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How to Eat Healthy on a Summer Road Trip

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Photo by yurilong.

Summer is the season of road trips, and it’s in full swing! Many of us look forward to the opportunity every year—spending time with friends and loved ones in close quarters, driving to exciting destinations around the country, and more often than not, fueling up at fast food joints or greasy diners along the way.

However, all that fast food (and fatty food) can leave you feeling weighed down, especially when you’re sitting in the car for long periods. For a truly successful road trip that leaves you feeling rejuvenated—as any good getaway should—here are some simple healthy eating tips to keep in mind.

Plan Your Stops Accordingly

First, mark your map (or set your GPS) to stop in areas with farmers’ markets, farms and fruit and vegetable stands along your route. It may take some research before you get on the road, but it’ll be worth it for all the fresh food and local treats you’ll be able to enjoy rather than being stuck with fast food as your only option.

With a focus on local, sustainable and organic food, Eat Well Guide has a great tool that lets you search for farmers’ markets, co-ops, restaurants and more around the country. The Department of Agriculture features another great online resource for finding local farmers’ markets, and it includes a national map of farmers’ markets. You can even search for specific products and payment types that are accepted.

Top Tip: Farmers’ markets have specific hours, so plan these stops well in advance.

Pack a Cooler

Pack a medium or large cooler with healthy snacks and pre-portioned meals. Having these foods handy will help you make healthier choices when you might otherwise want to pick up a bag of greasy potato chips or drive-through French fries. Here are a few healthy (and easy) snack ideas:

  • Crudites with a healthy dip, like carrots and hummus or celery and peanut butter
  • Whole grape or cherry tomatoes
  • Almonds, walnuts or pecans (healthiest when raw and unsalted)
  • Vegetable chips (find them in the potato chip aisle)
  • Granola bars without high fructose corn syrup or a high sugar content (look for brands like Kashi)
  • Whole fresh fruit like apples, oranges and grapes
  • Fruit salad—get creative!—try watermelon with mint and feta
  • Individual plain yogurt drizzled with honey (bring a bottle of honey with you; just make sure it seals well)

Top Tips: Don’t overpack your cooler. If you pack too much food, you may be more prone to overeat.

Pack food in individual serving sizes if possible so you can keep track of how much you eat throughout the day.

Keep It Cold or Pack Temperature-Stable Snacks

It’s important to keep your food cold, especially in the summer. If you notice the ice melting quickly, pick up some more at a gas station to ensure your food is safe to eat. If you’ll be traveling long distances between stops or would rather avoid regular ice-maintenance duty, pack foods that will still be safe to eat if they’re not chilled. A few examples include:

  • Egg or potato salad (make it with vinaigrette rather than mayonnaise—it’s safer and healthier!)
  • Cut vegetables and fresh whole fruit
  • Natural peanut butter or almond butter (make sure it doesn’t require refrigeration—some do!)
  • Pasta salad made with vinaigrette
  • Avocados—simply cut in half and eat with a spoon

Enjoy the Great Outdoors

Road trips often offer the opportunity to enjoy wide open spaces along the way. Take advantage of this in the summer by getting out of the car, laying down a blanket, and enjoying some of your healthy eats in the great outdoors.

Top Tip: After you eat, take a walk to stretch your legs and jumpstart your digestion. It’ll make your next long driving stretch a lot more comfortable.

Plan at Least One Meal at a Nice Restaurant

No matter how appetizing the food, it can be tough to eat out of a cooler after a day or two. Break things up by planning a meal at a nice restaurant. Stay away from chains and go for something the locals love.

As always, but especially if you have more driving ahead, go easy on portions. There’s nothing more uncomfortable than being cooped up in a car when you’re stuffed. Consider splitting a meal or asking upfront if you can get half of your order to go so you won’t be tempted to eat too much. Another option: order small plates like salads or appetizers rather than a full meal. Ask your server about the portion sizes if you need guidance.

When Local Options Don’t Exist

Driving through areas of the country where there aren’t any restaurants that appeal? Plan more meals that can be packed in your cooler. Sandwiches, pasta salads, and fruit salads are great ways to fill up without resorting to the nearest greasy spoon. Find a local grocery store where you can buy the makings of a healthy sandwich, or some hummus and veggies to tide you over. Yogurt and fruit is another healthy option.

Top Tips: When traveling, small meals are key. You burn fewer calories being stationary in the car, so keep it light.

Take your time when you eat. Stop driving if you can so you can enjoy your food properly. Nothing beats good food and great scenery when you’re on a road trip!

Stay Hydrated

Water is the best beverage choice when you’re driving—it’s refreshing, hydrating and won’t bloat you with extra calories. Bored with plain water? Add natural flavors to punch it up. A few ideas include:

  • Whole raspberries and mint leaves
  • Cucumber slices and basil leaves
  • Lemon slices and thyme sprigs

If you can’t do water for the entire trip, mix it up with sugar-free iced tea or, for a treat, try a natural soda—Izze is a great brand.

Getting Rid of the Garbage

Eating most of your meals in the car can lead to some pretty serious amounts of garbage. Here are a few tips for cutting down on excess waste.

Be eco-friendly by packing your food in reusable, stackable containers. Not only are they more convenient to pack, but when you’ve emptied the containers, they’ll take up less room than when you started.

Pack reusable silverware. Many stores sell travel sets of silverware (check the camping section if you can’t find it elsewhere) that can easily be rinsed and reused throughout the trip.

Keep a bag designated for wrappers and all other waste to keep it off the floor of the car—and empty it each time you stop.

Road trips are wonderful for making new favorite memories. Great food makes them even better, and fortunately, healthy eats are easy to find with a little thought and planning.

What are your favorite healthy eating tips when you’re on the road? Please share them in the comments below!

  • http://twitter.com/marisamenuism Marisa Miyasaki

    I really like the vinaigrette option for potato salad and pasta salad. I have often struggled to think of good, healthy foods that would survive a road trip so thank you for sharing all these great ideas!

    • Anonymous

      I’m so glad you found these tips helpful! It can be so easy to give in to the fast food, gas station snacks and other unhealthy food options. That always ends in feeling horrible- not fun! 

  • Nikki

    Something about sitting stationary for an extended period of time, like in cars and movie theaters makes mindless snacking easy, so packing pre-portioned meals and snacks is a great idea. Love the Eat Well Guide! 

    • Anonymous

      I’m one of those people who could breeze through a bag of potato chips without blinking an eye- planning is key for me in situations when mindless eating is possible! 

  • http://www.freshnewengland.blogspot.com El

    Great article. I’m going to print it out for our next road trip. Thanks!

    • Anonymous

      Wonderful! Glad you like it, El. And have fun on your next road trip!

Rachael White is the author of the blogs Set the Table and Tokyo Terrace. After four years of living, eating, and entertaining in Tokyo, Japan, she and her family have relocated to Denver, Colorado. Rachael is constantly searching for new ways to make entertaining easier and more interesting for guests in a variety of environments and situations. In addition to food blogging, her recipes have been published in cookbooks including Foodista Best of Food Blogs and Peko Peko: A Charity Cookbook for Japan and in Japan’s Daily Yomiuri newspaper. Originally from Minnesota, Rachael strives to recreate recipes and settings that reflect Midwestern comfort with a modern twist.


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