Road trips might be baked into the collective American imagination, a time honored symbol of freedom and exploration and one of the only ways to get to remote roadside attractions like the world’s largest ball of yarn. But road trip food is the stuff of individualism as much as the rest of American culture, as personal a choice as what driving jams you put on the stereo.
Some road trippers are fast food connoisseurs, hitting up the regional chains like Del Taco, In-N-Out and Whataburger that you can’t find coast to coast. Others like to indulge in special convenience store treats that seem like too much of an indulgence when you’re not on the highway for hours. Still others see road trip food as a challenge, since healthy, unprocessed eats and truck stops aren’t exactly synonymous.
Whatever your road trip style is and whatever road trip food you crave, an insulated cooler can help keep your treats fresh and expand your options, whether you’re worried about keeping your favorite Faygo sodas cold, your Animal Style burger hot, or some fresh fruit on lock.
Here are our top suggestions for how to up your road trip food game with an ice pack or thermos in tow:
There’s just something about crunchy snacks in the car. Whether you’re wanting to swap chips for something healthier, are worried about finding vegan or food sensitivity-compatible treats on the way, or just love the subtle sweetness of carrots and celery, crudites can make a fantastic car snack.
The water content of the fresh veg will help you stay hydrated, the crunch is satisfying, and the hummus packs fiber and protein. Broccoli and cauliflower work great, too, as do cherry tomatoes and even radishes. Packing your veggies in the cooler with a will keep your treats fresh until you get hungry, and the cold pack will help the hummus from spoiling, too.
Chocolate in the car is usually a recipe for a soupy, stain-inducing mess. Or, on the opposite end the spectrum, chocolate that gets too cold can separate, too, in a process that candy experts call “'sugar bloom.” But chocolate can be a delicious sweet treat when you’re driving, providing a little boost from the sugar and caffeine in the chocolate.
Bring your favorite chocolate bar or candies along and keep them in your cooler to stay at an optimum temperature of around 60 degrees. Even better, make or purchase a bag of chocolate bark. The shape is easy to eat even when you’re driving, and the thin sheets chill easily. Plus chocolate bark comes with nuts, coconut or peppermint shavings, and other fun flavors, so it’s easy to mix up your road trip food flavors.
Bringing picnic dishes like chicken salad, egg salad, potato salad, pasta salad, etc. along on a road trip is usually a recipe for food borne illness. But with an insulated cooler that can stay cold for 24 hours, you can enjoy treats without worrying about your lunch being out of the refrigerator too long. Even better if you’re trying to stick to your dietary restrictions. It’s easy to make a meal that fits your needs, whether you’re cutting down on sodium, swapping yogurt for mayo, making vegetarian versions of your favorite dishes, etc.
If you pre-make your salads and assemble with bread, lettuce, tomato, etc. at a rest stop or overlook, you can have a really lovely meal and take in the scenery instead of waiting in line at the drive through. Or you can pre-make a classic New Yorker style sandwich on a crusty hard roll that can stand up to saucey ingredients without getting soggy. Either way, with a cooler you don’t have to worry about your favorite sandwich fillings staying safe to eat.
For those long stretches of highway where there’s just nothing to eat and you’re hungrier than any gas station Slim Jim can satisfy, white bean collard wraps are just the thing. They don’t get soggy like wraps or pita pockets can, they’re light enough for sitting in the car all day, but they’re filling enough that you don’t feel deprived. Plus they’re easy to grab and munch on while your steer.
Collard wraps are simple to make— in general, you just blanch the collard greens and shave the center stem down so it isn’t so tough. You can chop your favorite veggies into matchsticks and mix mashed white beans with lemon, herbs, and sautéed onions. Spread the beans on the collard, add your veggie fillings, and roll up your wrap. But there’s a lot of flexibility here— you could easily fill your collard wrap with luncheon meat, tempeh or seitan, barbecue etc. The sky's the limit!
Staying hydrated is one of the trickiest parts of any road trip. On one hand, you don’t want to get dried out from a bunch of salty food and the windows rolled down. On the the other, you don’t want to have to stop a million times to find a rest stop. Whatever your happy medium might be, loading up on cold beverages will make what you do drink 90% more appealing.
Whether you grab a few gold sodas or energy drinks when you fill up the tank or want to bring along favorites like Topo Chico or kombucha that you might not find in smaller towns, a cooler will keep your drinks at the optimum temperature. Take a your road trip food and drink to the next level by stocking up on treats along the way, too. Picking up bombers, growlers, or can styles at your favorite craft breweries near outdoor destinations or big cities.
You’ll be happy you did once you reach your campground, hotel, friend’s house, or family gathering. After all, if a big part of the appeal of traveling is to experience new places, what better way than to eat and drink the local flavors? Bringing along a cooler can make it easier than ever to taste your way from point A to point B, even if you’re just passing through.
Another simple, protein-packed snack, string cheese is a classic for a reason. Instead of letting it get melty and rubbery in the back seat, however, keep your cheese fix chilled. Same for hard boiled or deviled eggs— full of flavor and surprisingly filling, but not what you’d want to leave lying around a hot car. Bringing a cooler along will keep your snacks fresh from your fridge at home to the finish line, or give you the option of picking up provisions as you go.
A lot of the time we think of road trip food as a big homogenous blur of gas station cuisine and fast food, but there’s fun opportunities to stock up on local treats you can’t find at home. Think local creameries that dot the Oregon coast or the Vermont Cheese Trail where you can replace your string cheese or Babybel mini cheese wheels with local blues, bries, goudas, and cheddars.
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