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We Don’t Do Lunch (How to Pack Real Travel Food for Day Trips)

How to pack a Real Food Lunch Instead of Buying Expensive Junk

Everyone knows not to drink the water in Mexico.

Same rule should apply to theme parks and other one-day excursions.

Don’t drink the $5 bottled water.

It’s a rip-off!

But when you’re on vacation, enjoying a special day with your family, you feel trapped.

Like a lion at the zoo eating a piece of meat when he’d really rather have chased down a zebra, you pay through the nose for water, something you get for free at home.

It doesn’t have to be that way.

You’re trapped at something like a baseball game when you’re not permitted to bring your own, but at zoos, museums and theme parks, there’s a better way, both for your pocketbook and your nutrition.

This post is sponsored by Seventh Generation. You’ll see why in a minute…

Just (Don’t) Do It

Recycling hundreds of water bottles from school walk a thon

I’m pretty stubbornly committed to never buying expensive food on a day trip excursion.

We don’t buy zoo food, ever.

We have water bottles in the car for baseball games.

We picnic when we go to the beach.

And we even pack our own lunch when we go to Disney. Last time we were there, we spent less than $40 on food for 5 people for the entire day, including the requisite ice cream bars during a scorching midday parade. It’s possible!


Expensive food at the zoo

We went to the Toledo Zoo recently (gorgeous zoo, even in a torrential downpour the entire day!! Hence the ugly cell phone photos…) and put our regular “Bring Your Own Lunch” habits to the test.

I know you can’t read the prices on that photo above, but it was $4.75 for a single hamburger, no fries, and well over $7 for a combo meal that did not include a beverage. We could have paid upwards of $50 on food to feed our hungry family, as much as the cost of admission!

Plus, the power went out right at lunchtime, so everyone was looking at our spread with envy.

We were feeling so fortunate that we took the time to pack real lunches, and it didn’t even take that long.

RELATED: Packing dry Instant Pot meals for Airbnb stays!

The Secret to Speed

I’ve packed a LOT of school lunches, so I’m actually pretty good at making individual servings, but when we’re going out as a family, I don’t bother.

I pack “family style” and grab paper plates to use while we’re there, and I find it saves a ton of time on the front end when you just want to get out on your excursion and go!

It’s super fast to grab a few dishes of food, bags of veggies and whole fruits from the fridge and toss them into a small cooler with ice packs. I add napkins and Seventh Generation baby wipes for the sticky faces and fingers, and all the utensils are just tossed in a reusable sandwich bag – I typically use real utensils so I’m not throwing away plastic. In just minutes, we’re ready to go.

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!

healthy road trip packing list

Note: If we have to eat in the car for whatever reason, I do pack individual lunches that I can hand out while we’re driving, and that up-front investment repays us 100-fold in all the “drive time” that the kids are kept happy with their food. Smile

On this zoo trip since we had to eat inside, I was glad to have the wipes to wash off the table, too, plus hands at the start of the meal (remember the power was off). They’re very thick and up to the task!

And although washing hands with soap and running water is the best, sometimes it just isn’t possible (like those car trips).

I nearly died when I saw parabens listed on a package of Huggies wipes a friend got at a baby shower last year – eek! Putting known endocrine disruptors on baby’s bottom and leaving them there – or on my kids’ hands right before eating?! No, way. Seventh Generation’s wipes are free of fragrances, dyes, parabens and phthalates…now THAT is speaking my love language!

Seventh Generation baby wipes for more than just diaper changes

The Bring-Your-Own-Lunch Food List – without a sandwich in sight!

Did I mention that another reason I hate buying food out – beyond the jacked-up cost and the incredibly poor nutrition – is the gluten issue?

We eat “gluten-lite” and try to avoid gluten whenever we can, and that’s rarely possible at kiosks on vacation unless you want to survive on popcorn and cotton candy exclusively.

We don’t do bread.

So no sandwiches.

Here’s what we generally pack for something like a day outing at the zoo (adapted to be more disposable for big trips like Disney), and we’ve done the same at museums and aquariums (just eat in the café area and no one will yell at you):

How to Pack a Real Food Lunch for an Outing
  • egg salad
  • guacamole or homemade ranch dressing
  • cut veggies: carrots, cucumbers, cherry tomatoes
  • Blue Diamond Nut Thins – gluten-free crackers (The ingredients aren’t perfect, but they’re a fun treat when we’re already forgoing all the fun treats we’re surrounded by. If you want to go totally grain-free, just use cucumbers and large pieces of red pepper or a huge lettuce leaf as the delivery system for the egg salad. Also, a fork will do just fine too.)
  • sliced cheese or string cheese, depending on how much time I have to pack
  • whole or cut fruit
How to Pack a Real Food Lunch at the Zoo no expensive junk food

For this particular day, we had some yummy additions:

  • leftover potato wedges
  • individual cups of organic unsweetened applesauce – they’re an “emergency packing item” we keep on hand, and my kids feel like it’s a big treat when I finally let them have one! We would usually pack homemade yogurt in individual servings.

We might bring any number of other leftovers or make a potato salad. I don’t often bring meat-based dishes unless I know that (1) we won’t need to leave them on ice for long, and (2) we won’t have leftovers.

All of the items here are more stable if the temp goes up a bit (and I am careful to pack the exact amount of egg salad we need and use lacto-fermented homemade mayo to prolong its life).

Doesn’t That Take Too Much Time?

Honestly? No.

The only thing I make special for the meal is the egg salad, which I have down to a science. Everything else is stuff we have in our fridge that we’d eat for lunch or dinner at home, so it’s no big deal to just grab them and go, maybe prepping a few cut raw veggies, but I do that all day every day anyway. Smile

Just like I wash kids up all day, every day. Getting to just throw away the wipes IS my idea of a vacation!! (And since they’re made of plant-derived ingredients, I don’t feel so badly about filling the landfill with harmful chemicals.)

Washing messy hands at the end of our real food meal

Other Snacks We Pack

This summer has been a cycle of packing, traveling, unpacking and packing again (sometimes unpacking from one trip at the same time as packing for the next!). We’ve had so many instances during which most families would have been grabbing food on the road, but we’ve largely avoided eating out (and chose Thai or Mexican when we had to, with pretty clean, whole foods components).

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!

I’m kind of a master at packing food for the road. Along with our BYOL, we always grab:

  • homemade beef jerky
  • crispy nuts and dried fruit
  • organic tortilla chips and salsa for the really long trips
  • a few Larabars for emergencies
  • chocolate chips – for when the kids get whiny in the car. Really helps to block them out!

We’ve had more than once already this summer where we ended up without a meal we expected or heading home later in the day than expected, and we’ve been able to cobble together an entire dinner with the jerky, crackers, cheese, leftover veggies and fruit.

It’s such a feeling of accomplishment to drive BY the fast food places on our route and wave at them instead of feeling trapped and have to drive THROUGH.

How to Pack a Real Food Lunch for a Day Trip

And a huge bonus – this is food my kids love.

In fact, the last time we had one of those “oops we are not going to make it home in time for dinner” experiences, it was at the end of a long, fun 4th of July weekend with lots of grilling out and “fun foods” since we were at other people’s houses.

How to pack a Real Food Lunch Instead of Buying Expensive Junk

We had just enough of my real food leftovers to make dinner happen while we drove the two hours home – and the opinion from the back seat came in:

“This is the best meal EVER, thank you, Mom!”

And I was just glad they were fed at all. Smile

Real food for the win!

What’s your real food strategy when you’re away from home? Do you pack food in theme parks?

Oh, and if you stay allll day at the zoo in the rain, you might end up with a photo as cool as this:

The Kimballs and their gorilla

That simply had to be shared.

Unless otherwise credited, photos are owned by the author or used with a license from Canva or Deposit Photos.

26 thoughts on “We Don’t Do Lunch (How to Pack Real Travel Food for Day Trips)”

  1. We travel extensively for 4 months every two years and have saved so much money packing lunches on our road trips. We bring a mini cutting board, a good veggie peeler and a nice knife with a cover everywhere we go! We are gluten free and some of us are nut free and others dairy free, but even with those restrictions, we make it work… some of our lunch items include: good quality meat sticks, cheese, veggie sticks, fruit, hard boiled eggs (we have a camping size salt/pepper shaker), healthy crackers or veggie chips/sticks and home made energy balls/bars – there are so many different recipes for these and they are a nice treat.

    1. Carolyn @ Kitchen Stewardship

      Thanks for sharing those tips Angie! We do similar things when we travel, but we haven’t done that big of a trip!

  2. The reason my family stops at fast-food restaurants when traveling is to USE THE BATHROOM. What do you do about that?

    1. Carolyn @ Kitchen Stewardship

      Hi Vicki,

      We try to stop at rest stops to use bathrooms and if there isn’t one around or we need to stop NOW we stop at a fast food restaurant and my husband will get a drink. Still not super healthy, but it’s better and cheaper than us all eating the food.

  3. The thing that gets me usually is the packing. It ends up being a lot of food for us and it’s heavy to carry. Hubs does the heavy lifting, but still we are usually carrying so many things…. What do you guys do?

    1. Susan,
      We joke that even when we don’t have a kid who needs a stroller, we’ll still take one with us to put our junk in. 😉 So for zoo trips, we have a soft-sided cooler with a long strap that hangs over the stroller or goes in the bottom easily. For Disney, we took a reusable bag that rolls up tiny when empty and all disposable stuff, so before lunch it was something someone had to carry but at least it went on the shoulder (we don’t do strollers at disney) and after lunch it was all gone. We had a backpack with water bottles and snacks anyway.
      🙂 Katie

  4. We usually pack food for day trips, with the exception of Disney! I pack some snack foods for Disney, but eating there is a huge part of the fun for us (especially during festivals with food kiosks at Epcot). it just isn’t the same eating something I brought in compared to the Biergarten or Prime Time Cafe.

    That said, there are only 3 of us so far! Those prices will probably give me pause as our family grows. 🙂

  5. Eric Fernance

    And probably just as good, eating real food instead of the burgers and chips served up in most fast food joints means you avoid any of the food induced mid afternoon temper tantrums! A better day at the zoo for everyone all round!

    PS: that bowl at the top of the photo right at the top looks like it might almost be a thermomix bowl. Is it? or just a normal mixing bowl?


      1. Eric Fernance

        Lol … thanks… I was peering at the photo I trying to work it out. Time to get my eyes checked!

  6. Would you mind sharing your egg salad recipe? I have just kind of made it up as I go along, but would be interested to see how you make it. Thanks!

      1. Sounds yummy! I usually mash the eggs, add homemade mayo, dijon mustard, dill, and cut up fermented pickles or Bubbies relish (if I have some). Occasionally I’ll add a little homemade yogurt to make it extra creamy!

  7. I wish we packed more. I wish I had the time but most of all, I wish we were okay with eating a packed lunch. We like restaurant food very much and is part of our fun. We eat real food at home and when we eat out we never get soda or desserts, but when we go away we don’t feel like eating the same stuff we eat at home all the time. I guess we are spoiled! I’m the only one who cooks in a family of 7 and I love LOVE eating a plate of food I didn’t have to cook. Such a treat.

  8. I love some of your ideas. We will be traveling out of state for 2 weeks and I am looking for ideas for lunches while picnicking. Part of the time we will be staying at a friends house. We won’t have leftovers as an option. I don’t feel at liberty to cook a lot in their kitchen, other than a simple breakfast. (They will be at work.) Egg salad would’ve worked perfectly, exept 2 of my kids won’t eat it 🙁 I have made lunches for trips with egg salad before and some of it is left uneaten and wasted.

    I plan to go to the local health food store to get some snacks that are on the ‘healthier’ side and can cut up veggies (even in the hotel we will be staying at part of the time), but it is difficult to do a main dish. At local zoo’s we usually just pack PB&J, with gluten free bread for me. However I cringe at the bread each time and I feel like it is not very satisfying.

    Do you have any suggestions?

    1. Farhaana,
      I think you still have a lot of options – first, can you talk to your friends and ask if you can give them the gift of cooking dinners FOR them, if they’ll let you have at it in their kitchen? Who knows, maybe they’d relish a home-cooked meal, and then you can feel like you can do a lot more. Depending on how you’ll be able to keep food cold your whole trip, some of our other favorite quick-eat packable foods are:
      * pancakes made into PB sandwiches (the pancakes can be made of nuts, GF, veggies in there, whatever, as long as you can keep them cold while you travel)
      * potato salad – but this could be any cold “salad” made with whole grains (quinoa is great) or pasta. Add veggies and beans for a main dish, or buy a rotisserie chicken and shred that into your cold grain salad too
      * cheese and crackers = easy favorite, with jerky makes it feel more like a main dish
      * hearty dips for those veggies – guac, hummus, spicy bean dip, cheesy dip

      Again, if you can cook a little in your friends’ kitchen, things like baked potatoes, nachos, grilled meat/vegs are really simple and not much mess. You can do a baked potato bar with cheese and any topping you can think of, get good-ingredient refried beans on chips, taco meat (that makes a great leftover cold salad for picnics).

      Hope that helps! 🙂 katie

  9. Martha Artyomenko

    Most of the theme parks I have been to, have restrictions on even bringing water in with you. Don’t you have that issue?

    1. Martha,
      We are not able to bring waters into baseball stadiums and stuff like that, but theme parks never have a problem – even Disney. They just check everything. In fact, last time we were at Disney the gal who checked my bag said she was jealous of our lunch! 😉 Katie

  10. Becca @ The Earthlings Handbook

    I have not been a real stickler for lunch packing because many of our day-trip destinations had reasonable food for my family, which is smaller than yours and not grain-sensitive; we are mostly vegetarian, but we are willing to eat occasional poultry when there are no other options.

    But the Carnegie Museums, where we are members, are changing their food service provider; their food may not be as reasonably priced or offer as many healthy choices as it has been. The art + natural history museum is within a block of several decent restaurants, so we can go out and back in–but the science center is isolated, so we may need to pack a lunch when we go there.

    Kennywood amusement park near our home has an old-fashioned cafeteria-type restaurant with reasonable food (side of steamed veggies!) but this summer we plan to go back to Idlewild, a little farther away. Since we were last there 9 years ago, food options have changed; looks like it’s all fried junk now and very expensive!! Luckily, they make it easy to get back to your car to fetch your picnic.

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