Healthy Outdoor Living

Healthy meals on the go - 4 ways to feast as a family while traveling

More from Outdoor Living Newsletter March Outdoor Living Newsletter
Mother feeding Baby
Pounding down on some peas while camped in Utah.

It doesn't matter if we're headed out of town for four hours or four weeks, eating on the road is hard with a child along. At least, harder than it used to be. Beef jerky and a Mountain Dew from the gas station doesn't get you as far as it once did now that you have growing kids in the back needing real sustenance. Here is the worst: when you are close to home, at the end of a long drive, and it's getting close to dinner time. All you're thinking about is finishing off that last stretch of the trip. Adults know how to put off their hunger. Wait to eat at 9 pm, no problem. If you're a little kid with a littler belly... um, waiting? What's that supposed to mean?

Pizza and Beer
Pizza and beer after a long road trip sure does hit the spot.

I never imagined what a sight for sore eyes a McDonald's Playland could be until a few months ago. This parenting milestone snuck up on me. One trip- I'm washing bottles and Chloe is eating out of jars. A short few months later- she is toddling around after her cousin Samantha, making the sign "play" with both hands and calling out "Pway...pway...swide...pway..." in her little voice. We drove across the freeway, got lost, and made several U-turns just to get to those golden arches. Yes, please go play.

While the fast food chains provide a brainless and painless fix to your eating on the road problem, they are not a good long-term solution to your family's daily meals during a trip. Fast food is inexpensive and quick, so it has some appeal for travelers on a budget and time crunch, but beware of the trap of eating it for three meals a day. We heard what happened in the documentary, "Super Size Me," right? Also, if you're like us, you enjoy some traveling off the beaten path where part of the point is you don't have access to chain restaurants for your daily meals. You can be self-sufficient for your family's meals while you travel, but it requires some advanced planning and preparation. Here are some of my favorite tips and time savers for family meals on the run.

1. Bring along some faves

Family enjoying meal
Tasty meals for the whole family while camping and on the trail.

One of our family favorites for a quick meal is peanut butter and honey on wheat bread. On our day trips, weekend trips, and especially longer backcountry trips, we pack a box of dry food in a plastic storage bin. Peanut butter, honey, half a loaf of bread (whatever was handy), and a knife is always the first thing we put in. We don't always use it, but it's a nice thought to know it's there. Added bonus: your favorites always taste better on the road than they do at home. One of our tastiest peanut butter and honey sandwiches was outside of Hermosillo, in Sonora, Mexico. We weren't remotely excited about eating any more pollo or carne de cabeza after our two weeks south of the border, but a classic Pee-bee-n-H tasted like a meal fit for royalty because we hadn't tasted that in a long time. It got us through the border crossing and on toward home where we, of course, feasted on curly fries and milkshakes. Maybe your go-to dish is tuna with crackers, or tortillas with hot sauce, or dried fruit and nuts. You probably already have it in your pantry anyway, so just find a box or canvas bag and pack it along.

2. Baggie it up

Meal prepared on Grill
Preparing a dinner from pre-sorted and divided food for snappy cook time.

Sandwich baggies are my favorite travel accessory. The day before a trip, most of my preparation occurs in the kitchen getting our food organized. For instance, I make separate baggies for each of our vegetables (chopped cucumber, baby carrots, sliced onion, and diced bell pepper are constants in our family) which I can then organize into larger gallon-sized bags for "snack," "lunch," or "dinner" foods. If there is a dinner you want to make on a camp stove, for instance, it's nice to have the slicing and dicing done before you leave the house. Baggies allow you to pre-cut and portion your food so you will be more likely to eat what you brought. Most of the work is done for you on the trip...just take out the baggie you need and enjoy! The same thing applies to baggies in your dry food box- portion out the crackers, nuts, or raisins and you will be more likely to use it all. Less waste on the road, too, means less you have to pack around or try to recycle en route.

One additional benefit to note about the resealable baggie is that if you are traveling with a cooler, you will end up with your food floating around in icy water after a few warm days in your vehicle. There is nothing worse than cooler water seeping into your lunch meat or touching your fresh fruit. Keep perishables in gallon, quart, or sandwich-sized baggies and they will stay dry and fresh longer. And, yes, the Engel Refrigerator is worth the money. We haven't traveled with a cooler since 2007, and the Engel is so convenient I don't think I could go back. Third in line only to the Eezi-Awn tent and rock sliders in my opinion, the Engel is one of the best aftermarket additions to the Frontier.

3. Expand your palette of colors

Red Onion garnish
Colorful veggies - red onion, yellow bell pepper, green jalepeno.

Didn't I just mention vegetables? This is going to sound like 6th grade health class. It's interesting that traveling can bring out the worst in our eating habits. Admit it, there are days on the road where you have gone without eating a single vegetable (other than French fries). The benefits of keeping a variety of rich-colored veggies and fruits in your daily meals, though, are many- from preventing digestive problems and high-blood pressure to keeping your body feeling full and focused for longer periods of time.

Aim to get 4 servings of vegetables and 4 or 5 servings of fruit in each day on the road. Simple things you can try are: adding leafy lettuce and tomato slices to a sandwich, eating raw carrots and celery or a cup of berries for a snack (instead of chips), scramble eggs on a campstove with diced veggies and/or spinach mixed in, and mix in a vegetable to any dish that is higher in carbs (pasta or potatoes, for instance). Be careful that all fruit servings for the kids don't come from juice, as this is a higher calorie way to get that one serving. Whole fruits are more filling in the long run and lower in sugar. And try to vary those colors- dark greens, yellows, and reds have the most nutrients.

As a caveat to this section: this is just a target that is meant to serve your family's interests, not a commandment. It shouldn't be a cause for intense drama if your little one doesn't eat every bite of vegetable at every mealtime. You're on vacation, remember? Heavens knows Chloe doesn't meet the quota every day. I try to monitor throughout the week, though, and fill in the gaps where I can. Despite their childish habits, you can be the encourger and example of right eating. That's what will teach them to do it themselves in the longrun, anyway. As Mark put so well one night at our dinner table, we all know that parents don't "feed" their children anything. We "offer" the food and act as their example; then they take or leave according to their whims and schedules, even when our intentions are so noble. Especially on the road.

4. Time your meals

Child helps with Meal
Helping to make lunch during a stop along the White Rim Trail in Utah.

Our family's travel days on a road trip usually go something like this: 1 1/2 hours for breakfast and clean-up; 1 hour for packing up the truck; 3 hours of driving (AM); 1 1/2 hours for lunch and play break; 3-5 hours of driving or exploring (PM), depending on daily miles needed; 1 hour for dinner; finally, setting-up camp and relaxing for the rest of the evening.

The noticable thing about the schedule now that we are parents is the amount of time we give to breakfast and lunch. These are the times when your child will have the most energy to play, and he or she needs the extra 1/2 hour to run, kick a ball, blow bubbles, or just be held before getting strapped into that backseat. As Mark wrote in his article in the Spring 2009 Overland Journal, "I wouldn't balk at a two-hour long lunch stop just because it eats up driving time. The point of a trip like this is to enjoy the places the vehicle can take you. Little ones deserve it, bigger ones need it, and if you play your cards right, you'll wear out the kids so that they crash for the whole afternoon." Nicely stated, and I wholeheartedly agree. A little quality time spent playing after you eat breakfast and lunch can save you a lot of headache (and backache) later since they won't be so demanding in the backseat.

Children sleeping in car
Good work! We managed to get 'em worn out during lunch and they slept most of the afternoon.

Are you wondering about how to wear out the kids for that afternoon driving segment without the help of the burger-chain Playland? Look for State parks, rest areas, or lakes close to the midpoint of your day's route. You can always take a nature walk, find a public playground, or do some jumping jacks and push-ups as a family. Or, simply find a shady spot off the first forest service road you come across in the National Forest. Open the tailgate, and just watch as the children find logs to crawl, bugs to inspect, and flowers to smell.

A recent memorable lunch spot that comes to mind for me was on a windy bluff overlooking the Snake River in Grand Teton National Park. We were able to skirt along this rocky overlook via a 4-wheel-drive road, which allowed us an amazing, unobstructed view of boats on the Snake River and the icy-tipped Tetons. When lunch time crept up on us, we were prepared with our self-sufficient meals and were thankful to let the serenity and grandeur of that moment linger just a bit more. No golden arches needed now, thanks. We waved at the boats, sat in the grass, and dreamed about mountaineering as we nibbled yogurt and strawberries, and the ultimate peanut butter and honey sandwiches. It's the view, not the ingredients I think, that makes it taste that much better on the road.

Brooke Stephens is co-owner of, a blog that shares travel stories, photography, and advice to parents looking to travel the backroads of the American Southwest and Mexico with children.

Copyright ©2012 Camping Road Trip, LLC

Find campgrounds and RV parks - Smart Search Now
Read campground and RV park reviews to help you find the perfect place to stay


Read more from our March Outdoor Living Newsletter

© 2007-2024 Camping Road Trip, LLC. All Rights Reserved.