Nearly 31 million Americans will hit the road this weekend for Memorial Day, braving average per-gallon gas prices of $3.84 and expensive, greasy roadside food.
Don’t let the prospect of either scare you into staying home. You can easily solve the latter by packing your own cheap, healthy, road-worthy fare — saving enough cash to make the former more affordable. “Packing healthy, easy, and clean snacks is a high priority,” says nutritionist and mom-of-four Erin Macdonald. “If you don’t bring food with you on a road trip, your choices out there are pretty limited. It’s all too easy to just hit one of the many fast food joints peppering the off-ramps. Sure, healthy options exist at each location, but most people don’t even consider them.”
In fact, most foods are pretty road-worthy if prepared and packed in the right way. Macdonald suggests a cooler filled with snacks like string cheese, Greek yogurt, fruit, carrots, and cut up cucumbers, jicama, and bell pepper strips with small containers of hummus for dipping. She also packs a grocery bag of dry snacks including cereal, nuts, dried fruit and granola bars. Don’t forget napkins and cleansing towelettes to clean hands and wipe up any spills, too.
Here’s how to eat well for less on your next road trip:
Use an app
Free smartphone apps like Around Me will tell you what’s nearby, and other restaurant-specific ones can help you narrow the options to those that are well-reviewed, serve healthy fare or have an ongoing coupon or special. Other apps, like Calorie Counter, gives you the lowdown on how healthy — or not — a particular food is.
Consider the length of your trip and the amount of food you’ll need. Try to bring the whole trip’s worth of dry and packaged goods that don’t need to be refrigerated, which can save you from buying juice boxes, chips and other fare at twice or three times the price from gas station convenience stores. You can also get in at least a day’s worth of cold foods, says Kent Whitaker, a.k.a. “The Deck Chef.”
Pack two coolers
Prepare one to be opened frequently and a second for foods that you plan to eat much later in the trip. The food in the unopened cooler will stay colder, longer, since you aren’t exposing the contents to warmer air.
Raid the hotel breakfast bar
Action- adventure author and avid road-tripper K.S. Brooks looks for hotels with a free continental breakfast and also uses the fare for snacks later. “Bring your insulated travel mugs and fill them up with coffee on your way out,” she says. “Grab a piece of fruit per person and a yogurt as well. Even if you don’t eat them there, stash them in your cooler and they make quick, healthy snacks later.”
Shop grocery stores
“I tell my clients to find a large grocery store on the road,” says NYC-based fitness consultant Arnie Hoff. “Most major exits have them and it’s an inexpensive way to find something healthy for everyone. It’s also a great time to restock the cooler.” You can take advantage of supermarket sales and coupons, too.
Or at least, pack just a portion of a large container. “If you have to toss something, it won’t break the bank,” says Whitaker.
Add cheap chill
Instead of buying ice packs or wasting space with them, freeze some of your bottled water and drinks. Your packed food will stay cool, and you’ll have cold drinks later in your trip.
Use hotel coolers
Frugal Foodie has found that even if your hotel room doesn’t have a mini-bar or fridge to store cold items, many hotels will happily store some in their staff fridge overnight. That lets you hit the road with a few cold drinks or extend the usability of snacks that must be kept cold.
Enjoy roadside stands
Keep your eyes peeled for farm stands along the roadside, which offer fresh, cheap produce. “Buy up the local berries, peaches, plums, apricots and other fruits for snacking in the car and after you’ve arrived at your destination,” says Nancy Tringali Piho, the author of “My Two-Year-Old Eats Octopus: Raising Children Who Love to Eat Everything.” (Use some of your water stash to wash them first.)
Hold the mayo
Butter and mayonnaise can go bad quickly, so stick to mustard on sandwiches, suggests Britt Reints, an avid traveler who is days away from starting a yearlong RV road trip (and plans to blog about it).
Frugal Foodie is a journalist based in New York City who spends her days writing about personal finance and obsessing about what she’ll have for dinner. Chat with her on Twitter through @MintFoodie.