There's nothing more American than life on the open road, especially during those golden summer days when the office is a distant memory, and all you've got ahead of you is the steering wheel and the promise of a carefree week of the beach, the mountains, or having your folks take care of the kids.
If only eating on the road were as simple. Not only are the options by the side of your friendly neighborhood interstate often far from appealing (or healthy), few vacation-bound moms or dads really want to delay their trip by precious minutes when they know there's a 50-mile knot of traffic waiting just on the other side of rush hour.
So we eat in the car. And then we remember why we prefer to eat at a table at home. Messy, unhealthy, smelly, and prone to causing sour stomachs, the foods we nosh on in transit usually leave a lot to be desired.
Recently, I got some advice from Travis Taylor, chef of the restaurant dedicated to the American road, Motor, at the Harley-Davidson Museum in Milwaukee, Wis., and he told me you can get you to your destination without a growling belly or a lot of clean-up.
Here, without any more pit stops, are the 13 best and 7 worst ideas for road trip snacks.
- Simple items that don't require refrigerators or coolers.
- A small cooler, spill-proof cups for young children, and Wet Wipes.
- Homemade graham crackers and granola. "I've got two little girls, and having the kids in the kitchen with me the day before preparing the snacks for the trip gives them something to do and gets them involved," Taylor says. "Have things packed and labeled in advance, and things will go a lot smoother on the trip."
- A Taylor family favorite: "PBJ 2.0," peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches with potato chips inside. "The kids love it, and it's crunchy."
- Vegetables in different shapes, colors, and textures, like carrots, celery, radishes snap peas. "Road trips are a great way to introduce fruits and veggies." Try veggies with a dry ranch-dressing powder, or sugar snap peas sliced open and filled with Boursin cheese. If you use broccoli or cauliflower, blanch and shock them before you pack them so they'll be easier to eat for the kids.
- Melons balled with a melon baller, maybe with a cup of yogurt drizzled with honey as a dip. "It gives kids a different shape to play with."
- Pretzels, Triskets, and crackers. "It depends on your diet, but I always have them on hand, in moderation. They're easy, have great flavor, are relatively simple to clean, and they're healthier than potato chips."
- A small sandwich cut into quarters for easier portion control, without mayo, tomato, lettuce, or other elements that will make it soggy (think a good flavorful meat plus cheese + whole-grain bread).
- "Cafe Racer Clutch Pie": Fruit compote or pie filling baked in mini puff pastry. Easy to make, fun and not too messy to eat.
- That old trucker standby beef jerky (as long as you stay away from high-sodium versions, which will cause a lot of crying out for bathroom breaks).
- Boiled eggs (but not deviled eggs): nutritious, filling, and compact.
- Raisins and pre-shelled nuts like cashews.
- And Taylor's No. 1 road-trip snack of all time: Grapes. "You can take a bunch of grapes, rinse them off, snip them into smaller bunches, stick them in separate little plastic baggies. I first and foremost make sure we have grapes."
The bad and the ugly
- Giving kids anything with lots of sugar late, especially late at night. "It's better to give them something in the mornings and afternoons, but don't give them lemonade when you're leaving in the evening, because you'll be home at midnight and want them in bed."
- Filling up with too much liquid, and causing constant calls for bathroom breaks.
- Pudding cups and things that have lids or require spoons or two hands. "They make a mess, and once they hit the floor, you've got pudding or Jello everywhere. And the last thing you want to do at midnight when you get home is clean out yogurt from underneath the car seat."
- Sandwiches that use messy items like mayo, tomatoes and lettuce, which make your sandwiches soggy and leave your car covered in drips, smears and messy fingerprints.
- Things that come in large portions you can't divide, like cheeseburgers. "Kids will have a bite and set it down, but where?"
- Peanuts in the shell, sunflower seeds, etc. "They get everywhere and they're pretty small and could be a choking hazard."