It’s summer time!
And this calls for road trips for our massive family, this year being no exception. With road trips comes the need for food and I always spend a fair amount of time figuring out what we are going to eat. For our family of 9- even if we all eat off the $1 menu at McDonald’s we still spend close to $50! So, we keep our restraint eating to a minimum, but that means a whole lot of lunch packing! That can get overwhelming too if you don’t have a plan that works well.
We also like to keep our kids healthy as so often our travel times become sick times, so eating food that is good for us is important. So, just in case any of you are traveling, whether with young kids or just want some ideas for yourself and how to keep the cost low, here are some ways our family eats cheaply on the road and yet still make it enjoyable.
One thing I enjoy doing is packing up at night and then leaving before breakfast in the morning. This gets everyone out of the house without having to spend the time cleaning up the kitchen one more time. Plus it gets a good start on the traveling for the day. On long trips up and down the East coast, we’ve left at every hour of the day or night and I’ve come to the conclusion that no matter when you leave- it’s still a LONG drive! Some times for leaving seem to work better than others though and early morning is one of them- especially if you are planning to stop somewhere that evening. This gives the kids plenty of time to run and stretch their legs before they have to go to bed that night. But leaving then means taking breakfast with us.
So, here’s my first favorite meals on the road.
Bagels and cucumber sandwiches- Brandon and I picked up this habit in Israel when we were traveling over there- yummy and easy and contained. You can also make a pile of them the night before, bag them up and then hand them out in the morning when you are half awake.
I prefer the thin bagels myself- just because they are smaller and the kids don’t often eat a whole one, but otherwise you can cut them in half for the children and give them a half at a time. TO MAKE: spread cream cheese on both halves of a bagel, layer thin slices of cucumber on top, close up like a sandwich.
If you want to make it more sophisticated, you can add tomato, red onion, avocado, smoked salmon, jalapenos, pickles, or other things to really round out a hearty sandwich- but we usually keep to just cucumbers on the road and save the other stuff for home treats.
Fruit is really good for breakfast too- bananas, strawberries, apples. But little stuff can get messy. For the kids, I either give them the food on a plastic sectioned plate (not disposable) or in a Ziploc baggie- something to contain it. We have also done apples and peanut butter. If you want to make it ahead, you can take the core out of the middle of the apple with an apple corer and then stuff the middle with peanut butter. It keeps the apple from turning brown in the center, keeps all the seeds out for little ones, and provides just enough peanut butter for the whole thing. I generally don’t do this for little kids though just because they have a hard time eating a whole apple anyway. I stick to other fruits for them or cut it up and put slices on the plate. Other fruit ideas we use: the individual fruit cups of mixed fruit , mandarin oranges, or applesauce- these are a big hit! Don’t forget to pack some plastic forks or spoons though.
Cheese- We pack string cheese or sliced cheddar. I get the big block of cheddar and then slice up the whole thing with my cheese slicer at home and then wrap it up. This makes for easier handling in the car.
Other breakfast items we have used: Granola bars, individual yogurt (I don’t like the squeeze tubes, the little kids have trouble with them.) Hard boiled eggs, or slices of cooked meat are good options as well.
For drinks, we try to stick to water unless the driver needs a pick-me-up. This is what our kids are familiar with and we have had some unfortunate tummy aches as a result of too much juice on a road trip before. Occasionally we will serve them milk, but most of the time, just water- in a container that doesn’t spill even if turned over. They all have bottles with some sort of sports top or sippy cup or something.
So, to recap here are some sample breakfast menus be have used:
1: Cucumber Bagel sandwich, strawberries, peanuts
2: Yogurt, strawberries, hardboiled egg, granola bar
3: Rolled up deli meat, string cheese, fruit cup, baggie of fun dry cereal
We use similar techniques of serving, but just change up the options. I love making our own lunchables! The kids really enjoy the choices and I like the option of choosing what meat and cheese it is and paying less for it! I buy a pound or two of deli meat, sliced thick, ½ a pound of deli cheese, sliced thick or use the sliced cheddar I mentioned above, and some crackers. Then before the trip, I pull out the meat and cheese and cut the whole stack into small squares and stick it back in the bag. Then when I serve it in the car, I pull out my plates and put about 8 squares of each on the plate, more for older kids, less for younger. Serve this with one of my fruit options or maybe some cucumber slices and we are good to go! Sometimes I take some small cookies or something for lunch as well, but as with the drinks, I try to keep sweets to a minimum, so 2 small cookies is all I would serve and if I did something sweet at lunch, then no dessert option for any other meal that day.
You can do traditional sandwiches, obviously, for lunch as well. But sometimes we eat that so many times that some family members get bored with it (read: me). So, we also do meat and cheese roll-ups, or lunch in a bag.
Meat and cheese roll-ups: Lay out a piece of thinly sliced deli meat, lay on cheese, honey mustard, cucumbers, thinly sliced carrot, or whatever you like and roll up into a log.
Lunch in a bag: toss into a small sandwich baggie; nuts, raisins, banana chips, and crackers. Just before serving, stick in a few slices of cheese, and a piece of fruit or some berries. Hand the bag to the child to eat.
Other lunch suggestions:
1.Turkey cheese roll-ups, baby carrot sticks and dip (I use condiment cups for dip), mixed fruit cup, 2 small cookies
2. Homemade lunchables, applesauce, 2 cookies
3. Sandwiches, cucumber sticks, mandarin oranges
For dinner, I like to sometimes have something different, or even hot-even if we are in the car. So here are some of the things we have done for that.
Sandwich for a Crowd- this is a Taste of Home Recipe that we have found is a good travel meal. Easy to make ahead and then very easy to serve. It’s basically a sandwich spread with a mix of cream cheese, cheddar cheese, green onions and Worcestershire sauce and then layered with roast beef, and cheese. I generally try to serve all my dinner meals with some sort of vegetable sticks and a fruit option.
If you want something hot and don’t want to pay tons, consider just ordering hamburgers from the dollar menu and eating sides in your car.
Another favorite idea is we have taken whole grain wraps, lettuce, cheese, onions, and mustard with us and then pulled through the drive-thru and ordered just hot chicken strips and placed them into our own wraps in the car. Yummy, hot, and the ingredients for the wraps and such are so much better than the little thing you would get in the restaurant.
We’ve done something similar with Subway subs- the kids like the hot meatball sandwiches, so we get one 6” sandwich for each kid and then supplement with our own stuff for sides- avoiding the potato chip option, or just eating cheaper. Hot and less expensive than what you would pay if you ate everything from the restaurant.
Other tips for serving in the car, because we eat while driving and save our rest stops for running around:
-I take a thin lap board and keep it next to my seat for meal times when I am trying to set up people’s food.
-I have an older child sit near the front of the van to help pass out food.
-Take a roll of paper towels to keep under my seat, but stuff the middle with grocery bags for trash.
- The cooler we have fits perfectly between the driver and passenger seat. This provides easy access, but also another table top for me to work when I’m prepping meals.
- Take baby wipes, Clorox wipes, or even just cut up paper towels wet in a sealed bag for wiping off plates and things after each meal is over.
- I either feed the baby his food or have one of the older kids feed him. I do not let the 18 month old have his own yogurt in the car!
- If you do have kids that get sick in the car, a grocery bag lining a container makes a great vomit receptacle. This allows the child to have a stiff container- which is easier to hit, but the bag creates easier cleanup. Plus the container is fresh again fairly quickly for another round. We won’t go into all the reasons why I know this works, but just know that we’ve had plenty of opportunities to work this concept to perfection.
-All trash leaves the car at EVERY gas station! This ensures that things don’t completely get gross by the end of the trip and also helps the kids keep their space somewhat tidy. This is even more critical for a long trip unless you want kids to be sitting on food the second day in the car that they were eating the first day.
I’m sure there are other tricks too, but these are some of the major ones our family uses to get from Point A to Point B. Hope they help you too. Happy to answer any questions for other travel issues, or if you have other suggestions that work for your family I’d love to hear about them.