Written by contributor Amy Thompson of Progressive Pioneer.

Road food, ugh, my stomach does a flip-flop just thinking about it.  Yet, it seems to be an inevitable part of family vacations.  But does it have to be?

Here are a few suggestions for maintaining your family’s healthy eating habits while on the road (with a few treats and splurges here and there, of course). Perhaps mentioning first those foods that definitely do not work while traveling would be easiest.  Steer clear of the following:

  • Anything that spoils quickly.  Tuna sandwiches are not your friend on that August cross-country road trip.
  • Food that requires assembly.
  • Strong odors.  Again, leave that tuna at home.
  • Foods that stain.  Have you seen your kid’s car seat lately?  Should the inevitable spill happen, you want cleanup to be as minimal as possible.
  • Food with too many disparate parts.  Think hummus and cucumbers in a pita, rather than a double-decker club sandwich.

Now, let’s talk about what does work on the road.  There are so many fun and delicious options, you’ll wonder why you ever patronized those drive-throughs in the first place. In my mind there are two categories of car-friendly foods; finger foods and drinkable foods.  Here are some of our favorites in each.

Photo by Stock Exchange

Finger Foods

  • Sandwiches cut up into cubes.
  • Whole wheat noodles like ziti or rotini with a lidded container of sauce (Remember the no-staining rule; try a homemade ranch instead of the traditional spaghetti sauce.)
  • Tiny rice crackers spread with nut butter (the nut butter is key here as it cuts down on the crumb explosion; rice crackers can be surprisingly messy)
  • Mini burritos.  Roll up beans, rice and cheese taquito-style in a small corn tortilla (heat them first, so the cheese binds everything in place).  They’re still tasty cold and are a novel treat on the road.
  • Sweet mini-burritos.  Fill these with cream cheese, a little cinnamon and honey and dried fruit and nuts.  Yum!
  • Veggie sushi.  Sushi isn’t typically associated with road trips, but if you leave out the fish it travels well, is compact, neat and fun to eat.
  • Homemade popcorn

Drinkable foods

Photo by Stock Exchange

The key to this snack is leak-proof containers.

  • Green smoothies are a great, healthy breakfast, though this will only work the first day of your trip as they won’t store longer than about twelve hours.  Offer green smoothies when you have one of those trips that starts by loading sleeping kids into the car at 3am.  It’s a much nicer meal to wake up to than a bag of chips or a fast food breakfast sandwich.
  • Yogurt.  Make your own yogurt smoothies by whizzing up fruit, yogurt and a little milk or juice to thin it.  These are so much easier to eat than yogurt with a spoon, while offering the same nutritional benefit.
  • Soup.  I know, that one took you by surprise! But a nice, pureed soup (butternut squash, black bean, garden pea and mint, etc.) is perfect in a thermos with a spout: nutritious, delicious and self-contained.

Photo by Stock Exchange

We know that man cannot live on car snacks alone, so the other solution I’ve found to avoiding road food is to plan your stops near grocery stores. While driving across the country on a shoe string for my first year of college, my two friends and I never ate out.  We packed up our tent in the morning, drove to the nearest grocery store and bought fruit, granola, yogurt etc.  The same routine for dinner.

We spread out our feast on the hood of the car right there in the parking lot.  Of course, you may want to take the kids to a nice grassy spot nearby.  Utilizing grocery stores, instead of restaurants and drive-throughs, will save money and keep everyone healthier, more balanced, and less grumpy.  Simply pack a picnic blanket, some plastic dishes, silverware and a cutting board and knife (trust me, this is imperative) and you’ll be ready for a healthy meal wherever you are.

Happy trails!

What are your favorite road foods?