Next weekend I’ll be putting two kids in the car and driving 10 hours to visit the grandparents. Whenever I’m faced with any kind of day-long (or longer) travel with kids I spend at least a week preparing. One of the main concerns I have is food.
How to eat healthy and roughly on schedule while traveling is a puzzle for the ages. The kids need to stay relatively close to their routine and eat food that’s not going to make them crazy (in our family that means no sugar), so they can sit in the car longer than nature ever intended children under eight to do.
I’ve assembled a little chart here of travel food options, complete with the pros and cons. I invite you to add your own suggestions and experiences in the comments!
The Restaurant Option:
The restaurant option can be a good one, especially in inclement weather. That’s pro #1. Restaurant restrooms also tend to be clean and well stocked and tend to offer good space for changing diapers. And depending on the restaurant, a friendly waiter can be a big help while on a pit-stop with kids. (When I must take the kids alone on this kind of trip, I like to stop at a particular Cracker Barrel where there is a large pool of grandmotherly ladies in the gift shop willing to entertain one or both of my kids while I get everybody diapered and to the potty and washed up.)
The downside to the restaurant option is that there isn’t always a good one when you need to stop. Depending on what your kids are used to eating, the golden arches might be a fine choice (and it’s almost always quickly available) but if your kids don’t eat fast food often, a road trip isn’t the greatest time to start experimenting with a new diet (for example, see our family’s sugar issues above).
Another downside to the restaurant is that it can be cheap, but often isn’t. With gas prices where they are, who needs to tack on another $40 for a meal for four or five people? Or $80 for a couple of meals?
Most restaurants don’t offer much in the way of activity for children who’ve been cooped up in the car either. Yes, there is, again, that golden arches play ground, but as an only option (as it often is) it’s kind of limiting.
The Picnic Option #1: Pack Something
I always swear I’m going to do this, but almost never do. The idea of packing up some of our favorite healthy foods from home in a cooler and hauling it to a picnic table under an oak tree at a rest stop is super appealing. The trouble is, with two small kids, just getting them packed and organized in other ways tends to run me right up to the moment we need to leave the house and I tend to give up the picnic plan at the last minute.
The pros of course are that you can pack healthy food you know your kids like and tailor it to how it might effect their behavior and mood in the car. Another great plus is the opportunity to run around a bit in some green space at the rest stop, as long as it isn’t freezing or raining. And you can do it on whatever budget works best for your family.
When I have managed to get it together and pack food, I’ve been very pleased with Laptop Lunch boxes. In fact I love these colorful bento-style food-to-go boxes so much they inspire me to go the extra mile. They aren’t cheap, but they are durable, made of safe (non-chemical-leeching) plastic and perfectly suit my family’s style of eating–little servings of a number of things. I got the ones with carrying cases that include room for a water bottle, flatware and an ice pack if needed. The downside of course, is that you have to wash them out (and keep up with all their parts) but you can feel good about your environmental friendliness when you’re rinsing them in the rest stop bathroom.
The Picnic Option #2: Pre-Packaged Meals
Ah Lunchables! How we love to hate thee! Filled with processed cheese-food and containing enough sodium to choke a horse, these tidy little meals-to-go are nevertheless oh-so convenient. And not too pricey, compared to a restaurant on the road.
Hey, if you like them, knock yourself out. But I am one of those Picky Food Moms and prefer to avoid them at all costs. Imagine my glee when I heard about GoPicnic, a new company offering the convenience of a Lunchable with none (well, almost none) of the guilt. I recently tired a couple of Gopicnic’s adult meals and a couple of their kids’ meals. I give them four out of five stars. They get points for being mostly pretty healthy (or reeeeeeeeally healthy if you’re comparing them to Lunchables), with a careful balance of fat, sodium and sugar in each package. They even include some organic products and the ones we tried were about an 80% hit in terms of everyone liking the food. They offer vegetarian, vegan, kosher, halal and allergy-sensitive options too which is another pro.
The cons are, they are a bit pricey, the servings are awfully small, and the packaging is mostly not recyclable. But, failing to pack my own, this would be a great back up choice for travel and other special circumstances.
What’s your solution to on-the-road meals?
Full Disclosure: GoPicnic sent me some free sample products for review. Laptop Lunches, sadly, did not. I ponied up the cash for those gems all by myself! Lunchables, McDonald’s, and Cracker Barrel don’t know I exist one way or another.