With summer ramping up and pandemic-related restrictions easing throughout the United States, it seems just about everyone is itching to get back out there and travel again. Especially if that means diving into a pan of shakshuka, a bowl of creamy lobster bisque, or a mile-high pavlova from some far-off restaurant or patisserie. But since studies suggest that most of us still aren’t quite ready to hop on the next international flight, that means road trips are back in style.
In fact, 76 percent of would-be American travelers say they’re most comfortable vacationing by car this year. Fortunately, hitting the open road doesn’t have to mean giving up on eating well along the way. Wherever your next great culinary destination takes you, look to these tips to make the most of those on-the-go meals. Because great food, much like a road trip, is about the journey as much as the destination.
Cook As You Go
Even if you’re not near a major metropolis peppered with soul-satisfying cuisine, you can still eat well by preparing your own meals.
Cooking by charcoal or campfire is time consuming when you’ve got places to be, but a lightweight, gas-powered camp stove heats (and cools back down) quickly, such as GSI’s two-burner, propane-fueled model, which folds flat and fits easily into the back of your car. Ditch those disposable green fuel canisters—they’re not very sustainable—and instead opt for a refillable propane growler. Ignik’s version comes in its own handy—and stylish—carrying case, and is either sold separately, or as part of a set with a portable single-burner stove. Portable pots, pans, and utensils (like those from Sea To Summit) round out your equipment essentials.
When it’s time to pull over and cook, there are plenty of places to do so. Public parks and rest areas frequently offer picnic shelters perfect for the task, and some big box stores like Walmart and Camping World let travelers post up in the parking lot for a meal or even the night. (That’s not the case with every location, so be sure to check with the store before you light the grill.)
Keep Food Organized
To cook and eat well on the road, quality ingredients are a must, and that means being intentional about food storage and packing.
Start with a trustworthy cooler to keep perishables chilled, like Yeti‘s rugged, durable, and reliable designs. When adding vegetables, fresh fruit, dips, and sandwiches, use stackable bento boxes. Klean Kanteen’s stainless steel version is easy to clean, plastic-free, and airtight.
If you have ice on hand, get more use out of every bag by transferring the cubes into reusable wide-mouth water bottles. This will prevent foods from getting soggy while also providing plenty of cold drinking water as it melts. Don’t want to constantly refill your cooler with ice? Try one of GoSun’s solar-powered chillers instead. In and out of the icebox, you’ll want to keep your provisions organized. Stash room-temperature snacks in a sturdy box or tub to protect them from getting buried or smashed. Minimize waste and spills by packing snacks like nuts, cookies, and crackers into reusable silicone zip-top bags. Stasher’s durable version is available in a wide variety of colors and sizes.
One could argue that snacks make or break a good road trip: Shop wisely.
Start by stocking up on a little bit from every category: healthy, not-so-healthy, crunchy, spicy, soft, salty, sweet, you name it. Having plenty of options on hand will mean you’re less likely to get hangry behind the wheel. On longer trips, trying out regional snacks and unexpected roadside eats are an essential part of the experience.
Use Apps to Explore Local Favorites
Part of the joy of road trips is the endless opportunity for discovery along your route. Forgo quick pit-stops at chain restaurants and instead seek out local favorites. There are plenty of apps designed specifically with culinary adventure in mind. Heavy hitters like Yelp, and Tripadvisor are comprehensive and optimized for travel with in-app maps, reviews, and contact information, and OpenTable and Resy offer built-in reservation bookings. Others cater to travelers with specific dietary restrictions like Kosher GPS, Find Me Gluten Free, and Happy Cow, which specializes in vegan and vegetarian cuisine.
Prefer to stock up on hyper-local ingredients? Use the USDA’s local food directory to zero in on the nearest farmers markets wherever you may be.
Caffeinate on the Road
No road trip is complete without frequent caffeine fixes—but gas station offerings tend to be less than stellar. If you can’t be sure you’ll pass a great local cafe along the way, brew your own.
Instant coffee is a valid option for a quick-and-dirty cup, and high-quality freeze-dried options are increasingly available. Packets of powdered instant from boutique brands like Alpine Start and Summit or single-serving bottles of cold-brew concentrate from Explorer Cold Brew Co. are tasty and effective just-add-water solutions. Or, for only slightly more time and effort, you can whip up your own from scratch using a super-portable Aeropress. Just scoop finely ground coffee into the plastic brewer, add cold water, stir, and press. Presto! Delicious, road-ready coffee using your favorite beans in under five minutes. Now you have more fuel to keep on journeying.
Alisha McDarris is a food and travel journalist based in Austin, Texas. She loves long road trips, strong coffee, and searching for vegan donuts in destinations near and far.