At the beginning of June, our family went on a massive family road trip. We drove from Central Texas to Omaha, Nebraska and then from Omaha, Nebraska to Indianapolis, Indiana, and then back home to Central Texas, in a massive 2800 mile road trip with four children over the course of only six days.
My oldest niece got married in Omaha and we wanted to go to her wedding. Coincidentally, my husband’s grandmother, and our only remaining grandparent between us, would be visiting his parents in Indiana the same week as the wedding.
Our youngest, who is now almost 2 years old, has never met her Great-Grandmother. Considering she is now 93 years old, we have no idea how much longer she’ll be with us. Also, the last time we saw her, our son was only like four months old. He is now four years old.
My grandmother passed away earlier this year and none of our children were ever able to meet her.
So, we decided to extend the road trip to “swing over” to Indiana as we were planning on traveling that week anyway.
We’ve done a few long-distance road trips with all of our kids before. We drove to Santa Fe, NM last year for a blog conference, and we have driven to Indiana from Texas (and back) to visit with my in-laws.
We’re no stranger to the dilemmas that come with traveling in a car for hours on end while taking care of grade schoolers, preschoolers, toddlers, and infants. In fact, we moved across the country from Utah to Indiana when our twins were just 6-weeks old!
Generally speaking, we like to keep things pretty simple, and cheap, when we travel. We pack as light as possible and are definitely okay with our kids being bored for long stretches of time.
But, we also know you need to prepare for emergencies too…. which is important as we had three puking kids on the first leg of this last trip (check out how to get rid of vomit smell in cars), which is totally not fun (but I’m pretty sure it wouldn’t be a real road trip without someone getting sick).
Today though I want to focus on the food and beverages to bring on a long-distance road trip with kids.
If you’d like a handy checklist for my recommended road trip food and drinks, as well as vacation packing checklists and checklists for before you leave so you won’t dread coming back, sign up in the box below for a handy FREE editable family vacation checklist!
Why You Should Bring Food from Home on Your Road Trip
Eating out on the road is super expensive and when you will be driving over breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and feeding six people, it’s crazy expensive!
Eating fast food for all three meals, plus snacks is also super unhealthy and makes you feel like garbage as the heavy, high-calorie food just sits in your stomach as you are left immobilized and trapped in an upright seated position for hours after consuming it.
It’s gross and not fun. And adds a huge expense to your trip.
Because we knew we had a long road trip ahead of us and didn’t want to spend hundreds of dollars on food or to feel sick the whole car ride, we brought a giant cooler (or two), prepped some food, and tried to eat the food we brought from home as much as possible.
How to Save Money on Food During a Road Trip
A major reason to pack food for your long road trip is the fact that food sold at convenience stores, gas stations, and rest stops are almost guaranteed to be more expensive than the prices you can find at your local grocery store or club warehouse.
We made sure to buy things in bulk wherever possible to save even more. Even things like our energy drinks (which we only drink on long road trips) we bought ahead of time in order to save money. (We put the remainder in storage for our next big trip).
But, think about all those foods you usually buy at convenience stores on road trips, and buy them in bulk or with coupons or on sale before the trip!
Chips. Crackers. Nuts. Grapes. Apples. Candy bars. Beef jerky. Soda. Energy drinks. Water bottles. Gum. Mints. And so on.
With the chips, you can buy a super-sized bag, and divide it up yourself into individual snack bags for each person. You can do the same for the nuts and crackers you buy too. Of course, you can buy individually packaged portions of these if you prefer too (and buy a big case from a warehouse store).
What Food and Drinks to Pack for Long Road Trip
Of course, not everything we normally eat for breakfast, lunch, and dinner are “car foods.” Milk and breakfast cereal in a bowl while driving? Pancakes with syrup? Hot soup in a bowl? Ain’t gonna happen!
Picking the right car foods is doubly challenging when you consider the fact that little kids will be handling said food in the car. These little people, secured in 5-point harnesses, can’t reach food they drop and are naturally messy, letting crumbs go all over them and their car seats, and the floor.
We like to keep things are hygienic and mess-free as possible!
My toddler loves eating applesauce for lunch (and a snack and pretty much anytime) so we’re thankful for Tree Top Apple Sauce Pouches, as they are an anywhere, anytime, no mess snack thanks to their no-spill squeeze pouch design.
Plus, they are pure fruit and don’t contain added sugar or high fructose corn syrup, and come in up to 12-count cartons (which is great since my older kids all love eating from apple sauce pouches too!).
Foods to Prep Ahead for Long Road Trips
However, we can’t live off snacks and sides alone on a road trip. We also wanted to bring foods that would serve as the “main course” for our big meals.
In order to bring some of our favorite meal foods on the trip, it meant we had to do some prep work, specifically cooking some items ahead of time.
The night before we left we cooked up several slices of bacon and sausage. We also cooked an extra large pizza, bagging it up to eat cold in the car (cold pizza FTW!).
You can also prep sandwiches ahead if you don’t mind them being a little soggy, and to save room in your cooler as you won’t have to bring all the separate condiments and elements.
We also cut and sliced up celery sticks. You could do the same for other fruits and vegetables you like to snack on as well.
Packing List of Food and drinks for Road Trips
Drinks to Bring on Car Rides
- Energy Drinks
- Orange Juice (boxes)
Food to Bring on Long Car Rides
- Granola Bars
- Peanut Butter
- Lunch meat
- Sliced Provolone Cheese
- Chips (personal-size bags)
- Nuts – Cashews, Peanuts
- Apples (whole or cut)
- Celery (cut ahead of time)
- Ranch (individual cups)
- Oranges or clementines
- Cheese sticks
- Goldfish crackers
- Cooked Pizza (prep ahead or buy ahead)
- Cooked Bacon and Sausage (prep ahead or buy pre-cooked)
- Tree Top Applesauce Pouches
Non-Food Essentials to Bring on Long Road Trips
- Paper plates
- Eating Utensils
- Paper Towels
- Wet wipes (Johnson Body Cleansers)
Meal Ideas for Eating in the Car
For the big meals of the day, we prep sandwiches, snacks, drinks, napkins, plates, and all of it when we stop for gas (and we always fill up when we stop) and do bathroom breaks. It helps keep us all on the same eating patterns and schedule for the day, and allows us to keep the cooler closed and our food staying cool (unless you use a cooler that plugs into your car).
Doing meals when we stop saves us a lot of hassle of passing things around after we’ve already strapped ourselves in our seats, and is safer for all. Again, those 5-point harnesses are designed to prevent babies and kids from being able to lean forward much at all!
Here are some ideas of meals to eat on the road.
Breakfast in the car ideas:
- Cold Pancakes/Waffles/French Toast Pre-cooked the day before (without syrup)
- Pre-cooked bacon
- Pre-cooked sausage patties or sausage links
- Granola Bars
- Tree Top Apple Sauce Pouches
- Yogurt fruit parfait
- Donuts or donut holes
- Cinnamon Rolls
- Blueberry Muffins
- Bagels with cream cheese
Lunch in the car ideas:
- Sandwiches – ham, cheese, mayo or PB&J (or whatever you like)
- Hard-boiled eggs
- Cheese sticks
- Bag of chips
- Tree Top Applesauce Pouches
- Celery and ranch cup
Dinner in the car:
- Pre-cooked pizza
- Sandwiches (different kind – chicken salad, tuna, etc.)
- Carrots and Celery
- Pasta Salad
- Potato Salad
- Chicken Wrap (or another wrap)
- Hard-boiled Egg
Once we figured out what everyone in the family would eat and drink while driving, we packed our cooler, loaded it with ice, and secure the heavy cooler in a place in our vehicle that would make it very accessible during stops and as we drove along.
We ended up rearranging where our kids, and their car seats/boosters, sat in our suburban, putting three of our kids in the third row, and only our toddler in the middle, leaving a nice large space to secure the cooler and still allow the kids easy access in and out of the vehicle.
My husband secured the cooler with bungee cords and strings so that, should we break or accelerate fast or our car flip in an accident, the cooler and anything inside of it, wouldn’t go flying around our vehicle. This meant we even secured the lid closed with a bungee cord as well.
We kept dry goods towards the top of our luggage in the trunk area of our vehicle and made sure to grab snacks at stops. Our 7-year old twins were able to grab some as we drove down the road as well.
To help keep the car mess-free, we also made sure both my husband and I in the front of our vehicle, and our three kids in the back row, had our own trash can.
We used an empty plastic cereal container, lined it with a grocery store plastic bag (with extra bags underneath) put on the lid, and it was ready for trash! We’ve done this for several trips now and it’s been wonderful!
These trash cans are also great should anyone get sick while driving…. Which we were able to test out on this last road trip.
Be sure to keep wet wipes and/or napkins or paper towels handy in the car to clean up any accidental spills, sticky fingers, messy faces (or sickness) that may happen.
I hope that these tips on packing food and drinks for your road trip will help you keep it affordable, mess-free, and practical with kids. Because, we all know driving for hours on end as a large family brings lots of other fun and challenges naturally.
Have fun on your next long-haul family road trip!