You know that feeling you get after eating out too many times in a row on vacation? That semi-bloated, fatty-feeling, of eating too much fat, sugar, and grease, and not enough vegetables? Or how about coming back from vacation having gained a few pounds? Yeah…
When Brian and I were in our twenties, we could power through that no problem. But then when our thirties hit, things began to change. I developed food allergies, Brian had gallbladder cancer, and since then eating just isn’t the same. Brian eats no red meat, pork, or dairy and I have dairy, wheat, and shellfish allergies, so we have to be careful about what we eat, especially when we’re traveling. If I accidentally eat dairy, it’s game-over for the whole family.
From camping trips to Disneyland trips, we have always packed food and snacks for vacations, but mostly of the time it was limited to snacks, fruit/vegetable squeeze pouches, and Odwalla Superfood. That way, if Carter only ate bread, crackers, french fries, or pizza at every meal, at least we knew he would still get fruit and veggies too.
But then we did our first Whole30, which included a spring break road trip to Mendocino, and everything changed.
Whole30 is a reset program for your digestive system where you eliminate dairy, grains, legumes, sugar, alcohol, baked goods or treats, carrageenan, MSG, and added sulfites for 30 days. As you can imagine, Whole30 eliminates A LOT of foods and makes dining out at restaurants very difficult.
So for the first time, because we needed Whole30 road trip food, I prepped all the food and snacks for our 7 day road trip with the intention of not eating out the entire trip. And I precooked everything, so there was also no cooking.
On our spring break road trip to the Mendocino coast, we ate at a Whole30-friendly cafe once and ate the rest of our 20 meals tailgate-style.
It was AMAZING and in terms of vacationing, it was transformative.
- We all got to eat our favorite foods for every meal.
- We all felt great the entire time and I never experienced any digestive issues.
- We never had to worry about finding a restaurant, waiting in line, or waiting for a table, and we never had to deal with loud people and slow service.
- We actually had more time to do fun things because we could eat anywhere and didn’t have to spend time driving back into town or sitting through a long meal.
- We ate almost every meal with an incredible view.
At the end of the trip, Natalie, Carter, Brian, and I all agreed that this road trip was the best one ever, this food was the best vacation food ever, and we all want to do this way more often.
Packing Food Saves A Lot Of Money
We also realized something huge: packing our own food is way cheaper than eating out!
We used to budget $150/day for food on vacation because Carter doesn’t eat much and we typically don’t choose fine dining options. That means we needed at least $1,000 for food alone. But when road tripping, I only spend about $300 on food for the entire trip, which means the extra $700 I no longer need to spend on food can be put toward museum tickets, guided adventures, and other experiences.
Since then we have done a few more long road trips, each time honing our food prep system and dialing in just how much food we need.
- Crater Lake National Park, Redwoods National and State Parks, Humboldt Redwoods, Avenue Of The Giants: 8 Days, 21 tailgate meals.
- Death Valley National Park: 9 days, 26 tailgate meals.
- Grand Canyon National Park, Petrified Forest National Park, Meteor Crater, and Hoover Dam, Las Vegas, International Car Forest: 8 days, 20 tailgate meals.
Road Trip Meal Planning And Food Prep
A lot of people ask about our road trip food!
They hear how many meals we eat on the road and are curious how we do it. Many assume we’re traveling in an adventure van, driving an RV, or pulling a trailer and are shocked when they hear that we’re simply driving Brian’s truck. Everything we bring has to fit in the back under the cover, and we do absolutely no cooking at all. All of the food we bring on road trips is precooked and we eat picnic-style or tailgate-style out of an ice chest and dry food bin.
While the amount of food I prep and pack varies by on how long we’re traveling for, here’s my master list of road trip food that I start with for every trip:
- Hard boiled eggs (usually two dozen)
- Cooked bacon
- Mighty Kong muffins
- Reece’s Puffs
- Spicy vegetable, ground turkey, and chicken sausage meatballs
- Artichoke garlic chicken sausage and ground turkey meatballs
- Chicken salad with celery, toasted almonds, and dried cranberries
- Thai salad mix (cabbage, peppers, red onion, carrots, and green onions)
- Barbecue chicken
- Sausalito turkey lunch meat
- Horseradish mustard
- Barbecue Sauce
- Ranch Dressing
- Thai salad dressing
- Peanut butter
- Almond butter
- Salami or beef stick
- Bread (dairy-free)
- Sun-dried tomato wraps
- Cream cheese
- Cashew cheese
- Danimals and yogurts
- Mixed berries
- Apple slices
- Broccoli and cauliflower florets
- Baby carrots and snap peas
- Fruit and vegetable squeeze pouches
- Odwalla Superfood (and other flavors)
- Flavor Blasted Goldfish Crackers
- Single serving chip box
- BBQ Pringles
- Kale chips
- Beet chips
- Vegetable chips
- Salt and vinegar chips
- Boom Chick-A-Pop popcorn
- Smart Food white cheddar popcorn
- Mixed raisins
- Nuts and trail mix
- Fig Bars
- Granola bars
- Rice Krispie Treats
- Fruit snacks
- Corn nuts
- Assorted candy
- Dark chocolate dusted almonds
- Oreo Thins
- See’s Candies Suckers
- Iced tea
- NutPods Creamer*
*We used to pack the NutPods Coffee Creamer for Brian because it’s dairy-free, sugar-free, and doesn’t have to be refrigerated until opened, but no longer pack it because he now drinks his coffee black.
A Few Things To Note
The food prep takes almost an entire day.
Brian takes care of barbecuing the chicken and boiling the eggs. I take care of everything else, including:
- Cooking and shredding chicken.
- Making homemade mayo, toasting the slivered almonds, and chopping celery so I can assemble the chicken salad.
- Chopping the cabbage and slicing the bell peppers, red onion, green onions, and carrots for the Thai chicken salad mix.
- Making the mixed berry fruit salad.
- Soaking cashews overnight, making cashew cheese, and prepping the vegetables to accompany it.
- Cooking two packages of bacon in the oven.
- Making the spicy vegetable, ground turkey, and chicken sausage meatballs for Brian and I (usually about 150).
- Making the artichoke garlic chicken sausage and ground turkey meatballs for Natalie because she doesn’t like the vegetable ones (usually about 100).
After that it’s simply a matter of organizing and packing everything that needs to go in the ice chest in modular containers and double ziplock bags, all of the dry food into bags that slide into the large plastic bin, and all of the snacks in flat containers that slide under the back seats.
We bring way more snack foods and chips than we need.
When you’re spending 2-8 (or more) hours in the car at time, you’re hiking for miles at a time, or you’re taking a guided half-day or full-day adventure, you need snacks. But who wants to eat the same thing all the time? No one! That’s why we pack a ton of road trip snacks. We like to have a variety of options and at the end of the trip, whatever is leftover becomes fodder for school lunches and after school snacks.
Sometimes we do eat out on road trips.
Natalie and Brian will get an ice cream cone, Carter will get a pizza occasionally, the kids will grub at the free hotel breakfast, and when we’re traveling at night in the dark, we’ll usually stop at a near-Whole30-friendly place like Chipotle, The Habit, Panda Express, Daphne’s California Greek, or Dickie’s BBQ Pit, where I can get something that I know won’t cause me any digestive issues. If none of those are an option, we always look for a pub or brewery because a burger (no bun) and fries is almost always a safe bet.
Other Relevant Supplies We Pack
When you’re eating almost every meal out of the back of your vehicle or on a trail, you need more road trip supplies than just your food. For example, we need a sharp knife and cutting board so I can slice the barbecue chicken for dipping in guacamole and barbecue sauce or chop it up to add to the Thai salad. And, that means we need to be able to wash the knife and cutting board back at the hotel.
Here’s a list of the supporting supplies we pack for road trips:
- Clothes pins and chip clips
- Ziplock bags in all sizes
- Paper plates
- Salt and pepper
- Sharp knife
- Cutting board
- Hand sanitizer
- Dish soap and scrub brush
- Plastic bowls
- Beach towels
- Baby wipes
- Industrial grade wipes
- Garbage bags
- Hand broom
- Hydro Flasks
- Bottle opener
- Small ice chest
The beach towels were a critical add after Death Valley, when we couldn’t sit on the tailgate due to dirt and dust. Now we always bring at least one, even if we’re not going to the beach, so we can create a clean place to sit and eat if we need it.
We also love having a second small ice chest in the back seat with cold drinks. This makes it easy to grab one after a long hike without digging through the giant ice chest. And, what’s awesome is that pretty much all of our plates, napkins, and cups/bowls are leftovers from from parties and other events, catering, and takeout orders. When our grocery stores ask, “Do you need silverware and napkins, I always say yes!” So sometimes we’re eating on pirate plates with SpongeBob napkins, and a grocery store silverware pack.
We also use four of these Rubbermaid flat containers because they fit perfectly under the back seats in the truck, four of these 10 cup Rubbermaid storage containers, and four of these 5 cup Rubbermaid storage containers because they have straight sides, which helps us fit more in the ice chest.
Eating On The Road (Or On The Trail)
The best thing about road trip food (other than eating it) is that it is always with you. Anywhere you go, you have everything you could ever want to eat right there. It makes it easy to decide to eat breakfast atop an incredible vista point, eat lunch in the parking lot of a historic lighthouse while watching whales pass by, or eat dinner on the beach.
Plus, with lots of different options, we never feel like we’re eating the same thing over and over. For example, a couple days of meals for Brian and I may look something like this:
- Breakfast: A Mighty Kong Muffin, two hard boiled eggs, and apple slices
- Lunch: Meatballs with barbecue sauce or horseradish mustard, mixed berries, and chips
- Dinner: Thai barbecue chicken salads
- Breakfast: A Mighty Kong Muffin, a hard boiled egg, and two pieces of bacon.
- Lunch: Chicken salad wraps, apple slices and almond butter, and chips
- Dinner: Barbecue chicken and guacamole, mixed berries, cashew cheese and veggies
For the kids, this list looks very different.
While Carter pretty much has a peanut butter sandwich, squeeze pouch, Danimal, and chips for all three meals each day, Natalie likes more variety. She’ll often have something like an Odwalla and Pop Tarts for breakfast because she’s not a big breakfast eater. Then, she’ll mix it up for lunch and dinner like we do, but because she can eat everything, she’ll have salami/beef stick and cheese, bagel sandwiches, and turkey sandwiches, along with meatballs and barbecue chicken.
And you may have noticed that we all eat a lot of chips on road trips! Chips, especially Salt and Vinegar Lays, are my vice so we don’t ever buy them at home. Chips are one of those foods that are a road trip only treat and we take full advantage of that!
When You’re Not Near Your Vehicle
Now sometimes we’re not near the truck at meal time because we’re on a several mile hike or some other adventure, which is why we invested in 40 oz. Hydro Flasks and Osprey Adventure Packs.
- Our backpacks (Men’s Talon 11 and Women’s Tempest 9) get packed in a plastic bin in the back of the truck (along with an extra pair of shoes for each of us). We then pack them in the parking lot before each hike with whatever we need.
- Our Hydro Flasks stay with us at all times — in the truck and on the trail. Each morning, Brian replenishes the ice chest ice and our Hydro Flask ice, and refills them with water. At least once during the day, we all get them refilled again. This is why we pack at least 5 gallons of extra water in the back of the truck. This is also how we make sure everyone drinks enough water. If Brian if refilling Hydro Flasks during the day and someone doesn’t need a refill… busted!
When we have to bring our food and snacks with us, the tailgate becomes my workstation…
- Wraps and sandwiches are the easiest things to pack, so I usually make chicken salad wraps for Brian and I, a bagel sandwich for Natalie, and a peanut butter sandwich for Carter, wrapping them all in foil.
- We grab fruit/veggie squeeze pouches for the kids and apple slices or carrots for Brian and I.
- Everyone picks out snacks they want to bring (I almost always grab a Mighty Kong muffin).
- Each person puts their items in a Ziplock bag, seals it, and slides it in their backpack next to their Hydro Flask. This keeps all the food together so nothing gets smashed in our backpacks. These Ziplocks never get dirty, so we keep them in our packs and reuse them as many times as we can.
Road Trip Food Wrap Up
While we’ve got our road trip food situation pretty dialed in, we did learn a few big lessons on our recent road trip to Grand Canyon National Park and Petrified Forest National Park. You see, until then, all of our road trips have been in fairly warm weather. But both of those parks in March are utterly freezing and it even snowed!
Digging through the ice chest, handling cold food items, and making sandwiches or cutting up chicken in 20-40 degree temperatures plus wind isn’t exactly fun.
Our fingers were so cold they actually hurt and I got pretty good at using a knife and fork with my gloves on. We were all so freezing, it was all we could do to just make our food and jump back in the truck to eat it. Needless to say, I didn’t get many photos of our meals and rather than mix up our food choices throughout the trip, we simply ate what was on top and the fastest to make.
The next time we road trip through cold weather, I’ll definitely be packing the ice chest a bit differently!
We’ve already got more road trips on tap for this summer and are looking forward to not just the exciting adventures and new memories we’ll make, but the food we’ll be eating. There’s nothing quite like a delicious tailgate picnic, the warm sun, and a fantastic view!
Well… that’s pretty much it. I’ve covered the best food to pack for a road trip, everything we’ve learned, and what we do to meal plan and food prep for a road tripping family of four. I hope you’ve found it helpful!