How to eat well on a long-distance drive.
January 17, 2013 8:33 AM   Subscribe

How can I successfully avoid the full-on self-destruction of my stomach on a cross country drive?

At the end of February, I'll be driving from Portland, Maine back to home in Portland, Oregon. I'll be taking the I80 route (barring any insane weather conditions that make another route easier). A year and a half ago when I made the reverse trip, the worst part by far was the fact that for the last 2-3 days of the trip, I had horrible stomach problems because of the food I was eating. Most of the food we eat at home is made from scratch and we don't really eat a lot of highly processed foods. I'm usually a fan of the greasy spoon and the "salt & brown," but not for 5 or 6 days straight and 3 meals a day.

My question has two parts really:
First, just general advice on how to eat well given all I'll have access to is a small lunchbox cooler? What foods should I be looking to purchase that will last the trip, or even parts of the trip beyond trail mix and drinking lots of water? What should my strategy be here?

Second, on that I80 route, I'm looking for places to eat or purchase food that won't destroy me while on the move. I need a short list of places that are no more than 20 minutes off the highway that aren't going to destroy my gut, or will at least destroy it less. I'd like to get a running list, so I can just sort of plot them out and stop at any of them depending on what time of day I'm there.
posted by furnace.heart to Travel & Transportation (36 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
Why does it have to be food that survives the trip? One of my favorite long-trip strategies is to find supermarkets, farmer's markets, or even a Wal-Mart along the way and stop off for fruit and veg to balance the grease-fest.
posted by Tomorrowful at 8:36 AM on January 17, 2013 [12 favorites]

Hummus would last for a little while if you keep it cold. You could also bring bags of chopped or easy-to-eat fruit or vegetables. You can keep cut apples from browning by dunking them in Sprite.
posted by topoisomerase at 8:37 AM on January 17, 2013

Best answer: Bring a bag of clementines in the car with you. Great for snacks and to go along with meals!
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 8:39 AM on January 17, 2013 [2 favorites]

Keep some protein in the cooler - prepared eggs, lunchmeat, cheese, etc - hit up supermarkets for greens and vegetables, combine into salad.
posted by Holy Zarquon's Singing Fish at 8:39 AM on January 17, 2013 [3 favorites]

Buy a larger cooler.

Premake muffins or a quickbread for breakfast and snacks. Bring easy to eat fruit (bananas maybe, or apples). Bring a loaf of bread and sliced cheese and mustard and some deli meat if you eat it, buy veggies to go on it. Bring peanut butter. Make a pizza or a flatbread, eat cold.

But really, a larger cooler is inexpensive and will make your life so, so much better for car rides.
posted by jeather at 8:39 AM on January 17, 2013 [4 favorites]

Best answer: Just stop at grocery stores instead of gas stations for food. They have salad stuff and healthy food in grocery stores all across the country.
posted by tylerkaraszewski at 8:39 AM on January 17, 2013 [6 favorites]

Is there any reason you can't buy a larger cooler? When I've done this trip I usually planned on eating a light breakfast before I left at a diner or the hotel restaurant [oatmeal, cereal, toast and peanut butter] a small lunch on the road out of the cooler [cheese/crackers/salami, peanut butter sandwich, trail mix, pre-prepared noodles or sandwiches or wraps] and then a sit-down meal that included a salad when I was at my destination for the night. I'd also keep a few things like beef jerky or dried fruit and bottled water with me if I'd mis-guessed the timing of meals and needed something NOW and I wasn't close to anything.

Usually small towns that are off the highway will have supermarkets and you can often go in there and get yogurt, string cheese, little Lunchable type meals (not great for every day, sort of made for on the road) or salad bar type things. Keep fruit like bananas and apples in the car with you and munch when you get hungry. Stay hydrated. Keep a trash bag for skins/peels/wrappers and empty it often.

Often this sort of trip means making compromises you might otherwise not make (spending more, eating more prefab food than usual, upping your usual fat/salt/calorie intake, getting out of your routine) but it is a thing that can be planned and you can totally eat well and still spend most of your road trip on the road.
posted by jessamyn at 8:40 AM on January 17, 2013 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Definitely stop along the way, maybe once a day, and get some fresh healthy food.

- You can easily buy some bread that will last a couple of days and some sandwich fixing, that will keep well in your little cooler.
- Fresh fruit (apples, oranges, bananas, etc) are an easy option and don't need refridgeration
- nuts are easy protein
posted by PuppetMcSockerson at 8:40 AM on January 17, 2013

Best answer: 1) Larger cooler. Much larger. Also plan on raiding a supermarket once every couple days.

2) Salad in a bag, shelf-stable cheese, dressing packets and packaged pre-cooked "grilled" chicken strips for chicken Caesar salad pretty much anywhere. Swap out the chicken for tuna pouches and a few mayo packets for variety.

3) Instant oatmeal packets, craisins/raisins, walnuts - good for breakfast =and= a snack.

4) A bag of whole-wheat bagels last around a week, and fill you up. Especially good with all-natural peanut butter (Teddy brand or the like - peanuts and salt should be the only ingredients.)

5) You will actually find salads on even the greasiest of greasy spoon menus, along with oatmeal... but I understand that the temptation to order the chicken-fried bacon hoagies may get the better of you.
posted by Slap*Happy at 8:47 AM on January 17, 2013 [1 favorite]

Consider adding a couple-few days to your trip. Less time that you have to be driving gives you more time to search for a decent place to eat. I've done transcontinental drives where I had to do 700 miles a day, and I've done them when I was able to take my time and only do about 500. The latter were far more enjoyable -- the less stress more than made up for the two extra nights in a hotel.

When you stop to fill up the car, ask the gas station attendant if there are any good local restaurants -- the chain places load you up on salt and fat, and asking for a "restaurant" instead of a "diner" will lead you to places that do less of that sort of thing as well. Don't be afraid to say, "I'm looking for somewhere, y'know... healthy."
posted by Etrigan at 8:49 AM on January 17, 2013

Best answer: I agree with the advice to stop at grocery stores instead of restaurants. I recommend a bigger cooler, but it need not be a huge one - just one that could hold a day or two's worth of food and drink. You'll probably be eating a lot of sandwiches.

Also, if you have an iPhone, I like the app Best Road Trip Ever. It will have recommendations for restaurants along the way as well as kitschy tourist attractions.
posted by Tanizaki at 8:51 AM on January 17, 2013

Best answer: 1. Absolutely yes to larger cooler. Last road trip I went on we brought fruits and veg, hummus, pita and little squares of prewrapped cheddar. Was awesome.

2. On The Way is down right now, but when it's up again you can enter in your route and then ask it to show you restaurants along the way. You can, iirc, filter by words like "healthy" too.
posted by AmandaA at 8:52 AM on January 17, 2013

Make sure you strike a good balance between carrying healthy food with a long-ish shelf life with stopping along the way for fresh stuff. On the off chance you get stuck in your car by a freak storm for a few days, you'll be better prepared. Have lots of water in the car, if you have room, along with blankets, batteries, flashlight, heat packs like campers use, etc.

Also, make sure you move around enough. The digestive process relies partly on your body moving around. Sitting in a car for hours on end does not help things "progress" through the system, so keep that in mind. When you stop for food, gas and other essentials, do some stretches and other moving around. The temptation is to not waste time while stopped doing that sort of thing, but it really will keep your circulation and digestion happier.

Something interesting and often physical to do along the way is Geocaching, since many of the finds are off the beaten path. Typically you shouldn't geocache alone, but if you're by yourself, keep to the ones that don't go too far into the woods.
posted by punocchio at 8:54 AM on January 17, 2013 [3 favorites]

Best answer: I'm not generally a fan, but compared to other road options, Subway or other sandwich shops can be not-that-terrible. And Subway is EVERYWHERE. Careful with local restaurants - I love to go local when possible, but some of the unhealthiest, most disgusting food I've ever eaten has been in places I've gone seeking "local charm." In several cases, I wished I'd gone to McDonald's. Many Americans just don't eat the way you do.

Also, trail mix!!!!! We make our own and it's a great meal substitute when there are no good alternatives.
posted by walla at 8:55 AM on January 17, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I fly for a good part of my living, often to Australia from the US (20 hours of travel in total). For me it's not the food itself that makes me suffer in the way you describe, it's the hours and hours of being stationary.

I'd happily swap half a day of travel time for stopping every 3-4 hours for 30+ minutes of solid exercise/walking. Make sure you're eating better but I am betting half your problem at least is the amount of exercise and movement you're getting, allowing your inside to shift and move around to accomodate the food you're eating.
posted by iamabot at 8:58 AM on January 17, 2013 [3 favorites]

I brought a lot of Trader Joe's Indian food (the type that comes in a pouch) on my road trip. I like some of those cold. And lots of carrot sticks. Your mileage may vary, obv.
posted by needs more cowbell at 8:59 AM on January 17, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I'm not generally a fan, but compared to other road options, Subway or other sandwich shops can be not-that-terrible. And Subway is EVERYWHERE.

Subway is in damned near every truck stop you see. Given the options out there for a stretch-your-legs-take-a-piss-and-grab-a-bite stop, Subway pretty much rules the road.
posted by Thorzdad at 9:00 AM on January 17, 2013 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Someone said it but I'll say it again, grocery store salad bars and hot food buffets. If you are feeling fancy go for the Whole Wallets.
posted by ibakecake at 9:02 AM on January 17, 2013

It's not fancy, but McDonald's salads won't kill you.
posted by blue_beetle at 9:05 AM on January 17, 2013

Best answer: Bagel, bread, sugar : (not healthy). They will make you soft in the stomach - not the way to show up in Portland.

Instead, think protein:

Peanut Butter
Hard boiled eggs
Beef jerkey
Roasted Chickpeas
Grilled meats, dry
Tough, crunchy vegetables
All natural protein bars

Drink lots of low fat milk. Chugg it down. Humans need milk, especially on long journeys.

Stay away from juices, your enemy. Embrace water.
posted by Kruger5 at 9:06 AM on January 17, 2013 [1 favorite]

Aim for some Cracker Barrel-type restaurants that tend to serve food that's closer to "real" than the fast-food super-processed stuff. And maybe make your breakfasts simpler and grocery-based (yogurt, fruit, whole-grain bread). Beyond that, get salads and real vegetables as often as they're offered, and keep things like nuts, jerky, and dried fruit (in addition to what fresh fruit/veg you can pick up) in the car to munch on -- carrots and peanut butter (or sunbutter or whatever) make a good snack or even lunch that can clear out some of the french fry detritus...

Just knowing you have to do things differently puts you way ahead. Good luck!
posted by acm at 9:14 AM on January 17, 2013

Best answer: There are some good options in the realm of fast food. Chipotle, a McDonalds brand, is actually very healthy. You can get a burrito, if the carbs don't bug you, I usually get a salad. You can get it with beans, fresh salsa, brown rice, meat of your choice, cheese, guac, etc. Yummy and high in fiber and other nice things.

Moe's is another option. They have whole wheat tortillas and more veggie choices.

I like the salads at Wendy's. My favorite is the Chicken/Pecan.

If you see a mall, you might try the food court. For some reason, there's always a Falafel place. For example, this place, in Cheyenne is only 5 miles off the Interstate. (A decent Falafel is worth it in my opinion.)

As for breakfast, most hotels will have healthy choices in their free breakfast. Oatmeal, eggs, yogurt, fruit. Take an extra fruit for the road. McDonalds is now doing an egg-white McMuffin. Personally, I like the yolks. McDonalds also has oatmeal. FWIW.

Starbucks also has breakfast sandwiches on whole wheat wraps and muffins if upscale and fancy is more your thing.

Get out at some of the prettier rest stops and take a 15 minute stroll around the grounds. Use the treadmill in the gym at the motels you're staying at. You'll feel better for it.

Here's an intersting app, iExit, it provides you with info on what's available on upcoming exits. At .99 seems like a decent thing to have.

Also the Interstate Wizard might prove useful.

Also, when I moved across country, I made it a point to stop at least once a day for a treat. Dairy Queen for me, but it might be a country fruit stand for you.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 9:26 AM on January 17, 2013

Re the McMuffin: if you get it without meat, it's just an egg and a slice of cheese on an English muffin. That is not bad.
posted by kestrel251 at 9:30 AM on January 17, 2013

Mod note: Folks, don't argue with other people just answer the question
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 9:42 AM on January 17, 2013 [1 favorite]

For under $100, you could buy a plug in cooler. Or get some dry ice for a larger cooler.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 10:00 AM on January 17, 2013

Re: Cracker Barrel - I was embarrassed to post it but they actually do have some very nice salads which could actually be considered on the healthier side with judicious use of salad dressing.
posted by walla at 10:03 AM on January 17, 2013

Best answer: Whole Foods Omaha saved my life the last time I drove this route. Tons of healthy to-go meals, salad bar, lovely snacks, dried fruit, all kinds of healthy portable food you can load up on for the journey ahead. It was the first place I'd gotten really nice fresh veggies in a couple of days, and it was the last place to get really nice fresh veggies for many miles ahead. It's expensive compared to a regular grocery store, but cheap compared to restaurants -- and I swear, when you see that salad bar, you will be crying with happiness.

Wal-mart was also a frequent stop. Many Wal-Marts now have a built-in grocery store, and there are many of them along your route. A loaf of bread, some salami or deli meat, and some fresh fruit was wonderful and kept for a day or two.

As for the staples -- things that keep without refrigeration -- here are mine:
- Clif Bars or other nutritional bars
- Peanut Butter
- Little snack cheeses that need no refrigeration - Baby Bel, Laughing Cow, etc.
- Dried fruit
- Nuts
- Crackers (I became particularly fond of these very delicious, very filling crackers after I ate them nonstop on a Swedish road trip).

Good luck! Have fun!
posted by ourobouros at 10:08 AM on January 17, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: A bag of precut salad, undressed, works well for finger food in the car. Less messy than, say, potato chips, and it helps satisfy the craving for healthy food.
posted by Ery at 10:44 AM on January 17, 2013 [1 favorite]

My tips:

Almost every pizza restaurant at least offers a pile of lettuce the size of a meal. Some offer really nice meal salads.

You don't have to eat the bun.

Most convenience stores have at least a couple of bananas.

Watch out for over-consumption of fiber and roughage. You will encounter a whole other kind of gut problem.

Keep an eye out for, or map out, barbecue restaurants. They usually have at least a couple of sides that are not macaroni and cheese.
posted by Lyn Never at 10:55 AM on January 17, 2013

Best answer: I've driven cross county so many times--RoadFood by the Sterns is usually a pretty good guide and there are a number of sites around that complement this, like Chowhound, etc.. I wouldn't mess with packaged lettuce you buy in Maine and carry around in a cooler. Farmer's markets in the mid-West aren't going to have incredible variety at the end of February--would you consider driving farther south?
posted by Ideefixe at 10:59 AM on January 17, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Whole Foods: Woodmere, Ohio (near Cleveland); Mitshawaka, Indiana; several locations around Chicago, Illinois; Des Moines, Iowa; Omaha, Nebraska;

-- long stretch unless you detour into Salt Lake City --

Boise, Idaho - last one until Portland

I'd check the web site to see if these stores have cafés, but even if they don't, you should be able to get some healthy prepared foods, including better-than-average salads and frozen entrées.

I've had success packing frozen Amy's meals, not worrying too much if they thaw out for a day, then microwaving them at service stations. Pack several forks, plus a container for them when they're dirty (metal forks are so much better).

You might want to pack a small glass bottle of water - small enough to take inside if you check into a hotel. You can refill the bottle whenever you stop for fuel. Having fresh water that doesn't taste like plastic will make your life so much better.
posted by amtho at 11:22 AM on January 17, 2013 [1 favorite]

I've done a lot of business travel, and dining was a serious problem - I gained weight. Eventually I just started buying food at Safeway.
posted by KokuRyu at 12:10 PM on January 17, 2013

Nthing Roadfood.

If you have a smartphone, I've had good luck with TripAdvisor's restaurant section.
posted by brujita at 12:13 PM on January 17, 2013

Also, Google local gives Zagat ratings.
posted by brujita at 12:50 PM on January 17, 2013

... Chipotle, a McDonalds brand...
McD's sold-off their investment in Chipotle back in 2006.
posted by Thorzdad at 2:24 PM on January 17, 2013

Get a big-ass insulated grocery bag, like from Trader Joe's or wherever. One with a flat bottom will stand up in the car.

Fill the bag with some apples, clementines, string cheese, Clif Bars, peanut butter, paper towels (with one taped into a sheath for the knife), and then one or two gallon bottles of water (decanted into smaller cups, but when re-chilled each night can be used to keep the food's temperature stable). Bring some sliced bread, bagels, or pitas. This gives you protein, fresh fruit, a little fat, and some breadstuff, all of it pretty shelf-stable.

Bring along doubled Zip-Loc bags to be filled with ice each morning, and packed into the big bag.

Most of this food can be eaten while on the move, but even better is to stop periodically. Eat, do some jumping jacks, hit the bathroom (and wash your face & neck: feels nice!), check your mileage & schedule, then get back on the road.

We drove from New England to Minnesota and back this summer (with a 500-mile trip to the lake in the middle of our stay) with four kids, and that's how we did it. We only stopped for fast food once.
posted by wenestvedt at 7:26 PM on January 18, 2013 [1 favorite]

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