I've crisscrossed the United States three times and driven close to 1,000 miles across Mexico. I've road-tripped up Australia's Sunshine Coast from Sydney to Cairns, and spent a couple of days cruising around Italy. And there's one big thing (besides keeping your camera locked and loaded at all times!) I always advise for longer road trips: Do not drive without bringing along meals and snacks. It might seem fun to eat road food, but mostly, it consists of greasy, unhealthy, too-sweet, and downright bad-for-you snacks and meals.
A couple of fast-food or diner meals on the road will leave you feeling bloated and gassy (not ideal if you are traveling with others!), grumpy, moody and impatient, and worst of all, sleepy. It's dangerous to drive when you feel tired — and our road food choices often lead to this state. Loading up on caffeinated drinks will help, but only for the short-term. And that caffeine might make it hard for your to sleep later, which is especially problematic if you're on a multi-day trip, which means you're going to need your rest.
Keeping up healthy eating habits when voyaging by car is a smart idea that will help you avoid a host of travel pitfalls.
Now, a special treat is almost always a great idea — whether that's a faraway doughnut shop you've always wanted to try, or an impulsive stop to check out a local delicacy. (After all, poutine is better in Montreal, and key lime pie is tastier in the Florida Keys.) But to avoid the bad-food blues on a road trip, bring along as much food as you can. Here's how I do it:
First, separate your stuff into three bags: I have one bag for snacks and beverages, one bag for meals, and one small bag to keep cold stuff in.
The reason I keep snack and meal bags separate is because it makes each more fun and interesting. Especially if you're on a long trip, you want to keep variety and interest in the food you're eating. If you look in the same overloaded bag for all your meals and snacks, it will drive you to fast food. Variety matters, and this separation of items will help. (And don't forget to store some in the trunk where you can't graze on the contents.)
In the snack bag
If you have a variety of tasty but healthy snacks nearby, you'll eat them — and that's OK. Even if you end up eating a bit more because you're bored, it won't be a diet disaster. It's shocking how many unhealthy fats and calories convenience foods can contain — and eating an extra banana or too much popcorn will still provide you with fiber and nutrients rather than a stomach ache.
One of my "travel-food hacks" is popcorn. Before I leave, I make a batch on the stovetop with olive oil and sea salt for flavor; sometimes I add dill to one of the bags for a "pickle" flavor. It keeps for up to two days. If you really need to mindlessly snack a bit, there's nothing better than popcorn for that urge, and nothing's cheaper than DIY popcorn!
Be sure to include variety; think salty, (healthy) fatty, sweet and sour. In my snack bag, I always include oatmeal-superfood cookies (I replaced raisins in the typical cookie with dried Bing cherries and goji berries and pumpkin seeds); spicy cashew nuts (the heat helps me from eating too many at a time); dark chocolate with orange essence; and the aforementioned popcorn. Textures matter, too: Crunchy is great fun, so I always include carrot sticks, pickles (incredibly satisfying and refreshing in the car for some reason), apples, mandarin oranges, grapes, and something green, like blanched asparagus, broccoli or snap peas.
In the meal bag
The idea with the meal bag is to bring foods similar to those you normally eat so your body has some consistency while you're traveling, which will make the voyage more pleasant. I eat a lot of home-cooked meals, and I don't eat meat, so I like to bring pastas with veggies, salads made with tougher veggies and grains (leave the lettuce out as it doesn't travel well), sandwiches and oatmeal.
Prepare as much as you can the days before you leave; for an upcoming trip, my partner was making his famous vegetarian ziti the week before, so he just made a bit more and I put some in a container and saved it away for my first night's dinner on the road. Filling, delicious and a reminder of home. I also make sure I have some cooked veggies with me; they are good to layer on sandwiches, or as a side for a pasta or lentil dish.
So for example, this trip, which includes four days and nights on the road, I will have ziti with a side of bok choy (steamed, cooled, and topped with a simple soy and sweet chili sauce). Another night I'll have French lentils with carrots and onions and a side of tomatoes (7-8 of the cherry-tomato size). And then for breakfast I'll have the heat-and-eat oatmeal that just gets hot water added to it, or an open-faced nut-butter sandwich. I'll also eat a couple sandwiches with hummus, some roasted veggies, and maybe a little cheese. I keep any cheese in a cooler and away from the snack bag because I've learned from previous trips that it's way too easy to eat too much cheese while snacking and driving! I save it for sandwiches where it will be really appreciated.
In the cold bag
I keep just one small, lunchbox-sized bag with a cold pack (which typically stays cold for two days) with hard-boiled eggs for sandwiches or breakfast, hummus, a creamy salad dressing for dipping veggies or using for a sandwich, and cheese.
You can spend way too much on drinks if you're driving long distances. My hack is to bring a refillable water bottle — and use it. In the United States, all tap water is drinkable unless there's a sign that says it's non-potable. There's always a sign if this is the case, which is only common in backcountry locations. I use a small mason jar for water, and then use the same jar to fill up with hot water at gas stations to make tea (I don't use a disposable cup and bring my own tea bags; nobody has ever said I needed to pay for hot water, so I don't). I'll drink a jasmine green tea earlier in the day, and then later I like tulsi or moringa teas that are relaxing (but not sleep-inducing), tasty, and offer gentle immune support. If you use honey, bring your own; most of the honey you'll find in those packets isn't the real thing anyway, and if you aren't buying a beverage, you shouldn't be taking condiments anyway.
My exception for buying drinks is coffee; I do a Google-map search for "espresso" to find a local coffeehouse when I crave some java because there's nothing I can do or make that will come close to a freshly brewed cup.
Now that my bags are packed with some of my favorite healthy foods from home, I'm ready to hit the road (after I finish the laundry!). It's a bit of work to prepare, but it's an act of self-care to provide good food for yourself when you're far from your own pantry. For me, it's worthwhile because it ensures I'll arrive at my destination feeling good!
I've spent 30 minutes or more looking for food — while hungry — on more than one occasion while road tripping in the past. Healthy food preparation eliminates that problem, so I think it ends up saving time.
Along with my healthy meals, I'm definitely also planning to stop for pie; it's the perfect road-food treat in America. I'll be keeping my eye out for places that specialize it things I'll never make at home, like fluffy banana cream and lemon meringue, pecan or local fruit pies.