to be pretty limited options for food. Generally you’re going to be stuck with gas station food, McDonalds, Subway, or maybe a Starbucks (if you’re lucky). This often leaves you with little options for nutrient-dense food on your drive. Fortunately for you, you also have access to your favorite RDs to give you some tips and tricks for navigating this challenging scenario!
First and foremost, my biggest recommendation is to pack meals and snacks. Not only will this save you time from having to stop and money from having to buy restaurant food, but it also ensures that you can have nutritious meals while on the road. I always try to bring a cooler so that I have more options available than just self-stable foods. If you are someone who travels a lot, it may be worth investing in a cooler that plugs into your car adaptor. If you want something easier, a cooler bag may be helpful. While you can get away with just packing shelf stable items, having some sort of cooler available opens up many other options for meals and snacks.
When it comes to meals and snacks, remember: we want some sort of carbohydrate, some sort of fat, and some sort of protein. That way we get energy but also stay fuller for longer. Some easy things to bring as snacks are apples and peanut butter, pretzels and hummus, tuna packets & crackers, or even trail mix (look for ones that a low in added sugar!). If you have a cooler, consider bringing along string cheese, Greek yogurt, or hardboiled eggs. For meals, an obvious one would be sandwiches. This classic travel food could easily be elevated by choosing whole grain bread or pita pockets, adding lots of veggies (tomatoes, cucumber, spinach, pickles, etc), and lean proteins like turkey or chicken. Two easy finger-food options would be turkey and vegetable pin wheels or a charcuterie-style bento box. Bowl-style dishes can be made before leaving and stored for later. Just start with a grain base (like rice, quinoa, or farro), then add a protein (beans, meat, tofu), and whichever veggies you’d like!
Don’t forget, many gas stations and rest areas have microwaves, condiments, napkins, and disposable silverware available if you need them!
If you’re nervous about food while traveling, the best thing you can do is plan ahead. But also, don’t worry if you do end up needing to stop and get food from the drive-thru. Traveling is stressful enough as it is. If trying to pack all of your food just adds way more stress to the situation, cut yourself some slack. Maybe you just pack snacks and get meals while you’re driving, or maybe you try to drink water instead of soda during the trip. Whatever it is you do, just try to relax and enjoy the ride.
-Alex Harris, MA, RD, LD, CPT