On the road again: How to eat healthy on a road trip without resorting to limp, fast food salads

Four years ago, my husband and I decided to take a road trip. Encompassing about a quarter of the country and about a week of our lives, I was prepared. I had maps. I had clothing. I had telephone numbers of hotels, suggestions on where to go, and a list of landmarks we had to see.

Oh, was I prepared.

But the above was nothing compared to my food preparations. You see, as far as I can tell, few things are worse then getting a raging tummy problem while on the road. So here are my five best tips for eating on the road, with extra three tips thrown in for fun. You might miss out on corner store food surprises. But, then, you will miss out on corner store food surprises!

Five best tips for a happy and healthy road trip tum
  1. Pack a carton or two of water bottles. On the bright side, you may just need to stay hydrated. On the downside, you may end up in towns with nasty water. Either way, drink, drink, drink to stave off headaches and other problems.
  2. Put a cooler in the car and another in the trunk. Double the number of coolers means double the number of items we could carry. Make sure the cooler in the car has a nice variety of items so you don't have to stop to get food from the trunk: Water (of course), natural juices we picked up whenever we stopped for gas (read the labels: This is not the time for a sugar high or sugar low), and a combination of healthy munchie foods we could eat without stopping (carrots and apples and healthy granola bars and the such). In the cooler in the trunk, we had more drinks and munchie foods, as well as picnic foods (salads and sandwiches and so on). And make sure both coolers have a way to keep your food cold. We had containers we purchased at a hardware store that you popped into the freezer to get good and cold, then put in your cooler. These lasted about two days. Afterward, when they had warmed up (we could never get a hotel room with a working freezer to refreeze them), we bought cold drinks and bags of ice whenever we stopped for gas. These worked quite well (however, part of the success was that we were not trying to keep raw meat chilled - only cheese and fruit and the such).
  3. Have a bag of bags, tons of utensils, wet naps, paper towels, and condiments. We had a grocery bag stuffed with both more grocery bags and little paper bags (think those little paper bags you get at stores such as Victoria's Secret). We lined the little paper bags with the grocery bags (to catch any spills), then stood them on the floor behind my seat, much like a paper garbage can (it is easier to throw garbage into a standing bag than fumbling with the opening of a collapsed plastic bag, especially with sticky fingers). The wet naps were incredibly helpful, especially after we had to do something or other to the engine (I say "we," but you know I mean "my husband.") The paper towels were given to us by a kind grocer in New Orleans and they were ideal as over-sized napkins, tablecloths, and so on. Much handier than fussy little paper napkins. And the selection of small condiments, everything from a tiny baggie of sea salt to a small bottle of balsamic, made everything that much tastier.
  4. Pack fruit and veg. Apples and bananas and anything not too juicy or sticky works nicely. A salad will work as long as you eat it within a day or two and keep the dressing separate (if you store your salad already dressed, it will soon go soggy). Munchie veg, such as baby carrots and celery, work very well. And if you are driving in the country at the right time of year, do take advantage of those lovely fruit and veg stands to replenish your stock.
  5. Have bread and cheese. We could make a lovely picnic out of a few hunks of cheese, some fresh bread picked up at a local bakery, fruit and veg and perhaps a pie purchased at a road side stand, and juice from a convenience store.
Two things that did not work on the road for us
  • Grilling. Although my husband was all for taking a portable grill with us, beyond the fact that I am trying to get away from meat, I was flat out against dealing with raw meat and hygiene on a week-long road trip. On a day picnic, perhaps. But not a week-long trip. And grilled veg just wasn't worth the bother.
  • Tea. I am a tea addict, so I brought my gourmet tea and mug and everything needed to make a decent cuppa, but I just could not get my hands on any freshly boiled water. So I went without. But I wasn't happy about it.
Three things that did work out on the road for us
  • Grocery stores. About halfway through our road trip, when the supplies we brought from home were low, I remember visiting an especially nice grocery store in Austin. It was an unscheduled stop that worked quite well. Closer to the end of our trip, we visited another grocery store. This lacked charm, but I did pick up some little yogurt containers which were great for eating in the car (I was totally craving my daily yogurt at this point). So if you are running low, keep an eye out for grocery stores.
  • Local restaurants. While we avoided anything I deemed risky (top of the list are those glistening hot dogs going round and round on the metal grill at the gas stop convenience stores - I can't imagine how they would tempt anyone), we did visit local restaurants to enjoy regional treats (what a waste it would have been to have gone to Charleston, for example, and not had a meal). We avoided the cheap tourist places and tried to go where the local's went. We never got sick, so that theory worked. At least on that trip!
  • The ubiquitous fast food salad. At the end of our trip, when even our purchased supplies had been devoured - and when there was no decent restaurant in sight - we did hit a fast food place. We got a salad which actually was quite good. In fact, we liked it so much that months later we went to a local establishment and got some more. These were also good ... at about the same time we had the first ones! The wilted greens went in the garbage and we ate something else that night.
Happy trails.