If you’ve ever taken a road trip with kids — or been around kids, for that matter — you know that food is central to their existence. In fact, if you’re hitting the open road with your family in the near future, rest assured, the words “can I have a snack?” will be the ones most frequently uttered from the back seat.
And while kids’ penchant for nonstop noshing can seem downright perplexing (“You just ate!” “We haven’t even pulled out of the driveway!”), the truth is, it checks out.
“Because kids are growing and developing so much, their calorie needs in relation to their size are actually bigger than that of adults,” explains Aubrey Phelps, a registered functional nutritionist specializing in perinatal and pediatric nutrition, owner of Matrescence Nutrition and author of “The Big Book of Baby-Led Weaning.” “Because of this, snacking plays a huge role in meeting their nutrient and caloric needs each day. Kids also have smaller stomachs, so trying to get all their nutrition in just three meals a day is nearly impossible.”
Put another way: Snacks — all of the snacks — and healthy meals are key for kids.
If you’re road tripping it with kids this spring or summer, be prepared. (And, no, we’re not talking about getting the oil changed.) Here, nutritionists share the 15 road trip foods they recommend.
Road trip snacks for kids
Next to gas, snacks are pretty much the most crucial element for a road trip — particularly when traveling with little ones.
“It’s important to keep kids’ snack healthy or nutrient-dense because it can provide stable energy for use in between meals to prevent them from having unstable blood sugar that can lead to behavior changes such as ‘hangry,’ cranky or tantrums,” says Tok-Hui Yeap, a registered dietitian, board certified specialist in pediatric nutrition and owner of Kinder Nutrition in Eugene, Oregon. “You can still include ‘fun foods’ or less nutrient-dense food in the mix to create a well-balanced snack to add some exciting elements for kids to look forward to at snack times.”
Here, some of Yeap’s and Phelps’ favorite road trip snacks for kids.
No-bake, no-cook snacks
According to Yeap, these snacks will ensure kids get an “in-between energy delivery or boost so that they don’t get too hungry or tired and become cranky easily.”
1. Cheerios or a granola bar with fruit leather and string cheese
This is a favorite snack of Yeap’s for little ones, as it provides “additional macro and micronutrients, such as calories, protein, fats, fiber, calcium, iron and vitamin D to support healthy growth and development.”
2. Homemade trail mix
Both Yeap and Phelps recommend trail mix as a solid road trip snack for kids. Yeap suggests using Chex, mixed nuts, mini M&M and dried fruits.
3. Pretzels with nut butter
Another choice of Yeap’s, who also notes that almost any nut butter — peanut, almond, cashew, etc. — will do. You can either put nut butter in a small container or opt for the individual packets offered by brands like Justin’s and Jif.
4. Veggie sticks with hummus
Cut up carrots, cucumber and/or celery and pair with mini packages of hummus. Not only are the kids getting fiber and protein with this snack, they’re also getting a number of key nutrients through the veggies. And for Pinterest Mom points, make these cute veggie and hummus jars from Nourish and Tempt.
5. Store-bought pouches
For little kids (think toddler), Phelps notes that you can’t go wrong with pre-made fruit and/or veggie or yogurt pouches. (And, yes, they will ask for another one immediately after finishing.)
Where to buy: Once Upon a Farm Fruit and Veggie Blend ($3, Target)
6. Soft bars
Another super simple option Phelps gives for little kids: Bars. “Larabar, Kind Kids, Happy Tot and Serenity Kids are all great,” she says, adding: “I recommend a parent be in the back to supervise eating with kids under 4.”
7. Snap pea crisp
Without a doubt, you’re going to hit up Target or your local grocery for bags of road trip snacks before you leave. One to throw in your cart, according to Phelps: Snap pea crisps. While not as nutritious as the real deal, snap pea crisps are a good way to sneak in some nutrients and fiber while still offering a salty crunch.
Where to buy: Harvest Snaps Baked Green Pea Snacks ($2, Target)
8. Freeze-dried fruit
Another super simple suggestion of Phelps that requires zero prep whatsoever? Freeze-dried fruit. Best when paired with a protein, such as string cheese, it’s an easy option for when kids want something now, Mom.
Where to buy: Trader Joe’s Freeze Dried Fruit ($25 for a pack of three, Amazon)
Snacks that require a little prep
Put a little work in on the front-end and reap big rewards on the back-end. These road trip snacks for kids require some (not a ton!) of prep before you get going, but Phelps and Yeap recommend them for delicious, sustained energy.
9. Energy balls with fresh fruit cups
Another favorite of Yeap’s. Again, there are tons of energy ball options, complements of the internet. You can test out a few to see which you (and the kids) like best, starting with this healthy energy ball recipe from Cooking With Coit.
10. Oatmeal chocolate chip muffins
Yeap is a big fan of oatmeal chocolate chip muffins for long car rides, and while there are a number of recipes out there, this oatmeal chocolate chip muffin recipe from Little Sweet Baker looks delish.
11. Yogurt parfaits
For little kids especially, Phelps likes yogurt parfaits. Throw some fruit and/or granola into a jar or tupperware before leaving and when it’s can-I-have-a-snack-o-clock, mix with yogurt. Or if you think kids will want them early on in the trip, make the parfaits ahead of time a la Destiny Brimmage.
Road trip foods for kids
While fast food and convenient store treats are often associated with road trips, Phelps notes, no one really “needs” junk food.
“Kids, especially, need good nutrition to help optimize their growth, development, ability to focus, and keep their immune system happy and healthy,” she says. “Healthy, balanced meals and snacks not only support all of these efforts, but eating too many sweets or junk food can increase the risk of long-term health issues, such as diabetes and heart disease.”
Make-ahead road trip meals for kids
While trips to the drive-thru may be unavoidable — and let’s face it, part of the fun — Phelps and Yeap make the following suggestions for healthy road trip meals in a pinch.
12. Hard-boiled eggs paired with yogurt and strawberries
Yeap is a fan of this combination, which ticks a number of boxes. Pro tip: You can either make the eggs yourself, or for the ultimate convenience, grab a pack of pre-made ones at the grocery store.
13. Triangle Kimbap with roasted seaweed with apples slices
Triangle kimbap (samgak kimbap) is a Korean dish made with rice, veggies and meat fillings in thin sheets of dried seaweed. While there’s definitely prep work to be done for this, it really is a great grab-and-go food for road trips that fills kids up.
14. Mini ham and cheese slider and veggie chips
For a meal that doesn’t require turning the oven on, Yeap recommends mini ham and cheese sliders with a side of veggie chips. For growing tweens and teens, this actually may even work as a snack!
15. Bento boxes
You can never go wrong with a Bento box, which you can, according to Phelps, fill with “good protein sources and fruits and veggies.” And the beauty of Bento boxes is you can fill them with things you know your kids like.
In terms of protein, Phelps gives the options of “high-quality beef jerky, string cheese, hummus packets with veggies, trail mix and hard-boiled eggs,” which all can be paired with fruit slices. Yum!