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Healthy Food on the Road

Some of my first memories are of summer family road trips to visit relatives in Cleveland. I remember happily sitting in the back seat of our Matador station wagon between my older brothers singing along to our 8-track recording of Wings. Our first stop would often be for breakfast at the Belvidere Oasis poised right atop the interstate with the cars humming below. We would order several Egg McMuffins and a few waxy cups full of orange juice. Happily, my family and many other families have made a shift towards maintaining a more conscious and healthy diet at home and on the road. Not all of us had this sort of experience growing up however; Co-op Owner Shawnee reports, “My parents always packed a big cooler with PB&J sandwiches, cheese & crackers, fresh fruit, juice, etc. It wasn’t for health reasons—it was financial. We’d have picnics at rest areas and parks, and I loved it!” Now that I am a parent, it is my goal to have my children experience less Belvidere Oasis and more of what Shawnee experienced. Though if my kids want to sing along to Wings in the back seat, that is totally fine with me.

We are fortunate to have a Co-op filled with healthy, organic and local food near our houses, but when we head out on the road, how can we ensure that we eat as well on the road as we do at home? This is not a difficult prospect; it just takes some planning, the right tools, and at trip to the Co-op to help to make your road trip a time for healthy eating. I have tried this out on several road trips with family and friends and enjoyed successful healthy eating on the road.

Planning your trip
Just as you would make a list of what to bring in your suitcase, it is often helpful to take a few minutes to plan out meals on the road. Some things to consider are how many meals and snacks you will eat on the road. If you are anything like my family, we all like to have something to munch on every hour or two between meals. How long is your trip? Is it a quick day trip to Devil’s Lake? Or is it a multi-day, multi-state trip with no particular destination? Or maybe your trip is something in between. Regardless, if you are heading out on a long trip with or without destination, it can be helpful to do some research to find out if there are grocery cooperatives along your route or at your destination at which you can replenish your supplies.

For sale right near the registers at the Co-op we have a publication called The Co-op Directory. This is a state-by-state look at where other grocery cooperatives are located. Another option is doing an online search at for grocery cooperatives in cities and towns along your route. This kind of preplanning was helpful for me when I took a cross-country trip with my best gal pal to help her move to Portland. We took this trip during the summer of my first pregnancy and having planned stops at grocery stores helped me maintain a healthy diet during our week-long road trip. Our visit to other co-ops was also a welcome respite from the road and we found some camaraderie in the staff from these co-ops, many of whom had heard of or visited the Willy Street Co-op.

In addition to your search for locations to refill your healthy food supply, a glance at an atlas for rest areas and interesting towns to stop for meals can be valuable preparation. You may also consider your road trip planning to be an opportunity for a geography lesson. In my family, we love maps and our road atlases have become well worn from having been constantly opened and passed back and forth. Having your family plan out and list potential stops can give you an easy answer to the proverbial question: “Are we there yet?” Hand your trippers a map, point out the road signs, and ask them, “ I don’t know, are we there yet?” On my family’s recent trip to the Mississippi River, Mineral Point was our first planned stop and my children excitedly looked for and identified road signs for me. Once we arrived, we drove around the town until we found a small town park with a picnic table and swing set. This was the perfect spot for a meal, some playtime, pictures, and a break from the road.

Once you have mapped out some healthy eating destinations, it is time to gather together the supplies you need to get yourself there. One of the most important tools is a cooler. My friend Angela, (Co-op Owner, chef, and fellow road-tripper) says, “The cooler is your friend.” It is so much my friend that I bring two coolers: a large one that rides in the way-back with the majority of our cold food, a small cooler which sits next to me in the passenger seat or, if you have a willing co-captain, under their feet. This little cooler can hold all of the cold things you want to have within arm’s reach, your water bottles, a well-chilled apple and that last minute Nessalla kombucha you grabbed from the Co-op on your way out of town.

In fact, while you are at the Co-op grabbing your last goodbye goodies, this is a good time to purchase some ice for your cooler. An alternative solution to ice is a few re-freezable icepacks that will prevent your food from swimming in melted ice water. These icepacks can easily be refreshed by popping them into a hotel refrigerator or into your generous host’s freezer; just don’t forget to get them back into your cooler the next morning!

In addition to a cooler, I bring along at least one sturdy upright canvas tote bag to hold the non-perishable food items upright. These tote bags can also come in handy toward the end of your trip when your food supply is dwindling but your empty food containers and recyclables are increasing. It is unfortunately true that some places still do not recycle.

Along with the totes, I take one water bottle for each traveler. I also take a large vessel of water that can be refilled once I find a good source of drinking water. The Co-op sells some great water bottles including Lifefactory’s glass bottles. They have a protective sleeve that prevents the glass from breaking, as one Co-op Owner and employee, Kathy, found out when her Lifefactory bottle fell on concrete. The Co-op sells various sizes: 4oz. and 9oz. baby bottles, 9oz. for kids, and 16oz. and 22oz.

In addition to water bottles, I pack a few cloth napkins and washcloths, one of which I keep wrapped around a small paring knife. The napkins and washcloths come in handy for cleaning dirty hands both before and after eating. The paring knife, along with a small cutting board, can be used to cut up fruit, cheese, or anything you haven’t already pre-cut. In a pinch, I serve food on a Frisbee or food container lid, but the Co-op sells reusable Preserve plastic plates and bowls which are made in the USA out of old yogurt containers. The Co-op also sells light and small bamboo utensils, perfect for meals on the go. And while our family currently uses plastic food containers to store our food, we are switching to the Co-op’s glass containers with airtight lids made in the USA by Anchor. These are great at home and on the road.

What food to pack?
Once you have gathered your supplies, it is time to get to the fun part of picking out great food. Now is the time to consider your audience. For me, it is two kids under five, a husband, and a nervous border collie, but whoever your traveling companions are, give them consideration and potentially even a voice in what you pack. If I left the decision-making up to my people, one of them would fill the cooler with his favorite tasty Willy Pack yogurt-covered pretzels and the other would pack up her entire tote bag with animal crackers from the Co-op’s bulk aisleand call us ready to go. Of course I will pack their favorites, but my focus will be on ensuring that we all get the same kind of nutrition we achieve at home on the road. In fact, on my recent one-parent, two-child road trip to the Mississippi River, I was able to put my research to the test. Here is my extended Co-op shopping list for our trip:

My first stop at the Co-op was the produce aisle. Here I selected some of my children’s favorite veggies. I have picky eaters and I know they consistently like at least three veggies: green beans, broccoli and carrots. I also purchased some celery and the last of the season’s beauty heart radishes for myself. As a part of the packing the cooler process, I cut all of the vegetables into manageable and dipable pieces and stored them in food containers.

Selecting fruit was easy. During the time of my trip, not much local and in-season fruit was available so I stuck with the three big essentials: a bunch of bananas, a bag of pink lady apples, and some navel oranges. I also brought some kumquats as a treat for myself. Instead of prepping the fruit before the trip, I used the cutting board and knife during our stops to cut manageable pieces for the kids.

To go along with the veggies, I chose the red pepperhummus that the Co-op sells prepackaged near the deli. And if you have the time to make your own hummus before your departure, chef Angela suggests adding some chopped kale and/or spinach to a favorite hummus recipe—this can be a great way to add some green to your traveling diet. Let’s face it, when is the last time you saw kale served within a mile of any interstate exit?

Another way to supplement greens is via beverage. The Co-op Juice Bar offers many options including a vast array of tasty green juices. Before your trip, bring in your own beverage container to the juice bar and a knowledgeable Juice Bar server can juice up some nutrient-packed infusion to help keep you focused and energetic on the road. Or, if you are out for a long road trip and concerned about spoilage, pick up a bottle of R.W. Knudson’s Mega Green. It was easy to ply the kids, or other traveling companion, with this tasty green drink.

In the bulk aisle, I like to pull together our own custom made trail mix. I filled up several of my home-brought containers with our favorite bulk items: cashews, walnuts, pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, cranberries, raisins, cherries and dates rolled in oat flour. Once home, I mixed all of these items together and put it all into a large sealed container along with three snack cups for serving each child and myself. This trail mix can be tailored to meet your liking and dietary needs or restrictions. Within the bulk aisle of the Co-op is the Willy Pack section full of an array of dried fruits like mango, bananas, and papaya, as well as assorted types of one of our family’s favorite snacks: “chunks of energy.” The Willy Pack section is a perfect area of the Co-op to shop for road trip snacks.

PB&J sandwiches are a favorite part of many a road trip meal. As a variation, I brought bagels and filled a pint-sized mason jar full of peanut butter from the bulk aisle. My family loves the sesame seed Gotham bagels, and as a treat for ourselves, we share one of these every Saturday morning. But for this road trip, I opted to bring a bag of whole wheat Bagels Forever Bagels. These are pre-cut, a bit smaller, and the perfect vehicle for some terrific freshly ground peanut butter. I myself choose not to eat gluten, so I spread my peanut butter on a Lundberg Honey Nut Rice Cake with sliced bananas atop. Yum! And if you are allergic to tree nuts, the Co-op offers an array of other nut and seed butters. Consider hemp butter or tahini (bothare kept in the upright cooler in the bulk aisle) as excellent substitutes.

Crackers and Snacks
My kids love crackers, so we brought two kinds: Mary’s Gone Crackers, and Potter’s Crackers. Mary’s Gone Crackers are gluten-free, which I enjoy and the kids love, too. Potter’s Crackers come in a variety of tasty flavors and are made locally. If you eat dairy and/or meat, another option is to bring some summer sausage and a block of cheese. The cutting board will come in handy in making some cracker, sausage and cheese mini sandwiches for your traveling companions.

Another great carbohydrate snack is pretzels. The Co-op sells Newman’s Own brand in a variety of shapes and Glutino makes a tasty, gluten-free pretzel. The Co-op also sells their own baked goods including banana bread and, my favorite, Nothin’ Muffins. If you have the time and energy, you can bring along a homemade yummy baked treat such as pumpkin bread like Co-op Owner Erika does for her family. This is the perfect reminder of home when you are on the road.

Prepackaged foods
Along the lines of prepackaged foods, I also bought some Kind bars and Lara bars which are an easily portable way to combine a healthy boost of fruits and nuts. I put a few of these and an apple in my pockets before we headed into a several-hours-long museum visit. These were a great alternative snack to the overpriced and energy-poor food available at the museum food cafeteria.

Secret Stash
And lastly, for myself, I brought a cherished and well-hidden Green and Blacks 70% cacao dark chocolate bar. I saved this just for myself during the moments when everyone was losing his or her cool. I had to muffle the sound of the wrapper opening, but it was just what I needed to lighten my mood and make parenting manageable.

Now I am a believer that eating in local restaurants, cafes and food carts is the perfect way to round a travel experience, but during our trip, I was happy to have packed my own food because when it came down to it, the eating establishments we ran into in our destination town were in desperate need of interesting and decent nutritious foods. I discovered this at a moment when I decided to take a last lunch stop before heading back home. We were all a bit tired and cranky after our long morning at the museum. It was cold and rainy and I wasn’t in the mood to seek out a city park’s picnic table and set up shop for my already wiped out children. So I drove around and asked some natives for a good lunch spot. We were pointed in the direction of the “Sunshine Family Restaurant.” Let me tell you the sun was not shining in this establishment made evident by the fact that there was nary a fruit or vegetable on the menu or a smiling face up in that joint. So just as fast as we entered, we exited, and went back out to our car in the parking lot. I hoisted both kids, and myself in to the way back of our car amongst the cooler and bags and shut the hatch to shelter up from the slanting rain and wind. The three of us warmed up with our own twist on the classic PB&J that Shawnee’s parents used to serve. This was the perfect way to spend the last meal of our trip together and is one of the many seedlings of our own family’s road trip memories.