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Real Food Road Trip {Eat Well, Spend Less}

Real Food Road Trip

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! Winking smile

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 and packed a camping meal plan) so we could eat healthy while away from home.

5 Reasons to Pack a Meal When Traveling

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
    Real food road trip - Eat Healthy When Traveling
  4. 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.
  5. 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

Real food road trip

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.

Traveling as a family with real food in real life is a lot of work, but it’s so worth it. Learn from my experience packing a family of 6 up in a van for a two-month road trip. See what we brought with us, what we left home, how we ate healthy for cheap while we were away from home, and most impressively how we fit everything we needed for two months in the van with all 6 of us!

Print the Road Trip Packing List: Your Guide to Stress-Free Packing


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. Winking smile

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.

Paleovalley Meat Sticks

It can be hard to find healthy snacks that you can take with you on the go. When I want the convenience of a jerky stick, but want a healthy, protein packed snack option, I grab Paleovalley meat sticks. Paleovalley ingredients have these high standards that you can feel good about:

100% grass fed beef sticks, pasture raised beef sticks

  • 100% Grass Fed Beef & 100% Pasture Raised Turkey
  • Never given antibiotics or hormones
  • Gluten free, soy free, dairy free
  • 0 grams of sugar*
  • Contains no artificial nitrates or nitrites
  • Non-GMO
  • Naturally fermented and contain gut-friendly probiotics!

*With the exception of Teriyaki, which contains 2 grams of sugar from Organic Honey.

These beef sticks and turkey sticks taste delicious! My favorite is the Jalapeño but my kids love Summer Sausage.

Use this link to get 15% off your order at Paleovalley. Read my Paleovalley Review to learn more!

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)
  • 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.

Car Snacks

What’s a car trip without an abundance of snacks? We packed a seriously ridiculous amount of food overall, including:

Let’s just say we did not go hungry. Winking smile

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:

Veggies in a reusable bag for lunch keep it simple
  • 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
BBQ chicken and rice two sizes Lunchbots bento boxes
  • 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 eachStainless Steel Airtight Watertight Food Storage Container/Lunch Box, 8 cm (3 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
  • 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

Power Bars homemade Larabars with dried fruit and nuts

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.

HSTG Kindle Cover with double Outline_200px

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:

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!

Your turn! What do you like to pack (and how do you like to pack it) when you’re on the road?
Real food road trip

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25 thoughts on “Real Food Road Trip {Eat Well, Spend Less}”

  1. Amy via Facebook

    I’ve been drying food for the past week to prepare for our upcoming road trip. All the nutrients of fruit without the sticky mess!

  2. That’s awesome Rachael A. Rose!! I’m amazed people even bothered to look. 😉 Last time we were at Disney, we packed our whole lunch – hard-boiled eggs, cheese, our own water, the works! I bet we got looks too but I didn’t even notice. Then we bought ice cream for a treat later when they were already mostly through their day. 🙂

  3. Rachael via Facebook

    When we took a big family trip to Disney with all the in-laws, I got some quizzical looks when I busted out the cut fruit for my kids snack in the middle of the park. Why give candy when they need energy to make it through the day.

  4. Constance via Facebook

    always disappointed by choices if I go on road trip without own food. in a pinch I go to markets for the prepared salads and pick up fruit and water.

  5. This was a great and timely post, Katie! I recently wrote a similar post… Eating Well on the Fly (or Road). You’ve offered several additional tasty foods to add to our next travel menu!

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  10. We do the 2-3 days in the car thing at least once a year to visit family, and I would love to hear what people do when you need to keep food fresh for more than a few hours. After opening the cooler several times, I usually end up with a big soggy mess in the cooler and a lot of food that needs to be tossed on day 2. I have tried multiple coolers but we really don’t have enough room in the car for that. I wonder if packing enough for one day and then stopping to replenish the cooler at the grocery store in the morning would work better? I love the crockpot idea! It solves the problem of only having a microwave in the hotel room. Maybe I could plug a small one into the converter in the car . . .

    1. Beth,
      I wonder if Carrie’s ideas in her travel post this week will give you some inspiration:

      Stopping at a grocery store sounds smart, too! Although, when we camp for 3 days, we manage to cooler pack all our food – so part of the issue is probably packing, like never using zippered sandwich bags, only freezer bags, and maybe you need more ice and take a minute to drain water here and there? You can pack plastic containers filled with water-made-into-ice which last a while, and then you have the water to drink after it melts.

      Hope that helps!
      🙂 Katie

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  12. Hi, I have ‘Healthy snacks’ and scanned through for Cinnamix and Cocoshew recipes…..I didn’t find them on the table of contents….?

  13. Thanks for mentioning that toddlers should not feed themselves (that is, not without someone watching) in the car. When my son was 2, we drove 2,800 miles round-trip over the course of a week, including a visit to my parents who had snow peas in the garden; my son loves them, so my mom sent us off with a big bag of peas to eat (pods and all) in the car. Next day, I was driving and toddler was munching snow peas while Daddy sat next to him in the back…and the kid suddenly drowsed off with his mouth very full! His head flopping forward caused his dad to glance over–and see that he was turning purple as he silently choked on pea pods! By the time I pulled over, he had the peas scooped out and the kid breathing again, but it was very very scary and caused us to wait another two years before we let him eat while alone in the back seat, and to watch him more closely when he was eating to prevent him from putting too much in his mouth at once.

    1. My four year old choked on an apple slice a few months ago while i was driving on the interstate . Luckily she cleared it herself by the time i pulled over and got out to get to her, but scary! My kids also get much more motion sick while nibbling in the car so we far prefer to stop ad eat a big meal.

    2. Oh, my goodness…I always hope that any kid choking would make some noise – sometimes I ask my two bigger kids, “Does John look okay?” or make him talk to me if he’s eating in the back. Ack! Scary! So glad your little one’s Daddy was riding in the back that day, my, my…

      1. My mother choked on an orange slice during a car ride as an adult! If someone is truly choking, they make very little sound because air is not traveling past their vocal chords. Plus, in a car, someone hitting the side of their car seat or window might go unnoticed with car noise, conversation and radio. We try to make sure we are “two-by-two” for eating and that no one is outside the vision of another person.

  14. Thank you! I was just laying awake last night thinking “ack! Three days in the car (one way!)” and vacillating between “I can do this! We just need a big cooler!” And “oh we’ll be on the road, let it go.” But I know it will be much more tolerable if we feel healthy and nourished!

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