5 ways to eat cheap on a road trip

Ah, the road trip diet. Coke, Cheetos and fast food. Why do we so often discount eating healthily when we travel? Is it because when we’re away from home we think we can’t afford or don’t have time to find real food? I’m hungry pretty often. Like, six or seven times a day. And when I get hungry, I get angry, or hangry. If this happens to you, you know this isn’t good, because you tend to be mean to people, lose your sense of direction, and generally start to wonder why you left home in the first place. You might even start fantasizing about curling up in the fetal position in the back of your car with a cheeseburger. Let’s not go there.

A big part of planning and budgeting for a road trip means knowing ahead of time what you’re going to be eating.

This is what I’ve learned so far. Drive thru’s are out, unless you want to bring your camcorder and remake a crappy version of Super Size Me, and gas station snacks are great if you plan to get diabetes before your next birthday. A very smart personal finance blogger told me to start with the grocery store to spend frugally on food. Other smart options, as I’ve learned from other great sources, include farmers’ markets, fresh food stalls and, of course, home made meals when you can get them. If I’m frugal and plan ahead, I think I can have both a balanced budget and diet and keep my spending on food to about $10/day.

Cooler of food

This all may be a very nice idea that will go out the window once I’m actually on the road, but it’s better to scrap a plan than to not have one (or as Muhammad Ali Jinnah said, expect the best, prepare for the worst.) So, here are my top five ways to eat cheap on a road trip:

1. Bring a cooler, stainless steel water bottle, some plastic containers and reusable plate, cup, and utensils. (Also, hand wipes.) If you’ve got your cooler stocked with items that won’t go bad in less than 24 hours, you can have your meals with you and ready to eat as soon as the first hunger pang strikes. Stock your cooler with items like: fresh fruit (apples, bananas, cherries, peaches, anything in season, and, ideally, local), fresh veggies (celery, cucumber, kale, spinach) nuts and seeds (buy in bulk), nut butter, tortilla wraps, some nice cheese, jam, granola, rice milk or almond milk. Wraps with banana and nut butter or cheese and spinach are good anytime, as is a bowl of granola.

2. Buy filling, healthy food and snacks in bulk at grocery stores. Keep nuts, plain popcorn, unsweetened yogurt, crackers and cheese, and energy bars within arm’s reach to keep you going on the road.

3. Drink water instead of pop or juice. Bring a stainless steel water bottle you can refill along the way for free at info centres, gas stations or coffee shops.  (For those who are undeniably addicted to Starbucks or Redbull, I have no advice, other than to suggest you consider cutting back or making sure you have a caffeine fund as a separate column in your travel budget. Coffee ads up!)

4. Look out for crazy cheap deals on breakfast or lunch at small-town diners. Just ask where the seniors are hanging out and where the locals eat. Many places have breakfast specials for a good, hearty lumberjack breakfast for ridiculous prices like $3 all-in. (Besides, if you want the real cultural experience, is there anything more Canadian than pancakes and maple syrup?)

5. Save restaurant leftovers for another meal. If you find yourself tempted by good menu or an interesting type of restaurant, get your server to pack up any leftovers (this especially applies if you’re in the U.S. where portion sizes are massive) and save them for your next meal.

**Bonus tip: visit Sikh temples for Langar – when food is served and all are welcome. There is no charge to be fed, but don’t expect a menu and be respectful of the Gurdwara (temple) rules. (Head covered, shoes off, etc.)


Now, if you’re more interested in how to eat WELL on a road trip, rather than just eating frugally on a road trip, you might want to check out FEAST: An Edible Road Trip, in which two women are currently travelling, just like me, across Canada west-east, and finding the very best of Canadian cuisine.


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