Many people may find this to be an admission of pure insanity, but I like a long road trip. That’s not the insane part, though. I like a long road trip with my kid.
Perhaps it is because, for the first year or so of his life, my kid hated riding in the car. Most people I know swore by putting their baby in his or her car seat and driving around in order to silence their kid’s fussing or screaming, but my kid had the exact opposite reaction to riding in a car. Whereas he would start out a car journey in complete calmness, by about 30 seconds in he would start fussing, then crying, then screaming in total agony. The whole time, I might add. The screaming wouldn’t stop until the journey came to a stop. Because of this, my husband and I, for the first year of our kid’s life, never went anywhere in the car. The only traveling our kid did was via a stroller or Baby Bjorn. Since it was impossible to make trips to the coast or the mountains via stroller, I think we’re still, all these years later, making up for lost trips. Because now? My kid is a champion road-tripper.
We’ve become pretty adept at it, too. We’ve learned which east and west-bound routes serve us best, which rest stops along I-5 have the most pleasant surroundings (I highly recommend the Randolph C. Collier Rest Area in Northern California for both lovely scenery and unsurpassed cleanliness), and most importantly, what types of foods to pack that will bring us not only energy, but also pleasure.
I try to pack a good variety of foods for our trips, and I try to arrange them into two categories: meals and snacks. Depending on how long our road trip will be, I might end up packing two meals and a handful of snacks, or sometimes just a good amount of snack foods.
For meals, I find it difficult to go wrong with a nice sandwich, packed with crisp vegetables and a nice slip of meat or cheese (or both). For our recent road trip to Eastern Oregon, I packed individual sandwiches on little ciabatta rolls (in the past, I have made these black bread rolls for sandwiches and, man, were they good). Much like with this stuffed picnic sandwich (which is also a great item to pack on a road trip), I like to tear a bunch of the bready middle out of the center of each roll, allowing for a tidier nest in which to nestle in your chosen sandwich fillings. If you are going to be forced to actually eat your meal in the car while driving, this also makes for a much tighter sandwich packet that is easier to contain. For the sake of ease, you can make make your sandwiches the night before you leave, wrap them up, then just toss them into a small cooler on the morning of your trip.
I have also had good success rolling some of these Indian turkey burgers into a tortilla with chunks of cucumber and strips of lettuce. If you are horrified by the idea of mixing Indian food with a tortilla, just close your eyes (but not if you are driving) and pretend that the tortilla is a chapati and you’ll be fine.
For a simpler spread, sometimes I just fill one bag with a selection of crackers, another with squares of sharp cheddar, and call it good. These are great with sliced vegetables while picnicking, or, if you’re traveling with other people, they can be stacked up and handed to you as you drive. For a different riff on this idea, try slices of sharp cheddar piled on top of slices of this no-knead apple bread, or perhaps this no-knead flatbread.
For snacks, I tend to lean heavily in the direction of things that are satisfying without being heavy or sweet. These granola bars are a huge hit on road trips. Lately I have taken to baking the granola bars in a 9” by 13” pan and baking them for a slightly shorter amount of time. This makes for a crisper, flatter granola bar that is great for a little snack while hiking or on the road.
I also like to make my own trail mix out of a cup each of roasted almonds and pecans, sometimes pumpkin seeds, and then a handful of various dried fruits (dried cherries, dried cranberries, and chopped up dried apricots are all good additions). I used to also add a handful of dark chocolate chips, but they tended to get a little messy after being tossed around in a warm car (also, my kid would pick out all the chocolate chips and then launch into a chocolate-fueled frenzy, which is something you want to avoid while trapped in a moving vehicle).
Fruits and vegetables are also important snacks. I have learned that the less juicy the fruit, the better. This means no peaches, nectarines, pineapple slices, or watermelon. Better choices can be found in grapes, blueberries, raspberries, sliced apples, or even sliced peaches and nectarines (so long as they can be eaten without being dropped because, oh, man, how unpleasant is it to accidentally sit on a peach slice in a hot car?). Basically, choose fruits that are unencumbered by pits or seeds, since you don’t want to have to deal with those things while driving.
If you don’t have room for fruit, or you don’t want to deal with it, you can always opt for a nice selection of fruit leather.
As for vegetables, baby carrots are standard for our trips, but blanched green beans are another crisp, delightful option. Sliced bell peppers and sliced cucumbers are also nice to have on hand, and they pair wonderfully with the aforementioned cheese and crackers.
And, because I am me, I can’t have a road trip without a little treat. These Mexican chocolate zucchini muffins are a delightful thing to have on hand, and their low sugar content won’t make you feel crazy while you sit in a car for several hours after eating them. We also took this tangerine zucchini bread on a recent trip, and it was great to have on hand for a little something sweet, yet not cloyingly so. The same goes for these carrot muffins, another pleasing, not-to-sweet treat.
We’re gearing up to take our annual summer trip to San Francisco, and you can bet that a wide variety of these foods will be coming along with us. Not to hammer in my previous mention of suspected insanity, but the drive is 12 hours long—each way—so the food we pack can make or break our enjoyment of the drive. It also helps that, without fail, we always hit a Dairy Queen as a special treat while driving through the hottest parts of the state. A small dipped cone (vanilla ice cream, chocolate dip) can perform near-magical wonders in the heat.