Between jobs, school, activities, and appointments, many families today spend a lot of time in the car. It’s tempting to make travel time double as meal time in order to squeeze everything into the schedule! All that driving/riding around is stressful, and a snack can be a pleasant distraction that stops the whining.
The trouble is that snacking on the road can become a bad habit of eating whenever you’re in the car, hungry or not.
Kids who get used to eating on the way to and from school every day can easily grow into adults who feel their commute just isn’t complete without constant nibbling…and that can mean taking in a lot more calories than they need. Kids today snack more than their parents did as children, and that’s more about habits than hunger.
Some people say I just don’t understand that the lives of “kids today” are much more hectic and car-oriented than the way “we” grew up, but that’s a misunderstanding both of my childhood and of what’s possible now. As I explained in my article urging people to get out of the car, I’m a 21st-century parent in a walkable neighborhood with public transit, and I’m here because I grew up in a sprawling oil-company town where almost every excursion required a car and I hated that.
Life felt busy then and now, but in a somewhat different way–many of my parents’ errands and meetings could be done online these days!
It’s great if you can choose a less-car lifestyle, but the locations of jobs and affordable housing can make that difficult. What I’m suggesting is that you save eating in a moving vehicle as a strategy for times when you really need it.
Maybe there’s one day a week when you can’t get the kids from piano to karate on time unless they eat on the way there–but that doesn’t mean they need a car snack on days when they’re going straight home.
You don’t have to be a stickler about never, ever eating on the road–just make it part of the emergency toolkit instead of a daily routine.
Here’s more about why to resist snacking on the road and cultivate more mindful eating habits in your life.
Healthy Habits: Not Just What We Eat
The snack you eat in the car might be exactly the same food you would have served at the table–but eating it as the scenery whizzes by creates a different experience that may affect your digestion, mood, and sensations of hunger or fullness. Mindful eating helps us digest and enjoy our food, and that makes the food more effective at nourishing our bodies and controlling our stress levels.
Ironically, taking the time to eat mindfully makes a busy lifestyle more bearable!
Katie’s interview with sociologist Dina Rose explains why we should teach kids healthy eating habits rather than rules about what to eat: If you focus on behaviors, nutrition will follow.
She said, “It’s not just what you eat; it’s about why, when, where, how much.”
If we hand kids food every time they get into the car, we’re teaching that a car ride is a “why, when, where” to eat, and the amount we’re providing is “how much” to eat. That discourages kids from thinking about what their bodies need.
Dina also said, “Eat because you’re hungry…not because you’re bored, sad, or lonely.” When considering snacks on the road, ask yourself: Are your kids really hungry at this time of day, or is eating an activity to divert them from the loneliness of being in the back seat away from you or the boredom of staring at the passing strip-malls? What could you do instead of food to keep the ride interesting and maintain connection with your kids?
Research on mindful eating shows that distractions reduce our awareness of how much we’re eating.
A meta-analysis found that distracted eaters take in less food at the beginning of a meal but more overall, and that they aren’t sure how much they’ve eaten. Here’s a less academic explanation of this phenomenon. This study found that distracted eaters are less aware of having eaten a particular food, compared to people who focused on eating.
Incorporating mindful eating as a family means planning for meals and snacks at times when we can focus primarily on eating, have time to eat at a reasonable pace, and enjoy being together in a pleasant and comfortable place. A snack eaten in a moving car while hurrying from one place to another isn’t like that, for most people.
Hazards of Eating on the Go
Aside from long-term habit formation, there are some risks to eating in a moving vehicle, especially for young children and for drivers.
Detrimental to Digestion
The parasympathetic nervous system controls our digestive processes. It functions best when we’re relaxed.
That means that if you need a snack to have enough energy for sports, it’s best to eat at a calm, stable time before you leave, rather than gobbling on the way there.
If you’re eating when you can’t digest, you won’t be feeling the energy when you need it, and you may have a “heavy stomach” feeling that’s unpleasant when exercising.
That’s partly about allowing time to digest before you exercise, but it’s also about letting your body focus on digestion instead of eating while you’re in the hurry-hurry mode that suspends “less immediately necessary” body processes in order to keep you moving and thinking quickly!
Eating when adrenaline is rushing only allows your body to digest about HALF the nutrients you eat – so it’s kind of like throwing away half your lovingly prepared food!
Stress probably has more of an effect on the driver than on passengers in the car. I know I find driving much more stressful and distracting than riding! The research on mindless eating has explored distractions like driving, walking, watching a video, or reading–I couldn’t find any research about eating while riding in a car.
But there are two other possible effects of car-riding on digestion that are worth thinking about, although I didn’t find any research on them:
- One is that the seat belt presses on your chest and lower abdomen. That may have some effect on the passage of food through your esophagus, stomach, and intestines, even if it’s only the psychological effect of feeling pressure. (Of course, the food you’ve just eaten won’t get to your intestines for a while, but eating triggers the food already in your system to move along through the intestines.)
- The other is that you’re in motion, and everything you can see outside the car appears to be moving past you. That can trigger uneasy feelings that, even if you never get motion sickness, may cause your body to slow digestion until you’re in a stable environment. (Ever noticed that you didn’t poop all day while traveling, but then you’re in the bathroom minutes after getting home?)
Snacks and Screens?
Many parents let kids watch a movie or play a game on a tablet, laptop, or built-in vehicle entertainment system during long trips. Some parents even turn on videos every time kids ride in the car.
That may have negative effects in itself, but let’s just focus on the well-established effects of staring at a screen while eating:
- There is a strong correlation between screen-time and obesity, and one of the reasons for this is that kids eat more while watching TV or video than they do when eating mindfully. Katie told me that her son’s preschool was putting shows on during lunch and snack until she stepped in–keeping the kids zoned out instead of socializing over their meal!
- Kids who watch TV while eating tend to eat more fried foods and sugary drinks, less fruit and vegetables. This is true even when they’re eating a family meal–food consumption is different with TV than without.
- Adults who ate in front of TV more than twice a week were more likely to gain weight than those who did it less often. College students who watched TV or played a computer game while snacking ate more, both at that time and later.
- By the way, a study in China found that kids with more attention-deficit and hyperactivity symptoms were both more likely to eat while using computers and more likely to eat in the car. It’s unclear whether they were using computers in cars.
So, screen-time and snack-time aren’t a healthy combination. If your kids need to eat in the car, don’t put on a video while they do it!
Are You Grabbing Junk Food?
The easiest foods to eat in the car–the ones you can buy in gas stations, the ones in convenient single-serving packages, the ones that are relatively neat and contained–are mostly unhealthy foods with a lot of sugar, bad fats, and additives. When the goal is to fortify your family for energetic activities like sports or dancing, it’s important to give them good food.
I said above that the snack you eat in the car might be exactly the same food you would have served at the table–so if you normally serve healthy food at home, then you just need a safe, Earth-friendly way to pack your snacks. But if you need some help finding healthy snacks appropriate to your adventures, check out Katie’s ebook Healthy Snacks To Go!
Reusing the glass jars from foods like nut butter, jam, or salsa gives you great containers for almost any type of food. Just pack them in a bag that cushions them and avoid dropping them. My kids have grown up with jars (and drinking glasses), and we rarely break one.
Is it Safe to Eat in the Car? Silent Choking
When my son Nicholas was 2 years old, we were on a multi-day road trip. When he got hungry mid-afternoon, way out in the country, I put a handful of fresh snow peas into a cup and handed it to him, then went back to gazing at the scenery…until I heard the faintest little yucky noise.
Nicholas was slumped against the seat belt, his face blotched red and blue, his gaping mouth PACKED with half-chewed peas–and he wasn’t breathing!!
By the time his dad had pulled the car onto the shoulder, I’d frantically pried the peas out of Nick’s mouth with my fingernails. It wasn’t until the last one was out that he coughed and gasped…and it took at least a full minute after that for him to regain consciousness.
We asked him why he’d put so many peas into his mouth at once, and he said, “I was sleepy; I forgot to chew.” A drowsy afternoon car ride is not a safe time for toddler snacking!
The risk of choking may not be any higher in the car than in other places, but think about this: If you’re the only adult in the car and you’re driving, how long could your child choke before you’d be able to do first aid?
You’ll have to pull over, stop the car, go around or through the car to reach your child’s seat, and try to pull the food out of her mouth…and if you need to do the Heimlich maneuver, you’ll have to unfasten her harness or seat belt first. All that takes precious time, during which your child may not be breathing!
And because genuine choking makes very little noise, as the driver you might not even notice your child choking in the back seat–especially if he’s in a rear-facing seat or is directly behind you.
I’m so glad that when my own child choked in the car, I was sitting in back with him while his father drove!
The Centers for Disease Control & Prevention, New York State Department of Health, Nationwide Children’s Hospital, and Seattle Children’s Hospital all advise against letting children eat in the car because of the risk of choking. Of course, this applies mostly to children under 3 years old, who are much more prone to choking than older kids who have more experience eating safely.
Don’t Eat and Drive!
We’ve been talking mostly about kids snacking in the car, but it’s also risky for the parent who’s driving.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s study of distracted driving identifies 3 forms of distraction: visual, manual, and cognitive. Eating is all of these: You take your eyes off the road for a second to aim the food at your mouth, you take your hand off the wheel for a second to pick up food, and you’re thinking about what you’re doing.
Although studies show that some other types of distraction are even more dangerous, eating while driving makes you 80% more likely to get into an accident that injures someone or damages property. Eating behind the wheel impairs your reaction time and ability to stay in your lane.
So, your own snacking in the car is not just modeling unhealthy behavior for your kids; it’s literally putting their lives at risk!
Cutting Back on Car Snacks: Ways to Make It Work
There are lots of good reasons to minimize car snacking:
- Eating while in a distracted state impairs digestion and nutrient absorption.
- The habit of eating during car trips can turn into, “I need to eat because I’m in the car,” which is out of touch with your body’s needs and can lead to weight gain.
- Driving while distracted by eating (or drinking) increases the risk of accidents.
- Choking is a risk, particularly for young children.
- It’s tempting to eat less healthy food in the car than you would at the table, because of the convenience of packaged snacks.
- Eating in a moving vehicle while restrained by a seat belt, both kids and adults drop a lot of crumbs and spill sticky stuff. Cars are hard to clean, and ants crawling around your car are a dangerous distraction!
I’ve shared 7 strategies for reducing car snacks in The Earthling’s Handbook to help you take practical steps forward! Some of these will be right for your family, and others won’t.
Look for strategies that suit your schedules, your personal metabolic clocks, and the particular places you’re going and places you could stop.
I’m grateful that I wasn’t raised with the expectation that hitting the road means having a snack!
It’s important to me to raise kids with healthy eating habits that have helped me stay slim all my life–and although living in a walkable neighborhood with public transit has made it a lot easier to avoid car snacking, we still have to resist the temptations of snack options all around us.
We pack healthy snacks for our all-day road trips, and there are other occasional exceptions, but eating in our car happens less than once a month. There are lots of good reasons to keep it from becoming routine!