Summertime means family road trip time. I’ve always loved time in the car, even back when my three teenagers were teensy tiny babes in carseats all in a row behind me. We listen to audiobooks, take turns playing DJ with the radio, and still play the occasional game of “Alphabet” although we’ve raised the stakes in recent years. Because I value this time together so much, I’m also the mean and hopelessly outdated Mom who restricts screen time in the car (insert teenager eyerolls here). Being bored while watching the landscape pass by is terribly underrated. Over the years, I’ve learned a few things about how to keep family road trips fun but run smoothly, while keeping some Mom choices mostly intact.
When the kids were smaller, there was more to plan. I used to get up in the dark of night to start longer drives so they’d sleep while I got the bulk of the distance done. I’d save the stops and fun for later in the day, aiming for being completely done with driving for the day by late afternoon. I knew to put sleeping kids in the car in their jammies and always kept spare clothes, jackets, hats and shoes in the car in an easily reachable place. I also learned to always have a spare beach towel, napkins and plastic grocery sacks handy at all times. These things always got used for some reason or another- usually of the disgusting variety. I also learned the value of habit formation- like never to get the kids in the habit of being able to request and buy junk at gas stations. If it’s never an option, it never becomes an issue. Gas stations were for, you know, getting gas and maybe using the restroom. We walked straight past the aisles of junk food so many times that we basically trained ourselves not to even notice the stuff on the shelves. I figured out the best packable food and supplies so that we could have easy and healthy meals along the way, minimizing expensive and time-consuming restaurant stops. I streamlined the way we did rest stops, so that everyone knew exactly what to do and how to do it without a lot of fuss. Habit formation is a powerful thing Moms know, and it can be applied to anything and everything.
Now I have three teenagers. They can pretty much roll with anything at this point so I don’t have to obsess quite so much about perfect packing. These days, if they forget it, then too bad. Mostly they just want to see cool stuff along the way and have good music and books to listen to. Because I’m an “ancient dinosaur,” our opinions on what’s cool differs, so I include them on the plans now. This isn’t all bad. A teenager with a smartphone can find some pretty cool stuff to do along the way. So now I delegate more planning which makes everyone happier. A drive through a college town is a great motivator for teenagers, so this summer I’m letting my oldest choose a couple of campuses to check out. He’ll be driving soon so that’s going to be the next parenting hurdle for me. It’s mildly frightening to imagine my baby helping with the driving on next summer’s trip.
Anyway, here’s how road tripping looks these days: we plan the major overnight stops if we need hotels or have specific places we need to reach on a certain timeline. Beyond that, anything goes and there are bonus points for flexibility. I love having a plan but I love finding cool impromptu stuff along the way even more.
Healthy food is a core value in my household, so the kids know that if pass through a city that has a healthy supermarket option, like a Whole Foods or the like, we’ll load up on snacks and fresh smoothies or juices (because there’s nothing better for keeping things “regular” while away from home). I also find out about any farmer’s markets or popular roadside stands that might be available en route. Stretching your legs, while walking around to find healthy food options, is a great way to multitask. Any not-to-be-missed hikes or walking areas get added to the must-do list, and since we have two big dogs who don’t exactly love extended car time, it’s a big focus of our planning to find cool places to get out and take walking breaks.
Despite even the best planning, sometimes you need or want a restaurant stop. So it’s helpful to be prepared for the best choices. We look for ethnic options like Thai or Mexican, because we avoid gluten and dairy. Menu modifications at these sorts of restaurants tend to be easier. My kids don’t even think to ask for fast food places, because of that habit thing I mentioned earlier. We just don’t do fast food. Like ever. Honestly, I think it’s been at least 7 or 8 years since I’ve been through a fast food line of any kind. Doesn’t even enter my mind as a possibility, to tell you the truth. If we’re ever in a pinch, we look for a supermarket, not a McDonald’s.
So what do we keep in the car? LOTS of snack options. We nibble a lot on trips. The kids love to pick out their own car snacks and they’ve gotten good at selecting decently healthy options. We pack grass-fed jerky and fruit leather (homemade if there’s time) and meat sticks (look for sales on those and stock up in advance), and create our own trail mixes with raw nuts, seeds, dried fruit, and chocolate chips. Because they’re teenagers, some “junk” is important to have on hand, keeping mutiny at bay. I pack healthier chips and pretzels in advance so I can say no to any requests for Dorito’s and Lay’s. I also make big individual bags of popcorn popped in coconut oil and sea salt the night before we start out. Having dogs around is pretty helpful for the occasional misplaced popcorn kernel, by the way.
And there’s always good stuff in the cooler: individual cups of snap peas and cherry tomatoes or grapes and berries (pro tip: use empty yogurt cups so everyone gets their own and you can refill along the way), celery sticks with hummus cups, carrot sticks and organic corn chips with guacamole cups, seasonal fruit, hard-boiled eggs, pickles and olives, and raw cheese. Trust me on bringing a bit of quality cheese if you eat dairy, because it can also dress up a sandwich or salad in a pinch. I know this all sounds like a lot of prep work. The thing is, the time you spend on food prep for good car food gets made up during the trip. Not needing to continually stop to find something in a pinch is a good thing. Better nutrition means better moods and better sleep. And that’s always worth the investment, especially if you’ve got a load of kids packed into a small space with you for hours on end. Just sayin’.
My top two items that make healthy travel food work are 1) an electric cooler that can be kept cool with an AC adapter instead of ice and 2) a picnic kit. Plug-in coolers are awesome. There’s more room for food when you don’t need ice and there’s no water leakage to deal with. Make sure you get a plug-in adapter so you can plug your cooler in overnight at your hotel, too. The picnic kit contains a wipe-able tablecloth, a small cutting board and a sharp knife (let’s just say I learned quickly to make sure the knife is stored with an edge guard), washable plates and silverware, a bit of dish soap, utensils, and paper towels. This kit is a lifesaver, especially on longer trips. I like to bring leftover rotisserie chicken, and with just a few sandwich fixings we can stop anywhere we want for lunch. With younger kiddos, a pb & j made out of the back of the car can be a lifesaver. It’s great to be able to sit outside anywhere along the route and enjoy a simple lunch that isn’t battered and deep fried. The best part about not succumbing to fast-food options is that I don’t feel one bit guilty about stopping later for ice cream or cherry pie. When most of our food choices are healthy, the occasional special treat becomes a YES more often. Because vacation food is supposed to be fun, too.
Now, don’t forget the all-important things that make you able to tolerate being in a car all day long with your kids. Yeah, I’m talking about coffee. One of my favorite things for this purpose is a French press travel mug. I’m super particular about my coffee. So I bring some ground beans along and add hot water which you can find at most rest stops and gas stations. Because I don’t do dairy, I also bring a little baggie of powdered organic coconut milk along. And my road trip “luxury item” is a battery-powered frothing wand. It whips my coffee up so it has that latte-like consistency in just seconds. It’s so much faster, cheaper, and easier to make my own coffee. It’s far tastier in my opinion and definitely lower in sugar. My secret coffee ingredient that I really can’t do without is coconut oil. On the road, I can’t be without GoPacks of Brain Octane oil from Bulletproof. This healthy oil can be added to coffee (it really tames the caffeine jitters and is useful if you’re into intermittent fasting) or smoothies and drizzled over your meal to add quality fats that keep you from going crazy on the vacation carbs.
Don’t forget to pack any supplements you don’t feel you can do without. I actually keep a bottle of digestive enzymes and activated charcoal in the car at all times. They’re both great, especially if you’re eating out more on a trip and have any food sensitivities or digestive concerns. There’s nothing more essential to have on hand than activated charcoal if food poisoning hits. Generally, I’ll leave the multivitamins at home. For most, they don’t need to be taken every single day and when your stress is lower on vacation, you likely won’t require them until you get back to the daily grind. I do bring along little containers of raw hemp seeds and my daily greens powder. Hemp seeds are a great plant-based protein option. They’re tasteless so they can be sprinkled onto most anything to add fiber and protein. My daily greens powder is made by Seeking Health. I add it to water and chug it down every day. You can never have enough greens. Plus they balance out those weak vacation moments when s’mores simply must be enjoyed.
Generally, I aim for healthy car snacks, knowing that there will be the occasional fun food stop (Pie! Cobbler! Strawberry shortcake! Ice Cream! World’s Biggest Hot Dog!). Always have lots of plain water on hand and don’t complain with the extra requests for pit stops. Teens might even give you bonus points if you bring along a healthier soda option just for fun. Look for sodas sweetened with natural cane sugar or stevia, instead of high-fructose corn syrup. Once we brought along a great “natural” Root Beer, grabbed ice cream from a supermarket, and made impromptu root beer floats on a particularly hot day.
Yes, I like to have a lot of healthy food on hand. But I don’t aim for perfectly perfect nutrition on a family road trip. We do dessert and treats daily on the road, but not at home. Food is important, but memories of fun times together trump being strict all the time. Food should support having a great trip, but if your kids feel like their memories of time together revolved around food restriction, then something might need to change. Yes, sometimes it’s best to decide that a banana split at 9pm is not.gonna.happen. And sometimes a road trip is the best time to announce that lunch is homemade strawberry shortcake from that adorable roadside stand. Roll with it. Model health for your kids, but also teach them that a bit of discipline some of the time means that there’s room for fun in food too.
My family is just a few short weeks away from this summer’s road trip. What are your favorite tips for traveling with your family?