“Mom, I’m hungry: when can we eat?” I hear these words at least three times on a standard day. On a long road trip, that number easily doubles, especially when we have a full day of driving. Nobody wants to deal with “hangry” kids or spouses.
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This post first published October 6 2021. Updated and expanded September 21, 2023
Meal planning for a family saves lots of money and time at home. Road trip meal planning is a great way to ensure you have an inexpensive and epic road trip. A workable plan can save you from having too much fast food or junk food on the road.
In this post, we’ll go over some of our best road trip food ideas for feeding your whole family. We’ll talk about exactly what you need to prepare your own healthy road trip meals. To wrap up, we’ll share our lists of great road trip snacks, and some easy road trip lunch ideas.
Pro Tips for Feeding the Family on a Road Trip
1. Always keep non-perishable snacks and unopened water bottles in the vehicle.
This saved us from unexpected issues more than once. Keep some easy road trip snacks in a spot with easy access in case you are stuck in traffic or inclement weather and can’t pull off.
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2. Use your hotel’s free breakfast
We account for about two hours of getting packed up, eating breakfast, and leaving a hotel in the morning. Most of us are familiar with the adage that breakfast is the most important meal of the day. Packing up before eating breakfast is hard on everyone and often sets a bad vibe for the travel day.
3. Grocery Store Double Duty
Plan to stop at a grocery store every couple of days to refill your food and drinks. Plan to use the bathroom there too, so you can accomplish several things at the same stop. Later in this post we’ll list some specific no-prep, road trip lunch ideas that can easily be found at most grocery stores.
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4. Plan on Picnics
Picnics are a great option to help save money! Usually we tailgate out the back of our van, or find a grassy park to sit down at and eat.
A rest stop often has a picnic table under a gazebo or pavilion— use it! You can also refill water bottles at most rest areas.
5. Cooler to the rescue
Bring a cooler that can fit a good amount of food. Leftovers from restaurants can go in there too. Most hotels have an ice machine, so in the morning before we go, I dump in a couple buckets of ice to keep things cool.
We also take reusable ice packs in our cooler to refreeze at a hotel or AirBnB. Or if space is limited, consider freezing water bottles/ juice boxes. That way you can keep things cool and stay hydrated!
6. Sit-Down Dinner
Plan to eat out for dinner so that you can enjoy a hot meal. Even if it’s a fast food place! At the end of the day, you just want to sit at a table and eat a good meal. Our family enjoys eating out as a treat. However eating out on a longer trip adds significant extra cost to the road trip.
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7. Restaurant Savings
When choosing a restaurant, keep an eye out for restaurant deals such as “kids eat free”. Some restaurants serve “family style” meals so that food can be shared around. You can also take advantage of the discounted daily special to help keep costs low.
8. Reservations Save Your Sanity
If you’re planning to eat at a restaurant, it’s a good idea to make a reservation by phone ahead of time. It may not be a problem in a big city, but it sure was a problem when we were driving cross country! Smaller cities have less selection which means less capacity on a Friday night or when the local university has a big event going on.
More than once we pulled up at a restaurant only to find that it was closing early (due to staffing issues), or it was full, or had a 45 minute wait. Calling around when you’ve already exited the freeway and have hungry little kids waiting to eat is not what you want! Ask me how I know…🙄
9. Ice Cream Saves the Day
When you have to drive long distances in a day, stop at a gas station to pick up ice cream bars or candy from the convenience store. This can make the day so much better. Mid-afternoon is hard on everyone. If the budget allows for it, it’s worth it!
10. Exceptions to the Rule
The driver and co-pilot can eat or drink whenever they want. In our new van, we generally don’t allow any eating or drinking except mints and water. Mom and Dad are the exceptions. Dad and Mom have to drive or navigate safely, and sometimes caffeine and snacks are the only real option to make that happen on long drives.
11. Don’t wait- snack as needed
If people are cranky, or sick, don’t make them wait until you find an appropriate spot to eat. This was one of the big mistakes we used to make all the time when we first took our little kids on the open road. It’s better to stop and feed children a small easy meal or snack than to push them past their limit.
12. Variety- The Spice of Road Trips
Change up where and what types of foods you eat. We had Waffle House for dinner one night, and lunch another day so that we could have something different. We loved trying new kinds of food that introduced our kids to different cuisines in new states we visited.
On the other hand, it’s also a good idea to keep a favorite food on hand that you know your kids will eat. We’ve found with our ADHD kids that when they finally get out of the car after a long time sitting, the last thing they want to do is sit for a meal!
13. Keeping it Fresh
Fresh fruit and fresh veggies can be hard to find at fast food places and hotel breakfasts. An easy solution to this is to order salads whenever you are eating at a sit-down restaurant. One of the best travel tips we follow is to keep cash on hand to buy from roadside fruit stands, especially in the summer.
14. Super Hack – Roadtrippers App!
One of the best tools we used on our epic road trip was the Roadtrippers app. It gave us great suggestions and ideas for restaurants and unique food experiences! You can read our full review and use our Roadtrippers affiliate link to get $5 off your Plus Membership.
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Making your own road trip food
Making healthy meals while on a family road trip doesn’t have to be difficult or complicated. You can either pack your own foods to prepare at a stop, or you can bring some make-ahead meals from your overnight lodging.
Related: we have a whole post on camping meals that can be made ahead or don’t require refrigeration.
Useful non-food items to have on hand
1. Baby wipes and hand sanitizer to make sure everyone has relatively clean hands before eating. Baby wipes will also clean nearly anything that gets grubby or sticky.
2. Picnic blanket, preferably one that is water resistant in case grass is wet. You can thank me later! 😊
3. Can opener/ Swiss army knife (if you’re planning to eat a canned food that needs opening, or a bottled drink).
4. Plastic zip-top bags (gallon and snack size).
5. Plastic wrap.
6. Reusable water bottles, 1 per passenger at least. Extra water, in the form of gallons or sealed water bottles, is helpful for rinsing fresh fruit as needed, too.
7. Paper towels to clean up spills, or to use as a napkin for a sandwich.
8. One or more coolers, and a collapsible cooler bag.
9. Spreading/ butter knife, and a serrated knife (for cutting fresh fruit or bread). Reusable items can be easily wiped off with a baby wipe, then cleaned properly at the next hotel/ campsite/ AirBnB.
10. Hot water kettle that plugs into a car outlet.
11. Plastic bag for trash (a garbage bag, or several plastic grocery bags work great).
12. Disposable utensils (spoons, forks, knives) and plates/cups if needed.
Our favorite road trip snacks
I try to keep a couple of important things in mind when choosing road trip snacks.The best road trip snacks keep at room temperature for long periods of time. Healthy snacks for kids give them fuel, but not too much sugar, which can cause hyperactivity followed by a sugar crash.
However, I also look for good snacks that won’t make a big mess, and can be easily prepared with a minimum of fuss. Decide what matters most to your family, and choose your best road trip foods from the lists below.
Healthy Road Trip Snacks (suitable for little kids)
We advise that you do not feed young children while the vehicle is in motion. Kids eating while the car is in motion is an easy way to wind up with a choking incident, or a huge mess. We learned this one the hard way! ☹️
Here’s some of the best road trip snacks for little kids:
- Cheerios, Life Cereal, or other round/ square cereals
- Baby puff snacks
- Gummy fruit snacks
- Graham crackers
- String cheese
- Veggie sticks
- Apple chips
- Nuts (depending on child— definitely try these with your child before the trip)
- Granola bars
As a mom of six kids, my time is precious. When my kids were little and there were only two or three of them, it was easy to save money on items by bagging portions individually, and cutting up my own fresh fruits and veggies. That’s still the best way to save money.
However, now that I have more kids, my time and effort is more valuable to me. I often buy precut veggie or fruit platters because it saves me time and guarantees that we will actually eat the produce. Feel free to pick the best option for your family and stage of life right now.
Ultimate Road Trip Food List (kids age 6 and up)
- Dried fruit: raisins, cranberries, blueberries, cherries, apricots
- Jerky: beef or whatever variety is your favorite. We personally love Costco’s Kirkland Steak Strips.
- Nuts: plain unsalted, as well as seasoned. Nuts provide healthy fat and a good dose of protein, so they keep you full longer than chips or crackers. Trader Joe’s has some awesome flavors, or most convenience stores carry several kinds. Peanuts, cashews, almonds, pistachios, hazelnuts—whatever your family likes.
- Cookies: individual packs / family size pack for a sweet treat
- Crackers: individually packaged packs. Some of these come with a spread, such as peanut butter or cheese.
- Potato chips / other vegetable or fruit chips: individual packs/ a family pack
- Capri Suns/ juice boxes
- Starbucks shelf-stable frappés (for parents!)/ soda
- Granola bars/ protein bars
- Trail mix
- Hard-boiled eggs
- String cheese/ baby bels
- Candy of any kind (use this judiciously)
- Sunflower seeds – my husband likes the unshelled kind because it takes more effort to eat and thus helps him stay awake better
Road Trip Lunch Ideas
The first few times I tried to prepare meals on a road trip with no kitchen, I quickly discovered that it was completely different from preparing meals at home in my kitchen! Some meals don’t keep well for a long trip. Others require good refrigeration to stay in the safe temperature range to avoid spoilage— temperature control is challenging while on the road.
Over many trips, I’ve discovered some winning road trip lunches that we frequently use on rotation. Here’s a list of easy road trip lunch ideas to get you started.
Food safety notes
(Note: items with a * next to them can be safely stored outside the cooler for longer than 2 hours safely or do not require refrigeration. Buy the smallest size container your family will use quickly, and restock as needed on the trip.)
(Note: items with a ^ next to them can easily be made ahead at your hotel/ AirBNB/ campsite as long as they are kept cool and served for lunch. Plan to toss any unused pre-made options that don’t get eaten by lunch time. When in doubt, throw it out!)
Sandwiches— choose your bread (some favorites for our family are bagels or Hawaiian rolls), then add one of these fillings:
- Peanut Butter*(or almond butter) and Honey*/ Jam*/ Jelly*
- Peanut Butter* and Nutella* (high in sugar, but also in protein)
- Deli Meats and Cheeses ^
- Deli Meat and cream cheese (especially on bagels) ^
- Tuna salad ^
- Chicken Salad ^
- Egg salad ^
Non-sandwich options (most of these should be kept in a cooler with ice until served, then returned to the cooler after lunch).
- Hummus with your favorite veggies (we love baby carrots, cocktail cucumbers and cherry tomatoes) and pita pockets / flatbread / crackers
- Cream cheese and deli meat tortilla roll-ups
- Vegetable frittata
- Lunchables/ party platters with cut up cheeses and deli meats. Our new favorites are these grown-up Tillamook lunch kits.
- Deli sushi— lots of grocery stores do this now!
- Deli fried chicken and sides
- Instant Soup cups (best for older kids and adults)
Most of these would be a light lunch, in anticipation of a solid dinner later on. However, we have found that even the best road trip foods get tiresome after awhile, so feel free to switch it up based on the needs of the day.
Final tips and an exclusive free download!
Every trip we learn a little more and do things better the next time. These ideas are some of the best tips we’ve discovered.
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We’re always looking for ways to make our next road trip with our kids even better. Do you have any other ideas for easy road trip meals? Share them in the comments!
© Copyright 2021 Jennifer D. Warren. Updated January 28, 2022.