Eating on the Road, a Family Road Trip Survival Plan

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image: family road trip, family in car, African American family in car, family vacationGoing on a family road trip over the summer?  Boy, do I have some great tips for you for keeping your food budget under control! Family road trip food doesn’t have to be a pile of mushy mayo-and-baloney sandwiches!

A long road trip, a couple thousand miles in our case, really takes a lot out of you.  I’ll never understand what is so exhausting about sitting for hours at a time in a rolling vehicle, but it is. Tasty and healthy foods save time, money, and frustration when you plan ahead.

To save money on a trip a few years back, I was determined to eat as many meals as possible from food that I had packed.  Now that our kids are bigger with appetites to match, restaurant bills loom in the $40-50 range at even budget-friendly restaurants.  So, like any good Survival Mom, I searched the internet for ideas of foods and meals that would be easy to pack, easy to prepare, and easy to clean up.

Quick tips for sandwich meals

First on the menu, sandwiches.  These turned out to be not so cheap since I splurged on Boar’s Head sandwich meat, but I figured that if the sandwich tasted really good, we’d be more willing to eat them a couple of times a day.  Instead of a loaf of bread, I bought sandwich rolls, which turned out to be a much better choice, mostly because they didn’t get squished among all the luggage in the back of the Tahoe.

Thinking that mayo in a squeeze bottle would be a good idea, that’s the route I went, but it turned out to be not so smart. I still had to spread the mayo around with a plastic knife, which we quickly lost, and then had to shake, shake, shake the bottle to get the mayo down to the bottom of the container.

Here’s a better idea. Before you leave, spoon enough mayo into a zip-loc bag for the number of sandwiches you’ll make for one meal. Put the mayo-filled bags into a water-proof container so water in the ice chest doesn’t seep in.  When it’s time to make your sandwiches, snip off, or in my case, bite off one corner of the zip-lock and use it as a decorator bag to swirl mayo over the bread.  You won’t need a knife, and the emptied zip-loc can be thrown away.

If you like the crunch of lettuce in your sandwiches, pile a stack of lettuce leaves in a plastic food storage container, fold a paper towel over the top to absorb moisture, and then store it upside down in your cooler. That paper towel hack works like a charm for keeping the lettuce crispy.

More road-trip food ideas

To add variety to our sandwich diet, I packed cans of ravioli and spaghetti-o’s for the kids. I know, I know.  Sugar, preservatives, and additives, but they were quick meals I could warm up in no time using either the microwave in the hotel room, when there was one, or the coffee pot in the coffee maker.  I discovered that our favorite Hebrew National hot dogs stay frozen for a long time, and one night we had those on our sandwich buns.   At another meal, I sliced them up and added them to the spaghetti-o’s.

Packets of chicken and tuna salad mixes were handy for both sandwiches and for snacking with crackers.

Cooking it up in the car

More recently, I discovered my favorite new obsession — the HotLogic! Oh, my. A friend told me about this miracle invention, so when I spotted them online, I bought two of them, the Mini and the Family Size. These portable food warmers produce hot meals right in your car, and on a recent road trip from Houston to Phoenix and back (2300 miles, round trip), we enjoyed store-bought tamales, homemade macaroni-and-cheese, and Sam’s Club chicken enchiladas.

image: hotlogic with enchiladas

I simply plugged the HotLogic into the outlet in the back of our vehicle, gave it a few hours to completely warm, and the food was just perfect. We kept our meals for the HotLogic in a cooler to keep them fresh but also bought some ready-to-heat meals from places like Sam’s Club and grocery stores.

HotLogic has raving fans who have told me about using it to heat up pizza, cook entire meals that include uncooked chicken or meat (even steaks!), frozen dinners, veggies and chicken — just so many options! We discovered that these meals, even when eaten in the backseat using a disposable plate and fork, taste so much better than fast food, and nowadays with prices rising, much cheaper.

The HotLogic can be used at home, too, and is perfect for power outages and making dinner on a hot day when you don’t want to be standing over a hot stove or using the oven. Can you tell that I’m one of those raving fans, too? Read my complete review of this portable oven here.

Road-trip snacking can help cure boredom!

I think I gained a couple of pounds on many road trips because we were constantly snacking.  Apparently, food is a good cure for boredom, because we were never bored!  Here’s what I packed for those snacks:

  • dry cereal in zip-locs
  • dehydrated peaches (Read this for instructions to make your own.)
  • cubed cheese and crackers
  • baby carrots
  • apples, oranges, bananas
  • applesauce and pudding cups
  • energy and granola bars
  • Pringles brand chips (Those handy tubular cans keep the chips from being crushed and are handy as small trash receptacles later.)

Every once in a while, during those long, long hours of highway travel, I pulled out a special snack as a surprise.  Just outside Gallop, New Mexico, it was Oreos.  Upon reaching Abilene, it was M&M’s.  I hadn’t packed any sugary treats in our snack bag, so these were more than welcomed by hubby and the kids.

Once we got to our hotel, I heated up water in the coffee maker and we had instant oatmeal in the mornings, along with the cereal and milk I had packed in the ice chest and fresh fruit.  We had breakfast pretty well covered and delighted in free hotel breakfasts whenever they were available.

Now, I feel a little sheepish at this point because this is where my helpful road trip food ideas end. Once we reached Texas, my husband’s aunt and uncle treated us to very nice restaurant meals during our entire stay!  Chinese!  Italian!  Mexican!  Texan! Oh, how we gloried in each meal!

On the trip home, we resumed our diet of sandwiches, Pringles, and hotel breakfasts, but we added occasional stops at Starbucks (the free wifi was very handy), Costco for their cheap soda-and-hot-dog meal, and Trader Joe’s for their packaged salads.

I did stock  up on more fresh fruit since, as my Nana said, “You need it to stay regular.”  My 8-year-old son began calling it poop fruit. Charming.

So, there you have it.  We survived our family road trip by keeping ourselves entertained in various ways that you can read about here, keeping our budget down by eating meals we prepared ourselves, and maintaining a sense of humor, no matter what speedbumps we hit.

18 thoughts on “Eating on the Road, a Family Road Trip Survival Plan”

  1. Great ideas!

    We freeze water in juice bottles, pop bottles, etc. and use that for our ice in the cooler. It's like having an ice block that doesn't leak all over the place and you can drink it when it's melted 😉 Keeps the food cold and the mess in the cooler to a minimum. Of course it only lasts so long (over a week this last trip–weather was unseasonably cool). So if we don't meet a freezer along the trip to refreeze them, then we're back to buying messy sacks of ice . . .

    We've also done canned veggies when the kids were little as a healthy addition to the snack pile–open up canned carrot slices or green beans, drain on the roadside, and let the kids eat them cold–especially good for real little ones. Teenagers–probably not so much.

  2. Great post, one observation. The squeeze bottle is not so much of the issue as the method of application. Another alternative, and the one we use, is to put all of the 'juicy' stuff on first and then we slap the bread together and move it around to spread the items around on both slices. It is a no waste solution.

  3. Angela, my only hesitation with juice boxes is that my kids tend to squeeze too hard! Yes, it's interesting to watch all that juice erupt through the little straw, but in the car?? LOL Thankfully, they've outgrown doing that for fun, but still, in our case, accidents happen. Using frozen drinks to keep foods cool, is a brilliant idea, and you're right, melted ice gets extremely messy.

  4. Joey, I'm glad you found my site. It sounds like we've both discovered that you make the sandwiches as you need them rather than make a whole bunch ahead of time for the trip. I remember those soggy, squished "things" my mom used to serve up! LOL Thanks for your suggestion.

  5. We've done the take your own food with you, too. We would cook up and slice a roast or chicken or turkey breast for sandwiches. Since we have to be careful for some of ours about certain ingredients, we would make up chili, stew, taco meat or stirfry, store in ziploc bags and then we would carry an old electric wok, that we heated everything up in. (in warmer weather, the wok serves well as a salad bowl too!) We can't do the 'hotel breakfast bars' so we would bring homemade yogurt or put eggs in a ziploc bag and scramble them up in the wok and add shredded cheese, salsa and maybe sour cream in a tortilla. You are so right about having the portions all figure out at home, as best you can.

    In our case, we couldn't afford to take the trip with out packing our own food (financially or healthwise). We don't have any problems getting everyone on board.

    1. Stephanie, I love your ideas!! Before our next road trip, I'm going to have to track down your comment (I know I won't remember it otherwise!). Thanks so much!

  6. Don't forget the car engine can be used to cook food. Warm up pies or even stews, soups, veg, meat etc. You only have to attach a suitable food container (foil tray; pan etc) to the exhaust manifold (the hot pipes out of the engine block) with some wire. Cook time you have to estimate.

  7. Ravioli and Spaghetti-Os? Not good. But whatever works for ya.

    I tried making different salads: tuna, smoked turkey, egg salad etc. The mayonnaise (contrary to old wives tales) acts as a preservative, And we used pita bread and made rollups, and called them "burriotos" so the kids LOVED 'em.

    We also got a prepaid Net10 phone for the tip. We pay only for what we use at 10¢ a minute and 3¢ a text. Our bills are gone, since we get none! and there are no overaqes or surprises, either. It's awesome.

    We mainly use it for texting but it's such a great deal, we're thinking about getting rid of our landline too!

    1. TheSurvivalMom

      You know what's funny? My kids are done with canned ravioli, and here I am with about 30 cans in my pantry. One thing I didn't mention was that I packed a bag of salad in the ice chest, and we used that to add some crunch and "green" to our sandwiches. All this talk of road trips puts me in the mood for another one! Last summer just the kids and I drove up to Lake Tahoe. It was a blast.

  8. Juice boxes: open up the flaps on the sides so they make "ears" for the kids to hold onto.

    Mayo – get condiment packets for sugar, salt, mayo, mustard, ketchup, etc. from the occasional trip to restaurants that provide them. If you feel weird taking them, ask the manager or even offer to pay for them first.

  9. I once read about a family that uses a long thermos and pours boiling water over hotdogs and by the time they arrive at their desination, the dogs are heated and ready for a squirt mustard pack and a bun. Sooooo much cheaper than roadside stuff. I have been watching the dehydrate2store videos and wondering if a lot of that couldn’t be incorporated into a family trip as well. I have often thought about bringing my crock pot with me to hotels when we are staying more than a few days….

    1. TheSurvivalMom

      I think a crock pot is a good idea, which reminds me, I would like a smaller one for when I'm not making much food. It would also be handy for a trip. Experiment with making your own powdered mixes for things like soups and chili. They don't necessarily have to be packaged for long-term storage. You could just pack them in large zip-loc bags. The book I recommend with recipes and instructions is on Amazon, Dinner is in the Jar.

  10. I've had to start cooking in the woods, which is just lovely. But now I have a small coleman camp stove (which I'm sure will be upgraded to a large dual burner, but those fold down to something the size of a briefcase) and there are lots of freeze dried meals for 4 you can just pour boiling water right into the bag. Or into a cup, a cup of Ramen noodles isn't bad as a side or first course (now that I've had 20 years to detox from it from college). But all your equipment stays pretty clean as you aren't cooking, just boiling water. Mountain House puts out pretty good stuff and you can find it on sale in the off season for about $7 for a 4-person pouch. Or some of the seasoned rice pouches, a can or two of chicken, flour tortillas (which pack well), and it doesn't take much to make burritos.

    BTW – I food-saver all my pouches of goo such as mayonnaise (or buy the mini packs which don't require refrigeration — I think you can get them from Amazon), my luck is that if it *can* leak, it *will* leak.

    1. TheSurvivalMom

      I have to ask. Why are you suddenly cooking in the woods? For whatever reason, what a great learning experience, although it can't possibly be terribly convenient. Could you share with us more about what foods work best, any failures you've experienced, and advice for newbies?

      1. LOL, because my six year old is suddenly old enough to be a Tiger Cub Scout. Yes, it's educational, and I have realized I'm much less into the uncomfortable thing now than 20 year ago, which means a lot more preparation. We haven't done the really hard core stuff yet, but my twins just managed to "survive" a night of camping in the back yard last weekend, so I plan to start hauling them all out and staying in tents to bivouac. It's all still a work in progress, and of course not the same as a long-term survival situation, but I can tell you I'm happy to have the equipment that would convert well "on the go" …

  11. leona broadhead

    Keeping a thermos of hot water with you or a foil covered bubble wrapped peanut butter jar to add your freeze dried food to or what ever then let it set while traveling makes a hot drink or meal. Keep plastic spoons bowls or re cycle yogurt cups to eat out of, or open the juice box all the way at the top and you have a hot bowl too to eat from.
    Raisins and cranberries and coconut and seeds make a nice snack add chocolate chips and we love mom. Dates and apricots, and prunes seedless, in large bags and divided into small bags these make lots for little packages. For lots of days which make for nutrition on the move keep water handy.

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