It is possible to eat healthy on a road trip, long or short, without spending a ton of money on convenience foods at the gas station. Follow my How to Eat Healthy on a Road Trip guide, and read my recipe and food suggestions for breakfast, lunch, dinner, snacks and even dessert, and you will be ready to hit the road!
A month ago already – geez, how time flies – Paul and I left for an 18 hour road trip from Iowa to South Carolina (I feel the need to clarify that it was 18 hours one way)! I also feel the need to clarify that with traffic in big cities, road construction and stops, it actually took us 22 hours!!! My goal was to take our drinking water and make and pack all of our food that we would need for the road trip for breakfast, lunch, dinner, snacks and dessert! I know this may sound like a daunting task, especially when you need to pack your suitcase (and everything else that your parents ask you to bring because you’re driving this year – how convenient for them – Kidding, KIDDING)! But it was less daunting because I made plenty of shortcuts in the kitchen that I will share with you. I also chose to buy some items rather than make them from scratch. I hope this post doesn’t find you too late, after you have already gone on your road trip for the summer. For some, such as my sister-in-law who just texted me for road trip food ideas literally TODAY, I know this post is just in time for your late summer and early fall road trips. Planning is key; this is the ultimate guide to help you eat healthy on the road!
Why You Should Make Your Own Food for a Road Trip
- You can control exactly what you eat. Eating healthy on the road, and especially on a time crunch, is difficult. Usually your choices consist of mostly unhealthy fast food, and if you’re lucky you can find Subway or a semi-decent diner connected to a pit stop area. (But the diner we experienced on our way home was way worse than McDonald’s would have been. You know it’s really bad when I would have preferred to eat there – I NEVER eat at McDonald’s)! When you make your own food for your road trip you can control exactly what’s going into your mouth while still maintaining a tight time schedule.
- To avoid any allergies. I do a lot of gluten free recipes on this blog, and sometimes vegan and dairy free recipes so that my family and friends who have these allergies can have recipe options. If you have celiac or are gluten sensitive it is pretty difficult to find those gluten free options that you can count on when on the road. Unless all you want to eat all day are nuts and some beef jerky. Yum, but not very satisfying at all! By bringing your own food you can relax knowing that you have the food you need.
- Saves you a ton of money. As always, when you make your own food you are saving money. If you pick up snacks at gas stations, those elevated prices can add up really fast!
- You will feel better. The healthier you eat the better you will feel! The last thing you want to do is arrive at your vacation destination feeling all run down and gross because you ate poorly, especially when you are probably already cranky and tired from sitting in a car for 22 hours (or maybe that was just me)!
Planning how much food, and what to make or what to buy is key to avoiding fast food on the road. Here are some tips:
- About 1 to 2 weeks ahead of your road trip sit down with a pen and paper and write out how many meals you will need to make. This will vary depending on how long you will be in your car and what time of day you will be driving. For us, we left at 4 am on Friday morning with the plan to eat breakfast in the car.
- Do your research to find out if there are a lot of rest areas on your route. This will help you decide what kind of food to pack (such as more finger food that you can eat in the car versus bowl and fork foods). This is something that I wish I would have planned better. I made a lot of food thinking we could stop at rest areas to sit down and eat it, but there weren’t very many rest areas on our way, making it hard to eat some of the food I made.
- Plan food for how many servings you will need per food item. This will vary depending on how many people are in the car, or if you have kids in the car.
- Will you need a cooler? This depends on whether you are just bringing snacks for a 4 hour road trip or you are making meals that can spoil if they’re not kept cold. Don’t forget plenty of ice or cooler packs for your cooler. We were lacking in this department and some of our food got a little warmer than we would have liked. Especially as we started to drive more south. Those 10 minute gas station stops while the car a/c is turned off can heat up the cooler quickly.
- Make a list of any supplies you will need: Paper bowls, plates, paper towel roll, plastic forks/spoons, hand sanitizer, several garbage bags, etc.
- Make your grocery list and shop for your food a week ahead of time.
- Make all your food 1 to 2 days in advance.
Don’t Make Everything
Yes, we are bringing our own food on this road trip to eat healthier and to save money. But you also need to pack, feed the cat, take out the garbage, do the dishes, clean out the fridge, lock the doors, and stay calm at the same time! Sometimes I think you need an extra day of vacation just to unwind from getting ready to leave for your vacation. When it comes down to it you can’t make EVERYTHING from scratch that you’re going to eat; otherwise you will go crazy!
Pick and chose, do a little give and take. If you decide to make your own hummus, then buy some nut bars instead of making your own energy balls. Or buy some already cooked rotisserie chicken from the grocery store rather than making your own. Give yourself a little break. No matter what, you are still going to eat way healthier than if you buy fast food on the road and you will save more money than if you pay sky-high convenience store prices.
Here are my food suggestions that you can either make or buy. When thinking of ideas I am mindful of a few things: 1) How well will the food keep, and will it taste good at room temperature? 2) Have a balance of fruits, veggies, healthy fats, and protein if possible 3) How easy is it to eat?
- Hard boiled eggs with sriracha/mustard and mayo – I peeled them in advance and they worked great. We ate them in a little bowl. Paul was even able to eat them while driving and without spilling!
- Granola – either store-bought or my Apple Spiced Granola (V + GF)
- Fresh fruit – Pick fruit that’s easy, not messy or too juicy. You also want fruits that don’t bruise easily, such as apples and grapes.
- Broccoli and Cheddar Bacon Quinoa Bites (GF) – These guys worked really well. They are good eaten cold and are great for when you need to eat while driving. If you want more flavor varieties check out Iowa Girl Eats. She’s the queen of quinoa bites!
- Hummus and veggies – I have several varieties of hummus recipes that would be great for a road trip. This one is better eaten while sitting at a table. But if you are in a pinch you can pull into a gas station and sit in the car to eat, which is what we did.
- Tips for the veggies: Cut up hearty veggies that won’t get soggy on you, such as broccoli, cauliflower, carrots, and celery. Peppers do okay if you eat them within one day. Use plastic storage containers instead of plastic baggies; plastic baggies tend to trap moisture. Line the containers with paper towels to help keep things fresh.
For both of the following meals it’s easier to sit at a picnic table to eat. Or at the very least take turns having one person drive while the other person eats. This is why I highly recommend doing your research on how many rest areas are on your route so that you have an idea of whether or not you will be able to stop when needing to eat.
- Mango Black Bean Quinoa Salad (V + GF)
- Sonoma Chicken Salad (GF) – you can eat this with a fork or add it to some bread for a sandwich. This is where I would use the shortcut for the pre-cooked rotisserie chicken.
A lot of these can be purchased at a gas station, but remember they will be cheaper purchased in advance at a grocery store.
- Kind Bars. I especially love their nut bars.
- Energy Balls. I have several recipes.
- Baby Bella Cheese wheels, or string cheese. The cheese wheels are easier to eat while driving.
- Beef Jerkey
- Trail Mix
- Other nuts
- Fruits that are easy to eat and not messy
- Lunch meat – make sure it’s gluten free, if needed
Especially with all of the sitting around you do while on a road trip, I try to keep my dessert-eating to a minimum. However, I do have quite the sweet tooth and when the moment strikes I would rather have a semi-healthy option on hand than I would to find myself buying a Twix bar at a gas station. P.S. they’re all ideas for chocolate. Sorry, but not sorry!
- No Bake Hazelnut Brownies (GF + V) – these guys travel really well and are pretty much a sweeter version of an energy bar. No Twix bars were harmed during the making of this blog post!
- Dark Chocolate Brownies (GF + DF)
- Store-bought dark Chocolate Bars
This may sound like a silly one: the last thing you want to do on a road trip is to drink a ton of water so that you have to make a million bathroom stops, right? I agree. I probably didn’t drink as much water on the road trip as I normally do, but it is important to stay hydrated. We bought three gallon-size jugs of water at the grocery store for 99 cents before we left. Whenever we made a stop we filled up our reusable bottles. We did not chill the water in a cooler, but it did remain a nice room temperature. That water lasted us the entire drive there and then some! You can save some serious bucks! We spent under $3 on water rather than the $20 or more we would have spent if we had bought individual bottles at gas stations. Plus we wasted less plastic! That’s a win win!
I hope this How to Eat Healthy on a Road Trip post helps you plan your next road trip, whether it’s at the end of this summer, early fall, or next summer, so that you can feel good about the food you eat while on the road and save a little money, too!
As I said before, planning our food ahead really helped us to be prepared. This will be especially helpful if you have little ones in the car! That being said, no matter how organized you are with your planning and your packing, things still won’t go totally as planned and that’s okay. On our drive there, we never ended up touching the food I made for dinner. Like I said before, I wish I would have looked up how many rest stops would be on our route down. Either we were oblivious or the roads from Iowa to South Carolina just don’t have very many rest areas. Therefore it made it difficult to eat the dinner we had planned, which really required a table. We ended up eating at Subway for dinner, because we just HAD to get out of the car for longer than 10 minutes for a bathroom break. Yes, I know I was trying to avoid fast food, but at least it was at a healthier venue than some. And you know what, two meals, snacks, water, and dessert in the car when we started at 4 am is a pretty big accomplishment!
At the very least you can plan to bring lunch meats, cheeses, and some bread to make sandwiches. If you can’t stop somewhere you can at least eat the meat and cheese and maybe some of that fruit. We did not make food or bring many snacks for the trip home and, trust me, I wish I would have at least done the minimum. We ended up eating at a diner connected to a gas station – first mistake right there. The food was horrible, the service was horrible, and it set us back an hour and a half! When it comes to health and happiness it’s worth taking the extra time to bring some food along. Take advantage of the drive where you can bring coolers and gallons of water, and pillows and blankets – it’s one of the few advantages of driving across country instead of flying!
Happy road tripping everyone!