There's Always a Subway
December 3, 2016 8:35 AM   Subscribe

Experienced road trippers, what do you do about eating? Especially lunch?

My partner and I are planning a cross-country road trip. We've done this before, and will be going through a few days of places with long stretches of nowhere to eat besides a Subway and maybe an occasional McDonalds.

I'm a lot more comfortable if I eat something other than car snacks all day. We'll have a cooler, but the trip will be too long to make and pack lunches in advance. And I'd really like something healthier then a burger, and better than a fast food salad. Subway is OK for a day or two, but after that I'm ready for something else.

We'll have mobile data, and at least two GPS apps with offline maps, but there are a lot of places where the mobile data doesn't work, and what shows up in the GPS as some cafe too often ends up being a gas station that sells hot dogs.

We'll be on Interstates and U.S. Highways for nearly all of the trip.

We usually stop for the night in an area with enough restaurants that dinner isn't a big problem, and the hotels give us breakfast, but I'm really dreading another week of lunches like last year's.

I'd appreciate any tips and suggestions. Thanks!
posted by still_wears_a_hat to Travel & Transportation (32 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
Almost all supermarkets have hot and cold bars and an area to eat.
posted by k8t at 8:40 AM on December 3, 2016 [11 favorites]

My usual plan is

1. eat a biggish breakfast
2. drink a lot of water so that I am stopping pretty often
3. grabbing high protein snacks at service stations (meat and cheese-ish things, nuts)
4. stopping early for dinner

So really you can just get sandwiches or some sort of ready-to-eat stuff at the supermarket when you set out in the morning and put it in your cooler with some drinks OR you can just set your phones to look for "diner" or "vegetarian" and go to a place that will have more options than just burgers and are usually more interesting.

I think some of it may be deciding: do you want to pack your coolers to have food for the day or would you prefer to stop and eat? Both options are fine, but they have different tactics.

My experience doing a lot of US road tripping is that most places you can find someplace that isn't chain food to sit and eat and that most Interstates have good data.
posted by jessamyn at 8:46 AM on December 3, 2016 [4 favorites]

Actually, I doubt you will find grocery stores with food bars and places to eat, especially in isolated locations. When I drive, I mix it up, some restaurants, some fast food, and some gas stations. Adding in a stock of groceries for the cooler in case it's needed. I actually preferred stopping at truck stops for quick food. The bigger ones, such as Loves, would almost always have healthier options such as hard boiled eggs, cut veggies, hummus.
posted by Vaike at 8:50 AM on December 3, 2016 [6 favorites]

Almost all supermarkets have hot and cold bars and an area to eat.

This varies tremendously by location. If you can get to a place like Whole Foods you're probably ok with the supermarket plan, but all other markets, in my area at least, are about buying food for off-site consumption. There might be some ready-to-eat stuff like sandwiches that you could eat in the car, but the quality isn't any higher than fast food.

If you have your route planned in advance, I'd recommend checking Yelp for towns along your way and making a list of decent restaurants. I have done this on long road trips (not cross country, but multi-day interstate-based road trips). I had really fantastic Mexican food in Hazleton PA, for instance, and a delicious kebab in Knoxville TN. And don't discount gas station food; if you're passing through Charlottesville VA, the best quick lunch in town is at the Bellair Exxon just off Rt 250.
posted by basalganglia at 8:51 AM on December 3, 2016 [6 favorites]

My experience doing a lot of US road tripping is that most places you can find someplace that isn't chain food to sit and eat and that most Interstates have good data.

That matches my experience as well.

I've started doing what k8t suggests for lunch quite often. Even fairly crappy grocery stores will usually have a deli, plus the usual fruit/yogurt/etc options, which gives a lot more variety than a Subway. You can just stop at one at lunch, or you can use your cooler to stock up in the morning and then plan to eat in somewhere nice like a state park.
posted by Dip Flash at 8:52 AM on December 3, 2016 [6 favorites]

I'm not sure what area you will be but I love eating at non-chain restaurants, especially in far flung towns on road trips. I have found over the last 30 years of road-tripping they are disappearing.
I was always willing to travel a fair distance off the highway into town, but the trips became more and more disappointing. Often there is only all-in-one gas station/store/take out chicken place or a Walmart with some prepared foods.
It's pretty depressing to me.

A stop on our road trips, now, is a supermarket every few days. We keep a small cooler in the car. Keep healthy snacks like mandarin oranges, almonds, cheese and crackers, etc - maybe grab a yogurt from the continental breakfast. I always have peanut butter and jelly fixings with a yummy loaf of bread for emergency sandwiches. When we eat a breakfast and a few healthy snacks, we often skip right to dinner. It also leaves room for a great accidental find. And it also helps with way less fatigue from a big lunch.

(And I use yelp a lot and google's "find along route")
posted by ReluctantViking at 8:53 AM on December 3, 2016 [4 favorites]

You might check Roadfood regarding the more desolate places you know you'll be passing through.
posted by Lyn Never at 9:12 AM on December 3, 2016 [10 favorites]

Veggie trays from Costco or better supermarkets.
posted by straw at 9:25 AM on December 3, 2016

Amy's frozen vegetarian dinners in a cooler + service station microwaves

Really good bread, water crackers

Lots of carrots, cheese sticks, celery (this helps a lot), good bread, nuts, fruit (fresh or dried; melon chunks are good -- avoid lots of sugar)

You can live like this indefinitely. Buy more frozen dinners when you can, and always supplement with fresh vegetables like celery.

Edamame is also really good.

Also, if you stay in places where you have a microwave/refrigerator in the room (certain hotels/motels, AirBNB places), that makes the food thing _much_ easier. Plus, free hotel breakfast often isn't that healthy. Having access to a really great breakfast will set you in good stead for driving.
posted by amtho at 9:30 AM on December 3, 2016 [2 favorites]

We always throw a cooler in the back seat and a box. Cooler has cheese, salami, coffee, smoked salmon, some veggies or fresh things you can eat raw or in soup, coffee, creamer, miso, ramen etc. Box has crackers/ bread, hot chocolate, peanut butter, lara bars, jerky, tiny camp stove, a french press and a pot to boil water for aforementioned coffee, soup/ramen. Plus unhealthy snacks. You can switch ingredients to suit your tastes but the main thing is dry things = box, cold or damp things or well wrapped = cooler. You can buy ice anywhere in north america. And this way you always have cold beer :)
posted by fshgrl at 10:25 AM on December 3, 2016 [8 favorites]

Actually subway has a felafel sandwich that's not bad
posted by canoehead at 10:37 AM on December 3, 2016

Yelp is so great for this! If you are up for a burger look for the most highly rated burger joint or diner. If you are ready for a change, look for sushi or thai or vegetarian. Find the thing that people are most enthusiastic about meal-wise and get that.
posted by amanda at 10:48 AM on December 3, 2016 [1 favorite]

In my experience this usually isn't the case.

There are Subways and McDonalds on the freeway. If you need to make the fastest possible drive, and so you stick to the major highways and aren't willing to travel away from them to find food, yes, you will find "long stretches where the only thing to eat is fast food". But if you're willing to get off the highway, no, actually, there is no place in this country that doesn't have its own food culture.

You might find yourself driving half an hour off the highway, or eating in more sit down places. You may have to do a little more research than the signs you see immediately off the freeway exit. But, yes, obviously, just about every place in America has food that isn't Burger King. If there's a place where someone is driving to the McDonalds off the freeway exit in order to work there, there's a town nearby with a greasy spoon or a barbecue joint or something.

I've done a few major road trips (through the Northeast, through the South, and through the Southwest) refusing to eat big-chain fast food unless it was an emergency. I got lost in rural Ohio a few times, but all in all this doesn't seem like something that is actually difficult if you try even the slightest little bit.

When I was in my teens/early 20s I would do this using a book called "Eat Your Way Across The USA", but now that Yelp exists it should be even easier.
posted by Sara C. at 11:10 AM on December 3, 2016 [4 favorites]

In addition to diners and truck stops, we check out fast food options that aren't local to us like Waffle House, Arby's, Steak and Shake, etc.
posted by beaning at 11:43 AM on December 3, 2016 [2 favorites]

Just to say that a McDonald's Grilled Southwest Chicken Salad, no dressing, is my go-to fast food option. I wouldn't want it every day but you might consider adding to your mix when you just want to get back on the road asap.
posted by metahawk at 12:12 PM on December 3, 2016 [2 favorites]

As others noted, I try to schedule lunches with driving through a reasonably large town or city so I can find a grocery store a good portion of the time.

I've found that using one of the the gluten free restaurant apps will help locate better quality local or regional chains (as long as it's not just a sandwich shop whose gluten free option is tossing sandwich meat with iceberg lettuce and calling it done). It won't necessarily be great food, but you can find things like a reasonable steak with some vegetables.

I like the idea of supporting independent businesses and have had some good meals at roadside diners, but without data to check reviews, I've also had too many dodgy Sysco microwaved meals to always want to give them a shot.
posted by Candleman at 12:24 PM on December 3, 2016

I'm Dutch, so to me, lunch = bread. That's just how we roll, or slice.
On road trips, my favourite option (if the weather permits) is to get wholewheat bread, cheese and/or fish, fruits/vegs and milk at a local store and then drive (or ride my motorbike) some more kilometers, and find a nice spot for a picnic. I can easily do that every day for weeks and not get tired of it.
posted by Too-Ticky at 12:25 PM on December 3, 2016 [4 favorites]

I drive 2/3rds cross country and back every year. Though I have a dog so sit down restaurants aren't an option, I do use the app iExit to see what amenities are at upcoming exits. For restaurants, it lists the Yelp rating if it has one and it will have a link to the Yelp app if you want more information. The app is free.
posted by cecic at 12:33 PM on December 3, 2016

For road trips we pack a cooler, and have all the fixings for sandwiches. Nice change of pace to stop somewhere, make a nice cucumber sandwich, and enjoy. Breakfasts are the complementary of the hotel, and we budget for a nice dinner. Usually we have nuts, apples, and baby carrots to eat for snacking. The kids have juice boxes.
posted by nickggully at 12:56 PM on December 3, 2016

Grocery stores are your best bet, and if you have a cooler, you can go several days between grocery stores when necessary. You can pick up bread and sandwich makings fairly easily and cheaply at even poorly stocked stores. Grab some apples or other long-keeping fruit when you find them, and maybe grab some kind of lettuce, too. Just stow any leftovers in your cooler along with some ice for the following couple of days. Mustard doesn't require refrigeration; neither does peanut butter; salami and those mini individual baby bel cheese wheels will last forever in a cooler; powdered hummus is a shelf-stable thing that you can stock up on before you go; dried fruit and nuts will last the whole way. While road-tripping in Sweden, I became very fond of Wasa crackers, which last indefinitely and are a perfectly fine substitute for bread. I was really pleased to discover that they are also sold in well-stocked US grocery stores. They're good topped with deli meat, or peanut butter, or cheese, or hummus, or whatever you like.

If you have a camp stove and cookset and know how to use it, you might consider bringing that, too -- it'll give you many more options. You can set up on a picnic table or even a flattish rock at a rest stop (or in a parking lot if you must) and make yourself something good. Eggs keep well in a cooler, as do pastrami and harder cheeses like cheddar. Hot pastrami sandwiches are awesome, and a nice break from cold lunches. Ramen is easy and fast to make on a campstove -- crack a couple of eggs in there and throw in any veggie leftovers you have from your previous lunches (for instance, toss in a huge handful of greens at the end) -- or you can bring or buy some small cans of veggies and put those in (canned mushrooms + ramen = delicious). Make grilled cheese sandwiches! Don't forget to bring a can of spray oil or a tub of ghee (both shelf-stable) as cooking grease.
posted by ourobouros at 12:59 PM on December 3, 2016 [1 favorite]

Surprisingly enough, rural Walmarts often have a nice selection of premade salads and healthy snacks in their produce section. It was a nice discovery when driving through a town that only had a McDonalds and a Hardee's.
posted by galvanized unicorn at 1:17 PM on December 3, 2016 [2 favorites]

Came in here to agree with Sara C. that if all you're seeing are McDonald's and Subway, you're not really trying, that there's always something non-chain; but as ReluctantViking correctly observes these alternatives are getting harder to find. Therefore, as others are saying, you should always have your own food supply, just in case there's nothing (or it's closed).
posted by Rash at 1:23 PM on December 3, 2016

I travel and roadtrip a lot for both work and pleasure. Wanted to nth using some apps mentioned above- I like iExit, and also the old standbys of TripAdvisor and Yelp. It also helps to just google for supermarkets near you. I've found that, even in the most remote of places, you are usually no further than 1 hour from a supermarket, and if you are in a decent enough sized town there will definitely be at least one. You can plan your stops around where a good supermarket is. The truck stops have been getting better and better over the years too - I often stop at these for lunch because they have salads, fruit and veggie cups, hummus, cheese, etc. If you are in the south, unfortunately, sometimes the Walmart is the only supermarket around, so keep that in mind. But its better than continuing to eat McDonalds every day, so, there's that.
posted by FireFountain at 2:10 PM on December 3, 2016 [1 favorite]

I used to do day/weekend trips (and a few cross country ones) in the midwest; lots of one-stoplight towns just off interstates.

They usually have at least one bar/diner (and some antique stores also double as cafes). I usually order the special (unless there was something interesting like deep fried chicken gizzards), whatever it is, and was pleasantly surprised more often than not.

Caveat, though, I'm Chinese-looking and had to turn around and get back in my car more than once because of open hostility, and this was almost a couple of decades ago.

I had a Nalgene bottle before they were a thing, and refill them from gallon jugs of spring water from grocery stores. Gas station snacks are loaded with sodium.
posted by porpoise at 2:27 PM on December 3, 2016 [1 favorite]

Some people in my instant pot Facebook community use their pots to cook in hotel rooms. By packing onions, garlic, dried beans, split peas or lentils plus some spices and maybe tinned tomatoes you could make nice soups quickly each morning. Then pack them in food thermos flasks so they stay hot until lunchtime. A bit of a wacky suggestion I know but cheap, reliable, healthy and fairly easy if you have an instant pot already.
posted by hazyjane at 2:33 PM on December 3, 2016 [3 favorites]

I like hot meals on my schedule, so...
Breakfast, start a pot of water boiling on a backpacking stove, eat grits, hulled barley or a six grain cereal, with red pepper and butter that cooked over night in a wide mouth thermos.

Then set the water aside under a towel to keep it hot, put the other pot on to preheat. Dice and brown some bacon, a brot, or some kind of salami. Dice the vegetable and onion of the day to about half bite sized and toss them in to lightly brown then dump in the rest of breakfast some hot water and a spice or two. Bring to a boil, simmer a couple of minutes before putting it in the thermos. Use the rest of the hot water to clean 1 spoon, 1 knife, 1 pot and 1 small cutting board.

Load up the sidecar, eat some fruit while walking the dog then drive on. Lunch: grill a couple of simple Quesadillas with the first cheese of the day, have some stew, and finish with a different fruit. Supper: finish the stew, have a different cheese and fruit, and maybe a stout or porter.

Boil some water and clean the thermos while the grain is toasting in the food pot, add water and salt, bring to a boil add butter, reduce to a simmer add red pepper. After 3 or 4 minutes put it in the thermos, use the rest of the hot water to clean 2 spoons, 2 knives, 1 pot and 1griddle.

Total potable water use, less than 3 quarts. Fuel use, less than 30 min. I also put my ice in wide mouth plastic jars so I can have clean cold water and a dry cooler. By varying the ingredients of the stew each day and rotating at least 4 kinds of fruit and cheeses I can avoid food ennui for over a week.
posted by ridgerunner at 3:07 PM on December 3, 2016

Lots of great ideas above.
1) We do the chee-ee-eap thing of driving all night until neither of us can stand it, then taking a nap until morning at a Wal-Mart parking lot, where allowed. Overnight security parking, a clean bathroom for morning wash-up, walking the aisles to stretch our legs, and usually a deli with roasted whole chicken and sides is available before noon. Tossing part of the chicken in the trash is still better and cheaper than many fast food meals. I wouldn't take a chance on salmonella and leftovers, but it's your call.
2) We bring a loaf of bread and non-refrigerated spreads, but most of it is thrown out. Peanut butter and Nutella and fruit like apples and bananas are convenient and easy to obtain. We use foil envelopes of tuna and chicken at lunch, but I take a can opener just in case I have access to a motel microwave for stews, soups, etc. I've been known to carry a pizza pan and cutter on multi-week trips staying at a one-bedroom apartment.
3) Our cooler is mainly for ice, bottled water and cola, maybe babybel cheeses and boiled eggs. Occasionally we add bologna or sliced ham, and a small screw-lid plastic container (Ziploc, Glad) of hamburger dills. I try to save restaurant samples of mustard, mayo and ketchup.
4) I prefer to bring lidded mugs for coffee and hot cocoa. Styrofoam cups can leak -- as we found out in our brand-new pickup.
5) Cheap also describes the dozen or so national chains that we use for dinner. My first question is: are the restrooms clean?
6) Our snacking choices are cookies, crackers, candy, nuts and dried fruit. We graze on what is convenient until we get bored, then start watching highway signs for those fast food arrows.
7) We bring wet-wipes and paper towels for cleanup, and attempt to keep the interior of the vehicle trash-free. I don't travel without Ziplocs and small trash bags, plus a disposable set of bowls, plates, utensils, etc. A Sterilite lidded box doubles as a wash station.
posted by TrishaU at 4:57 PM on December 3, 2016 [1 favorite]

Second the idea that Yelp is great for this. The trick is to do a little planning ahead to see what is available in the towns ahead of you on your route. In fact I am doing a bit of that type of planning right now for a trip we are taking in two weeks.
posted by mmascolino at 5:42 PM on December 3, 2016

EYWAtUSA was written by the roadfood people.
posted by brujita at 5:44 PM on December 3, 2016 [1 favorite]

Came to repeat hazyjane's Instant Pot suggestion. Even a regular rice cooker or slow cooker would be fine. And you don't have to stick to legumes either. Boiling-hot chili in a preheated vacuum flask will stay above 140F for at least six hours, which means you've got at least ten hours before you've run through the FDA's 4 hour limit.
posted by d. z. wang at 11:20 PM on December 3, 2016

there's always something non-chain

It's not always open though. And you can only eat so much fast food.
posted by fshgrl at 12:03 AM on December 4, 2016

I almost never eat fast food for lunch on road trips.

I road-trip by motorcycle more often than by car, so no cooler. At most I'm carrying a bottle of soda or water or something.

But when riding, I stop every hour (roughly) to get off the bike, and at a minimum, walk around the bike, just to stretch my knees. Usually this is at a rest stop or gas station, and I'll walk inside.

My plan for food is, similar to Jessamyn way back there at the top, early out of the hotel (6am if possible), big breakfast once I have an hour or two under my belt (so 8am-ish - traffic levels on the roads may dictate this), graze during the day, then early sit-down dinner (because by 3 or 4pm, I've had all the miles I want for the day).

Grazing during the day means at every stop, going into the gas station or fast food or whatever and getting one thing. Maybe it's a banana, apple, or other fresh fruit (most gas stations have fruit now). Maybe it's an order of McD's fries or 4-piece McNuggets. Maybe it's a Subway cookie. Maybe it's a gas-station sammich, or small bag of peanuts. But it's just one thing. If there's a particularly good 2-for sale, I'll buy two, and throw one in the tank bag for later, knowing that I've limited my options at a later stop. I eat my one thing, wash it down with the drink that I'm carrying on the bike, and on I go.

Sticking to this road-trip diet, I tend to lose weight while traveling, and I'm never horribly hungry. I have a decent appetite for breakfast and dinner, and I don't have that mid-afternoon post-big-lunch crash, which would be no good when trying to ride a motorcycle in traffic.
posted by DaveP at 4:27 AM on December 4, 2016 [2 favorites]

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