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The Easiest Ways to Eat Cheap and Healthy on a Road Trip

by Staff

Road trip season is approaching. Do you know what you’re going to eat? There’s nothing wrong with hopping in the car with a hope and a dream and an assumption that the fast food restaurants of the world will take care of you, of course. But if you’d like to keep your food budget low and eat more than just burgers and convenience-store fare, try these tips.

Stop at grocery stores

There are more options out there than just fast food restaurants and turnpike rest stops. We’ve already told you about the wonders that are truck stops, which usually have better selections of, well, everything. But if you really want some good, cheap, healthy food, stop at a grocery store.

Grocery stores are excellent when you’re on the road. They’re not just for picking up groceries before you check in to your hotel, although that’s a great option too. They’re also a good spot to stop when you need a break from the highway. Many have nice public bathrooms, and prepared food like sandwiches for a better price than you’ll get at the gas station down the road. If you’re lucky, they’ll even have a little café area where you can sit down to eat. Plus, you can pick up bananas, chips, and a wide variety of other snacky foods for the next leg of your trip.

Get to know the grocery chains that are in your area—either by visiting a few and learning as you go, by scouting them out online, or by asking friends who live in the area. Some chains are more full-featured, others more bare-bones.

Pack cheap and healthy road snacks

You may be used to munching on cookies and chips while you drive, but there are plenty more options that you can bring from home.

Fresh fruit travels well and can help to balance out the more processed stuff you might end up eating. Bananas, apples, and oranges all keep well in their peels and don’t bruise too easily (as long as you put a little thought into how you’re packing them).

Cheeses and cured meats also keep well in a cooler or even at room temperature for a while. Pair them with crackers or bread for a lunchable-style meal.

Sandwiches are a classic for a reason. If you have a cooler, make them with deli meats and cheese; if you don’t, go with PB&J. I’ve been known to travel with loaves of bread and jars of peanut butter and jelly so I can whip up a sandwich for the kids or myself at a moment’s notice. Honey is a good substitute for jelly if you don’t have a cooler to keep the jelly fresh.

We have more ideas for on-the-go snacks in this guide to eating well while traveling.

Scope out the kitchen before you book

There’s a huge difference in dinner possibilities when you’re staying in an AirBnB with a full kitchen versus a hotel room that has an ice bucket to chill a drink and nothing else.

If you’re staying in a hotel, check the room descriptions before you book; sometimes the same building will have rooms with and without a refrigerator and microwave, or there may even be a mini-kitchen option that’s within your budget.

I also check out the lobby breakfast situation. If you’re going to be loyal to a certain chain, choose it on the basis of which has the best complimentary breakfast. For example, I know a Hampton Inn will always have eggs, a meat option like bacon or sausage, and a big vat of oatmeal in addition to the more typical carby baked goods.

Buy foods that take little preparation and keep well

Our guide to cheap and healthy no-cook foods is essential reading for planning out hotel room meals. Don’t commit to anything that requires refrigeration until you’ve checked whether the hotel fridge gets cold enough to store food. (Many are only designed to keep drinks lightly chilled.)

Besides the same sorts of things you packed for your driving snacks—like those sandwiches and impromptu cheese boards—consider shelf-stable pouches, canned goods, and even bagged salads.

Consider bringing small appliances

You don’t have to be at the mercy of your room’s microwave and fridge; you can bring cooking appliances of your own. As long as your appliance isn’t a fire hazard and you don’t create enormous food messes for the cleaning crew, this is a perfectly valid option.

An electric skillet is a great option for hotel-room cooking. You can sauté vegetables, crisp up some toast, or scramble some eggs. I’ve also known people who travel with a George Foreman grill or a rice cooker.

Along the same lines, I came up with a brilliant coffee hack the last time I traveled. Instead of relying on the room’s mini coffee maker with its little pods, I simply brought my own pour-over funnel, filters, and a bag of ground coffee. I still used the coffee maker to heat up the water, but this way I had a near-unlimited supply of the coffee of my choice.

Bring or improvise a cooler

If your lodgings don’t have a proper refrigerator, you may think you’re out of luck when it comes to keeping food cold. But coolers are an underrated tool, and there’s more than one way to use them.

One way is to buy a really good cooler. The better insulated it is, the longer it can keep food cold, and the less ice melt you’ll have to deal with in the process. Replenish the ice regularly, and it can fully stand in for a fridge. I do this when car camping: I’ll freeze meats or anything perishable before leaving home (double-bagging them in ziplocs, of course), and keep the ice topped up throughout the weekend. After a day or two, the meat will be thawed but still cold, and that’s when I cook it. Things that need to stay fridge temperature will usually be fine the whole way through.

Instead of loose chunks of ice, consider freezing water bottles the night before your trip. Those ice bottles will keep your food cold, and when they eventually begin to melt, you’ll have ice-cold water to enjoy. You’ll probably still need to buy ice later, so pack some gallon-size freezer bags. Fill a bag with ice, then double-bag it, and you’ll have a leakproof ice pack.

The other extreme is to realize halfway through your trip that you really should have packed a cooler, but you didn’t. At your next grocery stop, buy an insulated bag; many stores sell them near the checkouts for a few dollars. While you’re there, pick up some frozen foods that you can enjoy after they thaw. (Frozen fruits and veggies are good for this, and they’re cheap, but you can select anything you like.) I wouldn’t trust this setup with something temperature-sensitive like raw meat, but you can easily keep your drinks cold and your sandwich ingredients fresh this way.

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