Road Trip Tips: Eating Healthy and Safe on the Road 

by Kristy Tolley

By Martin Rose

Jim Tobalski asked Santa for a new cooler this year. Avid travelers, Jim and his wife Jenifer prefer road trip vacations since the pandemic began.

“To limit our contact with others, we pack a cooler full of sandwiches and food, re-stocking at grocery stores along the way. It’s a good strategy for anyone who wants to limit potential exposure,” Tobalski said. “Our current cooler is old and cracked, so we added a replacement to our holiday wish list.”

Much of the Tobalski’s travel these days is extended day or overnight trips close to home with a few more distant adventures. The AAA Members enjoy public lands near their Charlotte home for exploring nature and the new cooler holds all food needed for their journey.

“The states we traveled to during our most recent trip — North Dakota and South Dakota — had very loose COVID precautions so we ruled out eating in restaurants,” Tobalski said. “We switched to takeout, but our mainstay meal plan included grocery shopping and making sandwiches for lunch and dinner, along with fresh veggies and fruit and breakfast items. We actually enjoyed that menu.”

“We also travel with big bags of healthy snack options, such as dried mango and almonds. We do enjoy chips and other evil snacks, but we try very hard to keep those to a minimum while traveling.”

Best Food to Take on a Road Trip: Advice From Experts 

Huntersville Registered Dietitian Nutritionist Melissa Herrmann Dierks, owner of Eat Smart Nutrition Co., has 30 years of experience counseling clients on healthy eating. A seasoned road-tripper, Dierks travels cross-country frequently with her son.

“Advice for eating healthy when traveling by car during COVID varies based on traveler age, special diet needs, whether you are traveling in a hot or cold climate and more,” Dierks said. She offers these healthy options for packing your own food or grabbing takeout. Don’t forget to pack utensils, plates, cups, napkins, etc.

Sausage, egg and cheese English muffin breakfast sandwich

Breakfast Travel Food
  • Oatmeal cups
  • Bagels and cream cheese
  • Pre-packaged hard-boiled eggs
  • Plain or flavored cottage cheese cups
  • Cold cereal (bring shelf-stable milk)
  • Best fast-food breakfast options: McDonald’s Egg McMuffin or side of scrambled eggs and English muffin
Grilled chicken sandwich with cheese, lettuce and tomato
Lunch Travel Food
  • Pack sandwiches. Get creative with bread and use wraps, whole wheat pita or tasty rolls. Stuff with lean meat, veggies, nut butter and/or hummus.
  • If you have a favorite sub shop, pick up a couple of subs and pack those to eat on the way.
  • Portable soup or macaroni and cheese cups are easy if you have microwave access.
  • Best fast-food options: Grilled chicken sandwich.
Chicken and vegetables wrap
Dinner Travel Food
  • If you have access to a grill and the weather is warm, you can get curbside grocery pick up and grill out.
  • Wrap sandwiches with raw veggies and dip.
  • Healthy frozen dinners (like those from Amy’s) if you have a microwave.
  • Curbside takeout from a local restaurant (order ahead if you can).

Avoid Food Poisoning

Natalie Seymour works as food safety associate and associate director of Safe Plates outreach and teaching at North Carolina State Extension. She offers this food safety advice to help ensure your vacation is memorable for great people and places rather than a nasty bout of food poisoning.

One in six Americans gets sick from food poisoning each year. The first consideration when carrying food in your car is limiting the chance of bacteria multiplying. Cars heat up fast and become much hotter than the outside temperature. If it’s 80 degrees outside, your car can heat to 99 degrees in just 10 minutes and 109 degrees in 20 minutes.

“Bacteria and fungi grow faster as temperature increases. Temperatures between 41-135 degrees Fahrenheit are where we worry from a food safety standpoint,” Seymour said. “Temperature increases also speed up enzyme reactions and cause changes in texture, color and flavor that may alter quality.”

Keep Cold Food Safe

Packing the cooler properly is important for foods requiring temperature control for safety. “Ideally, all food going in your cooler should start at 41 degrees or below for best shot at staying cold,” Seymour advises. “Freezing water bottles and things like yogurt or non-carbonated drinks to serve as ice packs can help.”

Use a good quality insulated cooler for long trips that require many hours of low temperatures. Use ice packs and/or ice to keep food cool, distributing it all around all food items. Don’t open the cooler unless you have to.

To avoid soggy snacks, pack them in a resealable plastic bag or fill bags with ice to trap water as it melts.

If you’re traveling for more than a few hours, use a refrigerator thermometer in the cooler to monitor if your sensitive food has gone above a safe temperature of 41 degrees.

No Fridge? No Problem!

Consider foods that don’t require refrigeration to eliminate the risk of spoilage. “We recommend foods such as fruits and vegetables (except cut tomatoes, cut melons or cut leafy greens), nuts and nut butter, breads and baked goods, shelf-stable snacks, dehydrated meats and fruit, shelf-stable chicken or tuna pouches and hard-boiled eggs in the shell,” Seymour says.

Foods like produce may be better quality if kept in a cooler, though maintaining a refrigerator temperature is not necessary for safety.

“Try to avoid items that require strict temperature control for safety such as milk, raw and cooked meat, fish and poultry (and foods made from these),” Seymour continues. “Also avoid cooked grains, potatoes, beans, rice and plant foods.”

Don’t Forget to Wash Your Hands

“If you make a stop, wash your hands before you eat. If you are eating on the road, pack hand or baby wipes to use before you chow down. Pack hand sanitizer as well and use it after you are in a public place or handle your face mask to decrease the risk of getting COVID-19,” Seymour advises.

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