It's hard to tell whether I took this picture of some of our road-trip goodies to accompany this article, for the memories — or as a visual check-off list for next time. (Maureen Tisdale)
I’ve always loved road trips. As a kid, I remember four to seven of us kids (depending on the era), stuffed among suitcases in the back with Mom and Dad holding the radio hostage to make us interact with each other. When I was 24, I took an unbelievable three-plus weeks to drive to California and back with two girlfriends, hitting Vegas and the Grand Canyon and way, way more along the way. For her high school graduation, I took my sister Tiffany on a road trip from Florida to the Rockies to New Orleans and more. I’ve lost count how many my husband and I have taken in five years of marriage.
On road trips, the journey is the destination — and the food that fuels it is at least half the fun.
Last week, I returned from a road trip my husband, our 22-month-old and I took to Texas for a family event. As I made lists of what we brought for help packing next time — this time, my eager-to-hit-the-road husband had to wrestle past my control-freak ways with tricks (“Just let me do something, then you can redo it after”) — I realized how much non-food luggage was dwarfed by:
■three “current day” lunchbags, one for each of us
■a medium-sized cooler (for our first-night dinner/next day food)
■our big long-term cooler (for food in Texas and on the way back)
■and in the non-chilled arena, two food and food stuffs bags we were in and out of daily, another for food later in the trip, a drinks bag and a fruit bag.
It’s honestly hard to tell where the good planning ends and the OCD begins.
Anyway, as I was making notes, I thought I’d share what works for us in case it gives anyone ideas heading toward spring (!) and summer (!) vacation trips, plus ask what road-trip foods you readers reminisce about or go-to to this day.
My husband and son are fairly easy. I peeled tiny Cuties oranges (those little mandarins are so popable) and stored them in handy Snapware — airtight containers are our friends on the road. The fruit stayed fresh for my husband through the first few days, as did his favorite lunch wraps; both were handy for the rest stop where we picnicked while my son burned off pent-up energy racing around, hands flopping. Otherwise, my husband goes fairly classic: snack bars — this time, some homemade, some FiberLove (he loved their new Apple Cobbler) — dried fruit, Pringles and Tostitos, peanut M&Ms and Mountain Dew for the late stretches.
For our son, our Bad Muffins worked well the first couple of days. Beyond those plus Horizon single-serving organic milk cartons (no refrigeration, whoo hoo!), jarred oatmeal, string cheese and miracle fruit- veggie- and yogurt-squeeze pouches, we just let peanut butter sandwiches, Lunchables and fruit and cereal bars have their way with his car seat, dumping out the crumbs at each stop. (If you have non-messy kid-food tips, please share them!)
Now my own food — no flour, no sugar, weighed and measured for the most part, very fruit and vegetable heavy — gets a little trickier. A good part of that big cooler was filled with big salads for hotel and rest-stop picnics, plus a second big bag of chopped romaine and two small containers, one of olives (in a bag to prevent leaking) and another of grape tomatoes to make salads for the second half of the trip, plus dressing. My scale and a tablespoon came with us, too.
But not everything I did was so complicated; in addition to the obvious string cheese (we all love those) and baby carrots, I’ve discovered some gems for those of us who roll a little healthier:
■Sabra makes super-convenient 2-ounce portions of hummus in disposable cups; I get a big pack at Sam’s Club and bring six to eight cups with me on trips. Not only are they delicious, they usually inspire envy and sometimes, sharing (I well remember at this year’s family Thanksgiving my brother Bill, surrounded by all manner of indulgent treats, coming up to me: “Reen, where could a brother get some hummus?” Off to my cooler with you...). I discovered on this Texas trip how deliciously the hummus went with another road-trip fave, my beloved rice cakes (I protected them from smashing by packing them in a breadbox padded with grocery bags; they also were accompanied by cashew or almond butter many a night in hotels).
■My beloved roasted Brussels Sprouts travel remarkably well, especially since I like them cold. For cooked veggies, I ate those and pop-top cans of Hearts of Palm (for the uninitiated, these are literally hearts of certain palm trees, a treat much more common down south; my mother-in-law has kept me well stocked with those, bringing them with her when driving in to visit).
■My favorite breakfast, the Slow-Cooker Steel-Cut Oats with Banana and Cashew Butter I told you about last month, works beautifully on a trip like this in Snapware containers; it’s condensed, one-dish, edible cold and tastier a week after it’s made than when it’s fresh. I brought four of those to have after the yogurt with berries and cereal mixed in (again, one-dish and doesn’t need heating) I brought for the first couple of days.
■Baby bell peppers are perfect to last in semi-refrigeration for days, which worked for the trip back.
■Hearty apples like Granny Smith or Pink Lady travel best, and unmushy plums work well too.
Every family develops their go-tos, it seems; my cousin-in-law Dawn uses a simple loaf of bread, jar of almond butter and bottle of honey (which I also bring for my husband, secure in a baggie to prevent spilling nightmares) to feed her family of five on the road. And I remember at Christmastime my sister-in-law Michelle prepared to drive back to Minnesota by brushing fresh-baked buns with butter, a treat that her family not only loves on the road but works for the food allergies she and my niece Zoe combat.
Anyway, even as I slowly reintegrated with the grind of daily life upon returning, the memories of nibbling carrots, peppers and rice cakes dipped in hummus continued to make me smile (I purposely brought that lineup to work for lunch the first day back). Of course it’s hard to tell how much was the food itself, and how much was appreciating that I enjoyed it while my son repeatedly pointed out “bee twas” (big trucks) and my husband and I listened to an old Dr. Dobson book to discuss parenting techniques for the privilege of raising him, and Jim Gaffigan’s “Dad is Fat” to laugh about the perils in so doing.
What are your favorite road-trip snacks or meals, past or present? We’d love to hear about them in the comments below. You need a Facebook account to add comments, but they’re easy to sign up for, and free. Detroit News Food Editor Maureen Tisdale will respond to comments or questions in the next few days. You also can follow her on Twitter @reentiz. Join the discussion!