A bit of planning before you leave home will ensure that your family eats right no matter where the road takes you.
Meals on the go
Not all food items pack as well in a cooler as others, but there are a few meals and snacks that are breeze to pull out of the cooler.
If you're on a multi-day trip, make sandwiches before heading out for the day. If you're just taking a day trip, prep sandwiches before leaving home.
(Note: Do not give nuts to children under three or honey to children under age 1, and give age-appropriate bites to avoid choking. For more information on age-appropriate snacks, read Tasty Treats for Toddlers.)
- PBJs, please!
For kids and grown-ups alike, you can't go wrong with peanut butter and jelly. A thin layer of peanut butter on both slices of bread keeps the sandwich from getting too soggy. Cut sandwiches into four for easy eating.
Tip: Store sandwiches in plastic containers to prevent smashed sandwiches.
- Sandwich roll-ups
Using whole wheat tortillas for sandwiches prevents smashed bread. Place all the your favorite sandwich ingredients in the middle of a tortilla, roll it up, and place in a large zippered bag. Another tip is to keep your condiments in the middle to prevent sogginess or add them just prior to eating. Try various combinations of deli turkey, ham, or chicken, hummus, lettuce, peppers, cucumbers, mustard, light mayo, or balsamic vinaigrette. The options are endless!
Tip: Sneak a few shredded vegetables into the middle of each tortilla for a bit of nutrition.
- DIY Lunchables
A box of wheat crackers, pre-sliced cheese and deli meat can go a long way when it comes to quick lunch to refuel the kids.
First, ask the deli to slice meat thicker than usual, and if you're feeling creative, use cookie cutters to cut fun shapes out of the meat and cheese. (Or you can just cut the slices into bite-size pieces.) Place a serving of wheat crackers in a sandwich bag, then place cheese, meat, a few grapes or carrots and the crackers into a plastic container. The kids will have their own "lunchable"! You can also add sliced vegetables like peppers or cucumbers.
Tip: Put a small cookie, toy or other treat in the container, too. (Wrap it in foil so kids can't see what it is.) Tell them they can have the treat if they behave in the car!
Snacks on the go
Great snacks to pull out of coolers are:
- Pre-sliced veggies
- Individually wrapped cheese (like string cheese, Laughing Cow wedges, or BabyBels)
- Dried fruit (raisins, cranberries and bananas are popular)
- Fruit snacks
Small plastic tubs of fruit in juice (Drain the juice before giving to the kids and keep wipes handy.)
- Sliced apples (Drizzle a bit of lemon juice over your apple slices to help prevent browning or bring along an apple corer.)
- Whole fruit: bananas, apples, strawberries, etc. (Tip: When you give kids fruit, PBJs or any other potentially sticky snack, immediately give them a baby wipe or damp paper towel and a plastic sandwich bag for their peels, cores and other refuse. Tell them to wipe their hands after eating and put the paper towel in the baggie when they're done.)
- GORP or trail mix
- Peeled hard-boiled eggs
- Baggies of cereal
- Yogurt tubes (freeze them before leaving home)
- Whole-wheat pretzels
- Pre-sliced veggies
Keep it healthy with drink choices as well! Sticking to water is going to be your best bet, especially when you're outside in the summer heat. You can also offer kids boxes of milk or 100% juice boxes. Avoiding sugar-loaded sodas and juice cocktails is going to save you some calories and keep the sugar in your child's diet down.
Once your cooler is packed, you're ready to hit the road. Don't forget to save room for baby formula or extra breast milk!
Once you arrive at your destination, even if you're staying in a hotel, you don't have to stop eating right. Your trusty cooler can take a break and let a mini fridge take over. (Don't forget to put the ice packs in the freezer so you're ready for the next day.)
Breakfast of champions
Breakfast is the most important meal of the day, and sometimes it's the hardest to coordinate on the road, even if there is a free breakfast offered at the hotel. Cold cereal and milk work well in hotel rooms, and so do healthy muffins (bring them from home or buy some along the way), yogurt and granola, or that old favorite, PBJs. Another option is whole-wheat mini bagels with peanut butter and sliced banana. Cottage cheese is a good source of calcium and protein in the morning. Mix a low fat cottage cheese with berries, pineapple or mandarin oranges for a quick morning meal. The supplies for these meals can easily be packed into a cooler.
If you've got a microwave in your hotel room, pack oatmeal or cream of wheat, plus dried fruit and nuts. Serve a glass of milk and some fruit, and you and the kids will be ready to start the day.
Three square meals, plus snacks
Pack a few staples that you can turn into lunch, snacks and dinner. You can travel to you hotel with most items in a cooler and bag, then transfer them to the fridge. Or, hit the nearest grocery store once you're in your destination city. Pack the following groceries and use the ingredients in different combinations to get many meals!
- Whole-wheat tortillas
- Whole-wheat mini bagels
Light cream cheese (plain or garden style)
- Shredded lettuce or baby spinach
- Deli chicken, turkey or ham
- Peeled hard-boiled eggs
- String cheese
- Baby carrots
- Pre-made pasta salad
- Cut fruit (any kind!)
- Deli wrap: Use the whole-wheat tortilla to wrap up a smear of cream cheese, lettuce and deli meat.
- Cow in a blanket: Wrap a slice of deli meat around a cheese stick for a protein-packed snack
- Bagel sandwich: Pile lettuce, deli meat and a bit of cream cheese in the middle of a mini bagel.
- Wrapped carrot bites: Spread a bit of cream cheese on a slice of deli meat and wrap it around a carrot for a crunchy snack.
Enjoy the above snacks and meals with your the fresh fruit and carrots you packed, and you'll enjoy a few days worth of healthy meals while you're away from home. Remember, planning is everything. The more you can cut, chop, wash, and pack in baggies and containers the better. It will make you vacation more enjoyable once you're settled in and having a great time with the family.
The trick to eating right on the road is in your ice chest, which when packed appropriately, is a treasure chest of healthful and tasty food for you and your family.
Keep your cool.
Coolers are essential for food safety, and it's important to pack them well so the food and beverages will stay cold as long as possible. When packing only drinks, loose ice will do the trick. It will melt as your day goes on, but if you drain some water from the vent in the bottom of your cooler each time you stop throughout the day, you won't be fishing like a polar bear to grab a drink.
Packing food is a different story. Using ice packs is a better tactic for chilling food and packaged items. Water from melted ice leads to soggy containers and potential leaks. Don't have enough ice packs to chill the whole cooler? Fill large, zipper-lock freezer bags with ice to achieve the same effect, or multitask and freeze water in reusable bottles to stand in as ice packs while you travel. Making sure your food is completely chilled before packing helps keep the ice from melting so quickly.
The tricky part is using one cooler for both drinks and food. To pack both in one cooler, try finding a tub or bag that all your food will fit into to place inside the cooler. This way, you can put loose ice and beverages in the bottom of the cooler, then fit your stash of food with an ice pack or two right on top of that. Another option, if you have extra space, is to pack two coolers--one each for food and drinks.