Road trip tip: Eating on the road

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Before I had kids I really didn’t think that much about what I’d eat when I had a long drive. Either we’d grab a slice of pizza at a rest stop or just wait until we got to our final destination.

Excuse me for a minute.

OK, I’ve wiped my eyes at the thought of skipping a meal. Last time it happened to me was in July of 2001 the day before I found out I was pregnant.

Needless to say, this approach simply doesn’t work when traveling with children of any age. Kids need to eat, and if your kids are like mine, they need to eat often. And stopping for food also provides a good opportunity to stretch legs, use bathrooms, and other such necessary activities. Bear in mind that I’m talking here about trips where you’ve been in the car all day with more of the same coming up in the morning, not times when you’re staying in a charming town with lots of great food options or when you’re heading for a huge potluck family reunion.

If you’ve traveled by car anywhere in the United States, you know that eating can be tricky unless you are a fan of ubiquitous fast food. When you’ve got little kids in the car you don’t want to waste any time driving from the highway into town and trying to figure out which is the best diner or where you can find a joint with a clean bathroom that has a diaper changing station. So you go with McSimple and just chalk it up as one of the hazards of family travel.

But don’t give up hope, for when it comes to food, I offer Road Trip Tip #2: Pack, plan, but don’t be afraid to improvise

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First, pack: I know. You need another thing to pack like a hole in the head. But whether we’re traveling Interstate highway or country roads, I’ve never been sorry when I’ve packed a picnic in a cooler and brought it along. It is always, and I mean always, better than the available options. And having food with us gives us the flexibility to stop anywhere. It also means we can easily eat outside if the weather’s nice. And if for some reason we don’t eat the food for lunch, then we have dinner right with us when we get to the hotel that night. I won’t think any less of you if you throw in bottle of wine and a corkscrew either.

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And don’t tell me that you don’t have room in your car to pack a cooler. We travel in a small sedan. I guarantee that unless you are packing a family of four into a clown car, I have less space than you do.

Next, plan: Since it’s tricky to pack more than one day’s worth of meals in your cooler, I make a point of doing a little research before I leave to find what my best options are in the area where I’m staying. I’ve found that even when we’re in hotels right off the highway, I can usually find local diners or kid-friendly places that are close by. Because let’s face it: the last thing you want to do after eight hours in the car followed by a long round of “look at me!” in the hotel pool is drive any distance for dinner. This approach led us to the Midway Oh Boy Restaurant in Elyria, Ohio, which was five minutes from our hotel. If I hadn’t spent fifteen minutes on Google before we left, I’m sure we would have ended up at a chain restaurant at the mall across the street from where we were staying. Instead we discovered sauerkraut balls.

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And now for improvising. This takes a little bit of faith but can really pay off. I don’t recommend playing fast and loose with every meal, but I always leave at least one or two open to chance when we’re on multi-day trips. First, I make sure I’m loaded down with pretzels, dried fruit, and granola bars in case my plan doesn’t pay off. Then I put out my antennae. When we take our first bathroom break, I start collecting tourist brochures. While we’re driving, I pay attention to all billboards. When I arrive at the hotel, I chat up the help at the front desk – there may be no concierge at your average roadside chain hotel, but you’d be surprised how much information you can get from the person who checks you in. As an example of how this can work for you, I offer Ma and Pa’s Kettle in Cameron Missouri (you’ll find it at Exit 54 off Highway 69 in the middle of a slew of more familiar joints, as the picture above attests), which we discovered thanks to a string of billboards that started at the Iowa border 100 miles away. You won’t eat a healthy meal there – the salad bar contained only a big tub of mayonnaise, some creamed peas, iceberg lettuce, and shredded carrots. But the fried chicken, gravy, mashed potatoes, rolls, and apple butter are all homemade. And I tell you what – that felt like a reward after ten hours in the car!

Another fortuitous discovery I’ve made recently is that many rest areas now have farmers markets – we found them on the Pennsylvania Turnpike and the New York State Thruway this summer. And this goes back to the first part of the tip, because if you’ve packed your lunch and then eaten it, you’ve got space in your cooler to put fruit and baked goods – a handy breakfast.

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In conclusion, a bonus tip, because I am not dogmatic: Pick a chain restaurant you can live with and keep it in your pocket. I’ve posted before about my safe bet. I recommend that you find one that works for your family and use it when you need to. Because although I’m not a fan of fast food, I’m also a pragmatist; and hey, kids need to eat.

This post is part of my 2009 series of Road Trip Tips. Other tips in the series include:

I’m also participating in Wanderfood Wednesday at Wanderlust & Lipstick – check out the other great posts about traveling and eating.

Reader Responses

13 fellow travelers had this to say

  1. Very good tips. I don’t often pack full meals, but I pack a lot of snacks, and in a pinch some boxes of cereal and raisins can serve as a meal.

    Also, we don’t eat at our regular mealtimes when on the road. We usually adjust things to the earlier side–lunch at 11 and supper between 4 and 5– in order to hold off those cries of “I’m hungry!” and to avoid many of the crowds that form at regular mealtimes.

    I’m enjoying these posts!
    .-= Linda´s last blog ..Juneberry Pie at Lunds Landing =-.

    • This is an excellent point Linda – not that I’m surprised, coming from you. Like you, we tend to eat on the earlier side. We also sometimes go for the big breakfast mid morning and skip lunch altogether (so I guess I’m a liar for saying we don’t skip meals…). This works because I also pack lots of snacks. Like you, I have been known to use pretzels and apples as meal replacements in a pinch. Although my two eat so much that they tend to finish off whatever I’ve got room for and still need something more substantial.

  2. I love this. Especially Ma & Pa’s right next to the BK!

  3. Great stuff!
    From a mom who never travels with less than a 1/4 kitchen-full of food. Who’s married to a husband who rarely remembers to pack snacks. Guess which parent has the more easy-going road trips?
    .-= wandermom´s last blog ..A Rave About A Bag =-.

  4. I’m a big fan of hotels that serve a continental breakfast bar as well. You can go to breakfast, make a sandwich out of a roll, some ham, cheese, etc, grab some fruit…and you’ve got lunch on the go! This really worked well for us in London and Paris. Dinner is always more problematic.

    • Great comments Carina and Corinne. I am also a fan of those breakfasts, although they do tend to be a bit better in Europe (in my experience). We do try and stay in hotels that offer at least some cold cereal. That way if the kids get up early, one of us (OK, Matt) can take them for a little snack. We’ve also pilfered their fruit quite freely.

  5. Great tips and I’m with you Carina on the continental breakfasts (or breakfast buffets for that matter). Remember to pack a few Ziplocks or Tupperwares and you’re good to go!

  6. I certainly preffer Mc D´s thank Burger king, but I will certainly eat at the latest if there is no other choice

  7. GREAT suggestions, particularly about looking for tourist brochures, and checking with the local hotel staff!! (I work in the tourism industry, and we have great kid-friendly restaurants that we make sure have their menus in the hotels, and that the front desk folk know about).

    P.S. – When can we expect you to visit Ohio?? :)

    • Thanks Greg. And I’m sure this road trip isn’t the last time we’ll be in Ohio since it lies in between where we live and all of my husband’s relatives! When I was pregnant we once spent a lovely weekend just outside Cleveland. A highlight included a trip to see the Christmas lights in Chagrin Falls.

  8. excellent tips. i don’t like eating fast food and 2/3 of us have low blood sugar issues. so we take snacks of nuts and kefir, and look hard (and plan ahead) for yummy places to eat. we’ve had 3 bad recs from chowhound, so i think we’re done with THAT source!
    .-= jessiev´s last blog ..Thar Desert Culture Tour Of India (Rajasthan) =-.

  9. Excelent article but i preffer Mc D´s :)

    Thanks!

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