Family Vacations, Fast-Food Free

by Melinda Hemmelgarn, M.S., R.D.

Fuel forecasters and market analysts tell us sky high gas prices – $4.00 per gallon and climbing – are forcing cuts in our “non-essential” retail purchases (1). In other words, we’re spending less on clothing, eating out and entertainment. However, we’re not ready to give up driving. Since summertime traditionally screams for road trips, we’ll scrimp and save elsewhere to celebrate our independent spirit and bask in the all-American open road.

There’s just one problem, besides the price of gas. Whether you’re driving two hours or twelve, someone’s going to get hungry en route. If your family is like mine, hunger may occur more often among certain members. For example, young children’s small tummies naturally fill-up and empty quickly. Adolescent boys will want to eat again shortly after their last meal. And you thought filling the car was expensive?

Next there’s the decision of where to eat. If your kids watch an ounce of commercial television, they’ll want to eat what they see advertised.  (2) According to a recent report in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association, the majority of TV ads promote foods dietitians call “junk.”  (3) Unfortunately, high-sugar, high-fat, high-sodium processed “foods” leave our families hungry for real nourishment. 

Road-side convenience stores, gas stations and fast food neon signs seem to shout: Look! Stop! EAT!  But most of the quick stops dotting the Interstate offer more of the same: supersized portions of soulless snacks devoid of personality or regional flair.

Summer vacations can easily turn into a nutritionist’s nightmare -- if you’re not prepared. Not to worry. No matter your destination, I’ve got simple strategies to solve your dietary driving dilemmas. Follow these eight easy tips, and create fun family memories, while sticking to your budget and enjoying tasty, regional roadway cuisine.  


1. Bring a cooler (or two).

Packing our own food and beverages puts us in control of ingredients and quality, while leaving room for adventure. Leave home with a cooler full of healthful snacks and sandwiches (humus on whole wheat pita, cheese sticks, yogurt, milk, 100% juice, cherry tomatoes, pasta salads, etc.), then replenish supplies and ice at grocery stores along the way. Most are located within a few miles of major highways.

2. Pack some non-perishable nutritious snacks.

You’ll want some back-pack friendly fare, such as nuts, dried fruit, peanut butter, apples, and granola bars.

3. Remember essential eating utensils:

Reusable spoons and forks; a can opener; paper or refillable cups; a good paring knife for fruits and cheese; plus, napkins or paper towels and soap to clean hands and wipe up spills.

4. Plan to picnic at roadside rests.

Everyone will appreciate a grassy stretch break to take a walk, jump rope or toss a ball or Frisbee. You’ll feel energized, refreshed and reduce road-weary stress.

5. Do some homework prior to your departure.

Search for farmers markets and food festivals in the towns you’ll be passing through. Regional cuisine gives us a true sense of place. So, if you’re in Kansas City, dig into the barbecue; in Florida, find local Key lime pie. Driving through Vermont? Buy some real maple syrup. Louisiana? Go for the gumbo. Wisconsin? Cheese curds. You get the picture.

6. Stop at visitor centers, usually located just over state lines.

Many offer maps with local food information and volunteers who happily provide directions to their favorite spots. Our best find: real peach ice cream at a fruit stand in the heart of Georgia, churned by an old Southern gentleman with a delightful deep-south accent. Now that’s local flavor.

7. Share restaurant fare.

When you do find a local gem, split entreés, sides and desserts so everyone feels satisfied without being stuffed. Most restaurant portions tend to be larger than we need, and no one wants to return home wearing the spare tire. All-you-can-eat buffet-style restaurants encourage overeating. They’re really designed for the adolescent male mentioned above.

8. Be a local organic advocate.

When dining out, ask for the “local” choices. Inquire about organic options. When ordering coffee, request “fair trade.” Shopping at a farmer’s market? Thank those farmers who grow food organically.  Remember, no matter where our travels take us, we bring our voting food dollars with us, and carry the winds of change through our voice and stories. 


Road Trip Resources

Handy for any travel occasion

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