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How to Eat Healthy on a Road Trip

Anyone who follows a real food diet will eventually find that eating away from home can be tricky.  There are many pitfalls to eating a healthy diet when you’re not at home where your well-prepared, real foods are easily available.  One of the biggest healthy eating issues I face is how to eat healthy on a road trip. Fortunately, I’ve figured out some ways to “keep it real” when eating away from home on a road trip.

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Real Food Road Trips

Over the years my family has spent a lot of time road tripping. Just like many other busy families, our life has been filled with soccer tournaments, track meets, visits to family out of town, and homeschool field trips.  Before beginning our journey toward health with a real food diet, we would eat out 2-3 meals a day on road trips.

Naturally, as we realized what a health rip-off most restaurant food is (Yes, even Subway!) we sought an alternative to eating out while away from home.

My first instinct was to pack three full meals and all of our snacks for the day. But . . . have you ever tried packing a day’s worth of food for five people–three of them very hungry boys?  Yeah.  Exactly.

You Don’t Have to Stop Eating Out

Here’s where I’ll make the disclaimer that we haven’t completely stopped eating out.  Granted, we are pickier about where we eat. However, since we climbed on board the real food train in early 2012, most restaurants – even fast food restaurants – have stepped up their health food game.

Now we know that we’re not going to get an organic salad from McDonalds or grass-fed beef at Burger King. I’m not saying that eating out is perfectly fine on a daily basis, but most restaurants have options – even if they’re not organic – that won’t wreck your healthy diet.

Eating out on road trips (not 3 meals a day, of course!) is part of our 20% in an 80/20 real food diet.  

We could technically call a day’s worth of restaurant food part of our 20% if our diet was otherwise perfect the rest of the week.  That’s absolutely feasible for our family because we eat very well at home.  However, to us, eating a day’s worth of meals out seems like a great way to end up feeling sick on the long ride home.

What I’m saying is some of the tips I’m about to give you may seem extreme but you don’t have to be extreme to be healthy. While we’ve done every tip I’m sharing here, you don’t have to follow them all to be healthy. We’ve experimented to see what works for us and found a happy medium between, say, eating every meal out and packing every meal to bring from home. Take what works for you and leave the rest.

So, how do we avoid eating out every meal on long trips away from home?

5 Ways to Eat Healthy on a Road Trip

Plan Ahead

We usually have advanced notice of events that will require us to be away from home all day.  I make an extra batch of soaked pancakes and freeze them for a quick breakfast before we leave.  I’ll even cook bacon the night before if we have to leave early in the morning.

Sometimes I’ll save leftovers from the week and freeze them for the day we will be out of town.  Regardless of your food choices, planning ahead is essential for avoiding restaurants while on the road.

If you haven’t purchased a cooler large enough to hold a day’s worth of snacks and meals for your family, now is the time.

Pack Healthy, Real Food Snacks

I don’t know about your children, but mine are ready to eat the moment we get where we’re going.  This is after eating snacks in the van the whole way there.  My boys like to eat and I love that they do.  But, because much of their snacking on road trips stems from habit and boredom, I try to keep snacks on hand that are healthy and won’t ruin their appetites for meals.

We pack plenty of fruit and easy-to-eat vegetables. When it’s hot outside and no one is craving yogurt and cheese, having a cooler full of baby carrots, grapes, cucumbers,  oranges, bananas, apples, etc helps us to stay full throughout the day.  Pistachios are also great for a quick snack because they require no soaking. Try to find them unsalted and add your own Himalayan Pink Salt or Celtic Sea Salt if desired.

Check out my list of pre-packaged real food snacks that are perfect for road trips.

Pack Easy-to-Eat Foods

When we pack meals from home to bring on road trips, they usually consist of easy-to-eat foods like chicken drumsticks.  This has to be one of the easiest foods I prepare for away from home meals.  Pop 8-10 drumsticks in the slow-cooker the day before, season them and let them cook for 6 hours.  Put them in a glass container in the cooler. They make an easy-to-hold, filling lunch or dinner.

On the other hand, paper plates and plastic utensils exist for a reason.  Be kind to the planet and use them only when you must, however.

Extra points for using eco-friendly paper plates. Don’t bring paper towels or napkins. Use kitchen towels that you can wash and reuse.

Bring the Bread

If you eat grains, byob. Bring your own bread, that is.

Homemade sourdough bread travels easily and can be pre-sliced for easy to eat pieces.  Homemade butter placed in a glass container in the cooler is handy for adding the wonderful saturated fat that helps us to stay full.  Don’t leave home without sourdough bread and butter!

Don’t Give Up – And Don’t Go Extreme!

Yes, in the beginning there was much complaining and whining from our boys who were used to eating 2-3 restaurant meals per day when we went on day-long road trips.  But, when they saw that we were serious and that no amount of tears would persuade us, they asked what we had in the cooler.

I admit that there is a huge paradigm shift to overcome before being able to eat home cooked foods away from home. Many of us simply do not want to stop eating out.

The good news is we’re not shooting for perfection here. In fact, perfection might be making you unhealthy. Eating healthy on a road trip is as simple as making good choices in a restaurant or as a involved as packing three meals and all your snacks to take along. Or, even better, eating healthy on a road trip combines restaurant food with homemade food.