It’s time for the third installment in my too-infrequent Road Trip Tips series. The first post discussed tips for sleeping in your vehicle while traveling, and part two focused on must-have gadgets for the budget road-tripper.
Now it’s time to talk food. Specifically, I’ve got a road trip food list with suggestions for what to take with you on a vehicle journey. Before my big cross-country journey two years ago, I was very concerned that I would pack on the pounds while I was on the road. I imagined that eating fast food and snacking all the time would result in huge weight gain.
To my shock, I ended up losing 10 pounds throughout the summer. And I managed to stick to a $7/day food budget. So I’ve put together a few tips for how travelers can eat a somewhat healthy diet while sticking to a budget.
Road Trip Food List: Suggested Snacks and Meals
For road trips, you need foods that don’t require refrigeration. Now, if you have a cooler or mini-fridge, then you can pretty much take whatever you want. So stop reading and go to the grocery store!
Without a cooler, you’ll want to stick to room temperature foods. Jerky and cheese twinpacks are always great for hikes or long drives. Throw in some nuts, and you’ve got a protein-packed meal that will keep your energy up.
Sandwiches that don’t require refrigeration are also good ideas, such as tuna or peanut butter and jelly. I actually ate a few of these when I went camping at Dry Tortugas National Park and Isle Royale National Park, where I didn’t have a cooler.
Fruit is one of the best foods for road trips. Go for those fruits that can be consumed at room temperature, such as bananas, oranges, and apples. Avocados (remember to bring a knife!) are loaded with healthy fats and vitamins too. I even bought those mini-packs of pears and peaches in juice and kept those in my van to eat whenever fresh produce wasn’t available.
Junk food is fine occasionally. You don’t want to gorge yourself on potato chips, cookies, and candy all the time, but it’s certainly fine to have those with you. Bring a jar of salsa and some tortilla chips for a quick snack during car trips.
Basic Road Trip Food List:
Jerky and cheese sticks
Cans or pouches of tuna with crackers
Nuts of all kinds
Bread, peanut butter, jelly
Apples, bananas, oranges
Tortilla chips & salsa
Lots of water!
If you have access to a cooler, consider the following items as well:
Carrots and celery sticks
Tips for How to Eat Healthy While Traveling: Log Your Daily Calories
Here’s the single most-important thing I did to watch my waistline. I created a spreadsheet and logged every item I ate everyday. I tracked my calories and fat content, making sure to keep my calories below 2,000 per day. If you track that religiously, you are pretty much guaranteed to lose weight.
These days, it’s even easier to do because your can find apps for your iPhone and Android that will calculate these totals for you if you simply punch in what you’re eating. Additionally, websites like calorieking.com and apps like Lose It! are great resources for looking up the nutritional info for pretty much any food in the world.
Tracking everything allows you to indulge a bit without wrecking your diet. If you’re in Chicago and want to indulge in a couple slices of deep dish pizza, that’s totally cool! Just balance out your day with a big salad or other small dinner.
I actually went to the crazy extreme of also tracking sodium, carbs and cholesterol, but found these additional values to be mostly irrelevant. Here’s a sample daily menu from August 5:
Road Trip Tips: Eat Fast Food (But Make Smart Choices!)
Yes, I’m really suggesting that you eat fast food. You’re on a budget, remember? So you have to eat cheaply. Fast food is likely to be one of your most common meal options on the road, and that’s perfectly fine.
But it’s all about making smart choices. Just because you stop at Wendy’s doesn’t mean you have to eat the triple cheeseburger. Why not a chili, plain baked potato and side salad? In fact, that meal option is super affordable, because each of those items is on the dollar menu. So it’s better for your waist and your wallet.
Always use the dollar menu. It’s way cheaper than a “value meal,” and you don’t need the empty calories from a soda. I can’t tell you how many fast food meals I had on the road for less than $4 each.
Taco Bell has a dollar menu and a “Fresca” menu of items with low calorie content. Subway has the legendary footlong, which is big enough to supply both lunch and dinner and provides lots of servings of fresh vegetables. Just remember to hold the cheese – and don’t add cookies on the side!
No one’s forcing you to eat French fries. Don’t go to places like In N Out Burger that only serve burgers, fries, and shakes. Instead, seek out fast food and fast casual joints with soup, salads, and low-cal options. To name two examples: Chipotle is affordable, and Panera has cheap lunch specials.
Make smart fast food choices and you can feed yourself for less than $7/day when you’re following these habits!
Road Tripping on a Budget: Keep Water and Snacks on Hand!
Aside from a few adult beverages (if you’re into that sort of thing), never drink anything other than water. The empty calories will go straight to your gut. And don’t keep buying bottles of water – those can cost up to $2 depending where you are, and that’s way too expensive.
Go to Target or another department store and load up on full gallons of water at 69 cents each. Then, use them to keep refilling your sports bottle as you go. It won’t be ice cold, but so what? You’re making sacrifices to save a few bucks.
You should also keep staple snacks around so you don’t find yourself wandering into the nearest 7-11 for donuts or Doritos. Granola bars, pretzels and nuts work great. I have a sweet tooth, so I always had a bag of low-fat Tootsie rolls on hand to satisfy that urge.
Road Trip Tips: Stay Active!
I tend to do a lot of hiking, even in big cities. Walk whenever possible. A one-mile walk is only 15-20 minutes. There’s no reason to take a bus or cab if you’re within a mile or two of your destination! The extra steps add up to a lot of burned calories.
I suspect that, in addition to my diet, my weight loss was largely due to staying physically active and participating in activities like a grueling Grand Canyon hike on the North Kaibab Trail.
Money-Saving Road Trip Tips: Consider Cooking Your Own Food!
I’m not one of those people who insists that you should always avoid restaurants and cook your own food. In fact, I think that’s a horrible idea. For me, a huge part of getting the full cultural experience of a place is sampling the local cuisine. I would feel like I missed out if I spent a month in some foreign city cooking all my meals in my hostel kitchen.
But it is a smart idea to cook your own food every once in a while. One option is to take a small grill with you and buy chicken and veggies from local groceries to grill up.
Or, bring along a portable stove like the one I wrote about in my list of must-have gadgets for the budget road tripper. Just plug the stove into your cigarette lighter and cook up canned items right inside your vehicle. Cans of low-fat chili and ravioli usually cost only $1, and they’ll do a lot less damage to your arteries than curly fries and chicken fingers!
And don’t forget to seek out fresh local produce at farmer’s markets. Failing that, a giant $3 bag of apples from Walmart will last two weeks and help keep the doctor away.
Road Trip Tips Conclusion: Eating Healthy Food on a Budget
Eating cheaply while traveling is not hard, and with some smart choices, your diet can be both affordable and reasonably healthy. How sweet will it be to come home from your trip with not only with great tales from the road, but also a noticeable weight loss?
Do you have any other suggestions for items to add to the suggested road trip food list?