No, I’m not hiring Guy Fieri to take us on a tour of restaurants that serve real food across the nation…although maybe that should go on my bucket list!
We traveled for a long drive over Memorial Day weekend this year, and packed our own food road trip food (and have even made dinner in the hotel room before) so we could eat healthy while away from home
5 Reasons to Pack a Meal When Traveling
- Eat Well – The only way to really be in charge of your family’s nutrition is to make your own food. Fast food makes it particularly tough to find anything nourishing, and when traveling, it’s likely that you’re entering into a time of more compromising foods anyway, I choose to eat well on the road and have fun when we’re with family, at an event, or visiting others.
- Spend Less – Similarly, the best way to save money on food is to make your own. Buying a meal for our family, with an 8-year-old boy, 5-year-old girl, and almost-2-year-old carnivorous male, runs $20 pretty quickly. I can pack our food in the single digits, and we waste less, too.
- Flexibility of Time – Our fondest desire when in the car is for our littlest to fall asleep. It’s much less stressful for everyone. If we have our own food, the big kids can eat when they’re hungry without running the risk of having to stop somewhere 20 minutes after John finally gives up to the sandman.
- Occupying Time – The second most-wanted reality in the car is content kiddos, ones who aren’t saying, “When will we get there?” or “I’m bored!” For our slow eaters, a meal can take a glorious 30-60 minutes, during which time they’re completely happy, and we get home faster because we didn’t have to stop for food, just for potty, gas, and wiggle worms.
- Less Waste – It’s a minor thing, but I’m always happy to avoid throwing away a bunch of trash, and we pack no-waste lunches, so I feel good about the environment, too.
Strategies for Making Car Food Work
It takes a little more prep to pack our own grub, but I’m happy to do it for my kids’ good health.
I used to pack everything together, family style, like a picnic, but recently I started packing individual lunchboxes for the big kids, and I really like that system.
The kids can have some responsibility for their own food, and if the littlest is sleeping (finally), it’s so easy to just pass back a lunchbox (or already have it next to them at the start of the trip). I pack in a Lunchbot or Ecolunchbox and include the napkin, stainless steel water bottle, and utensils, just as I would for a school lunch.
To save on dishes, my husband and I and John, who shouldn’t feed himself in the car, pack family style. For this last long trip, I sat next to John so I could play with him, read books, and feed him. I kid you not, eating took 90 minutes on the way down! It’s by far his favorite diversion, and we don’t mind one bit.
Beyond the individual lunchboxes, I always pack extra little snacks that are non-perishable, and we just throw back a reusable sandwich bag with something in it to the big kids in the back row of the van.
The Food We Packed For Our Roadtrip
Our travels over Memorial Day weekend took us 6 hours one direction, so we had to pack dinner on the way down and lunch on the way back.
- egg salad made with homemade mayo and plenty of mustard
- homemade whole wheat crackers and/or /Blue Diamond Nut Thins (pricey, but compared to fast food, it’s a far better compromise, and some in our family need to be gluten-free)
- cut raw veggies: carrots, cucumbers, pea pods (cukes in particular also work great for dipping egg salad)
- sometimes I include homemade ranch dressing, made thick with sour cream
- sliced cheese
- sliced apples
- power “balls” from Healthy Snacks to Go – like a homemade Larabar, but more bite-sized and easy to eat for kids. My personal favorites are Cinnamix and Cocoshew, so I make those most often!
- individual water bottles
Lunch on the way home
We were visiting family and I brought a lot of food for meals because our hosts had just had a baby, so I knew what options we’d likely have for packing on the return trip.
- cold grilled chicken with mustard for dipping (our family eats mustard like most American children go through ketchup!)
- homemade potato salad
- string cheese
- cubed melon
- carrot sticks with homemade guacamole for dipping
- The adults also had homemade yogurt with fresh fruit and grain-free granola topping, but I don’t trust the children with anything that liquid-y.
What’s a car trip without an abundance of snacks? We packed a seriously ridiculous amount of food overall, including:
- grain-free coconut muffins from Healthy Snacks to Go (with dried mixed berries in them, a special sugared-up treat!)
- plenty of power balls
- homemade granola (soaked) for munching
- dried strawberry fruit rolls
- Snapeas (a terrible indulgence from Costco…)
- trail mix
- leftover buckwheat pancakes made into sandwiches with a little peanut butter and honey
Let’s just say we did not go hungry.
Waste-Free Traveling Without Plastic
I cringe when I think about all the waste that can be created by packing food to go.
Fortunately, our culture is slowing turning toward reusing and reducing waste, which is so cool. Here are the gadgets we have in our home for traveling with food that help us avoid baggies:
- Reusable sandwich bags – I reviewed a bunch a while back, and we still use them very regularly.
- Leah’s favorite is her princess bag, the Itzy Ritzy brand from Mom4Life. I’ve decided I need to pick up one for Paul since this is nearly the only one I’d put really goopy goodies in, like a soft pear. It isn’t waterproof, but it’s close! I also need a boy print for John at church, since Itzy Ritzy has a quiet zipper and all the rest of our are – rrrrrrrip! – Velcro. That’s just loud stuff.
- Everyone likes the Snack Taxi brand, too (pictured at top).
- For sandwiches, Kids Konserve food cozy is a great option, as are many other brands that fold out into a placemat. We actually really love our cloth versions, but the seller is out of business now.
- Amazon has lots of options for reusable snack bags here
- Personal “Bento-style” lunch box thingys – clearly I don’t really know what to call these, but let’s just say I’ve used one or the other every day of first grade:
- ECO Lunchbox 3-in-1: I was a bit harsh on this not being able to fit a tall sandwich when I first reviewed it, but now that we rarely have bread, it’s been absolutely perfect for most of Paul’s lunches, and it’s super cool that I can pull out the smallest box and the top box and use them for quick snacks in the car. We do it often!
- LunchBots Quad (above): This is rather new for us, and other than the fact that it can be a little hard to clean (so can the ECO, but the Lunchbot is slightly worse because there are tiny spaces beneath each partition), it’s been awesome. I rather enjoy the challenge of finding 4 appropriately sized foods to fill each of the spots. (Lunchbot also comes in 3, 2 or one big compartment).
- Small Stainless Steel Containers
- Kids Konserve Nesting Trio Stainless-Steel Containers: These are cute, but 6yos can’t open them easily, and they are not leakproof. Trust me and my yogurt on that one. Best for dry munchies
- Life Without Plastic‘s stainless steel with clips is my son’s favorite for yogurt at lunch – he can open it without spilling, and it’s not as heavy as glass. This is one investment worth making! (pictured at right)
- Pyrex glass bowls – my husband uses the 1-cup size for homemade yogurt every day.
- Bee’s Wrap brand food wraps and other similar brands are organic cotton muslin covered with beeswax, jojoba oil, and tree resin. You warm the Bee’s Wrap slightly in your hands, form a seal on the top of a bowl or around an onion, hunk of bread or waffle, and it seals in the fridge. The antibacterial properties of the beeswax and jojoba oil help to keep food fresh and allow you to use the Bee’s Wrap again and again.
Healthy Travel Food Resources
Did you know I have a whole book of snacks “to go?” Healthy Snacks to Go is my first eBook, and since spring 2010, it’s been helping real food families everywhere conquer the temptation of convenience foods when the days get busy.
I’d love you to have this resource for your summer travel plans. If you’ve already got it on your computer somewhere but you haven’t opened it much, consider this your reminder to get on with it! You won’t be sorry.
If you’re interested and would like to take a peek, you can get an excerpt for free right HERE just a little way down the page.
More Healthy Travel Food Ideas
The community on Facebook shared plenty of other ideas for healthy car snacks and meals, and I’ve got a few more up my own sleeve as well:
- hard-boiled eggs
- sweet potato chips
- dehydrated green beans
- baked apple chips
- crispy roasted chickpeas (in Healthy Snacks to Go…now why don’t you have a copy yet?)
- fresh fruit, cut for easy eating if necessary
- your favorite muffin recipe
- dried bananas (how to dehydrate fruit)
- homemade granola bars
- celery sticks with cream cheese or peanut butter (and napkins!)
- popcorn (mmm, butter)
I’ve packed my Instant Pot on overnight trips before and cooked dinner right in the hotel room. If you don’t have an instant pot, consider taking a crockpot. One reader says she used a crockpot to warm up taco meat for taco salads and homemade muffins for breakfast. Wow!
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