Your bags are packed, the gas tank is full, and your playlist is loaded with driving music. Now, all you need is some snacks. Good road trip snacks can keep you fueled and alert as you make your way across state lines, while poor decisions can leave you feeling sluggish and ready for a nap.
“Most packaged snacks are heavily processed and contain excessive added sugar, sodium and refined grains, says Samantha Cassetty, MS, RD, nutrition and wellness expert and co-author of Sugar Shock. “When you’re on the road, snacks like these can leave you feeling tired and less attentive. Instead, it’s a good idea to focus on snacks that will help you maintain focus and concentration, provide steady energy levels, tame hunger and provide nourishment.”
That said, there’s nothing wrong with eating what you like. Part of the fun of road trips involves stopping at that random bakery on the side of the road or getting nostalgic with a favorite childhood snack.
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“Road trips shouldn’t involve stressing over food choices,” says Melissa Macher, RD, LD, owner of A Grateful Meal. However, it’s possible to make smart choices on the road. “Gas stations are getting so much better about offering more variety of food. If possible, stop at one that is an established chain — you’ll likely have more options than smaller gas stations.”
Below are 10 dietitian-approved snacks — five you can make at home and five to pick up on the road.
SNACKS TO PACK YOURSELF
DIY TRAIL MIX OR ANTS ON A LOG
Liz Wyosnick, MS, RD, and owner of Equilibriyum in Seattle likes to make trail mix with nuts, seeds and a small amount of dried fruit. She also recommends the classic ants on a log (celery sticks with peanut butter and raisins), for a crunchy, satisfying snack that merges fresh produce with protein and healthy fat.
PEANUT BUTTER SANDWICH FOLD-OVERS
We’re all about keeping it simple before we hit the road. “Layer a slice of whole-grain bread with peanut butter and put it in a baggie to take with you,” recommends Amy Goodson, MS, RD, a nutrition expert. “This is one kids and adults alike can enjoy.” If there’s a nut allergy in the family, try Sunbutter, which is made with sunflower seeds.
WALNUTS AND GRAPES
“Walnuts are an ideal snack because research suggests they have brain-protecting nutrients that enhance concentration and processing speed,” says Cassetty. “You can eat them straight out of the bag or pair them with a portable fruit, like a banana or grapes. Grapes happen to have a high-water content, which will keep you hydrated on the road. This also helps you fight fatigue.”
POPCORN-WALNUT-STRAWBERRY TRAIL MIX
Cassetty also suggests making a quick trail mix of popcorn with walnuts and freeze-dried strawberries for an energy-boosting, nutritious combo. The popcorn has carbs and fiber, the walnuts contain additional fiber, plus nutrients to boost your concentration, and strawberries provide antioxidants and natural sugar for energy with no crash.
MINI BENTO BOX SNACK PACK
“Before you head out, create some little snack-size bento boxes with cheese, fruit, nuts and veggies,” says Goodson. “Fiber and protein will help you get full faster and keep you full longer.”
SNACKS TO BUY ON THE ROAD
NUTS AND FRESH FRUIT
“Think about choosing something fresh plus something containing protein,” says Wyosnick. “I tend to guide people toward nuts and fruit. Most convenience stores stock packaged nuts (avoid any with added sugar) and may even have the occasional fresh fruit. I also remind people that typically, a grocery store or fresh food market is not that far away from the highway. You will have much more fresh items to choose from if you go the extra minute to a grocery store versus a gas station. Minimally processed bars can be OK, too, like RX bars or KIND bars.”
“Many convenience stores and coffee shops have pre-made yogurt parfaits with fruit and granola or nuts,” says Goodson. “This is an excellent option for a sweet treat that also contains protein and fiber.”
NUT-BASED PROTEIN BARS
“Protein bars with nuts are typically an all-in-one snack, meaning they contain protein, carbohydrate and healthy fat,” adds Goodson. “This trio will help you get full faster and stay full longer.”
JERKY AND DEHYDRATED CHEESE
“I like to pack shelf-stable snacks on road trips greater than one hour, so as not to have spoilage,” says Macher. “Great non-perishable items are the typical crackers, fruit and raw veggies, but it’s often hard to get non-perishable protein options. Two great road trip protein options are jerky (beef, turkey, etc.) and dehydrated cheese. They’re shelf-stable and taste great. There aren’t a lot of dehydrated cheeses out there, but Moon Cheese is a good one. Sometimes the dehydrated cheese is packaged as ‘cheese crisps.’ Just look for ones that are at least 6–7 grams of protein to be considered a protein source.”
FRESH FRUIT OR SNACK BOXES
Macher says fresh fruit is a great option if you can find it (many gas stations do stock some fruit), but a solid alternative is snack boxes. “These boxes typically have cheese, fruit, crackers and sometimes raw vegetables like carrots, and they will likely fill you up and provide the most varied amount of nutrients.”
THE BOTTOM LINE
Snacking can feel like a quintessential part of driving long distances. Choosing healthy foods keeps you satiated and alert as you travel, but ask yourself: Do you really need a snack on the road?
“Sometimes, I like to challenge the idea that we need snacks on a road trip at all,” says Wyosnick. “I often remind my clients that snacks are optional and rarely needed if you make balanced and sustaining meals for yourself. Snacks are appropriate if you are going four-plus hours between meals, or if you will not have access to food during your next mealtime.” So, rather than mindlessly snacking, aim to prioritize meals and hydration, and you may realize you don’t need those gas station snacks after all.
Originally published August 2021, updated July 2022
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