Road Food Blues: How to Avoid Them on Family Vacations

If you’re a family hankering for a healthier roadside meal, follow the truckers.


When I was pregnant with my daughter, I ate nothing but macaroni and cheese and Taco Bell. I was working in a Huge Multinational Corporation at the time, and three o’clock most afternoons found me making a run for the border.

I remember answering the phone one afternoon with a mouthful of burrito and realizing that I was, indeed, disgusting.

Then I finished the burrito.

So I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that my daughter is a junk-food junkie. Wave a french fry in her general direction, and you can get her to do just about anything. In fact, I’m pretty sure that if you did a scientific analysis of her body, you’d find that she is made up almost entirely of high-fructose corn syrup.

After all, she is very sweet.


This obsessive desire for deep-fried potato products—a trait she shares with both her parents—makes it remarkably easy to travel with her. I can be sure that she’ll eat at least one thing at most roadside restaurants and rest stops.

And while I was never that mom—the one who made her own baby food from just-picked produce grown in the backyard garden using only organic compost—I cringe at the site of my daughter chowing down on her fifth order of fries in two days.

For me, there is no solution to the road-food dilemma because nary a vegetable will pass my child’s rosebud lips.

But for you, you lucky souls whose offspring will eat food that is not passed through a vat of trans-fat, there are ways to fend off the road-food blues, for both the grown-ups and the kiddies. Because when you’ve been trapped in the backseat of a minivan watching “The Little Mermaid” DVD for 12 straight hours, you just really don’t want to eat yet another flattened cheeseburger wrapped in greasy paper.

*** We interrupt this column with an important public service announcement—The New York State Thruway is littered with rest stops serving flattened cheeseburgers wrapped in greasy paper! We repeat, flattened cheeseburgers wrapped in greasy paper! Avoid the New York State Thruway at all costs! We now return to our regularly scheduled programming. ****

One key ingredient to good road food is your own willingness to be adventuresome. Sadly, I am shackled to two of the pickiest humans walking the earth, so my forays off the beaten path are limited. And, to be totally honest, I’ll take that burrito over a four-star seafood dinner any day.

But the foodies on Chowhound may have inspired me to take a different tack next time the choice is between Burger King and that local truck stop.

One Chowhounder named Cathy responded to my plea for help with this excellent bit of advice: “In more than 21 years of cross-country driving, we have found that truckers stop where [the food] is good and don’t stop where it isn’t. If there are more than three trucks, we stop and have never been disappointed. I am talking mom-and-pop places, not a major truck stop/fueling area.

“One time west of Omaha, we spotted seven trucks [in a restaurant’s parking lot]. The aroma of hot baked fruit pies coming out of the oven [hit us] as we walked in. The place had the best burger ever. Fresh, good coffee, too.”

You know, Omaha ain’t too far from these here parts. I might have to go get me some fresh, hot pie.

Other Chowhound tips I picked up are:

  • Ask other people who may have traveled the same route to make recommendations.
  • When you stop for gas and/or bathroom breaks, ask locals where to eat.
  • Be willing to take a chance on local delicacies, such as barbecue in North Carolina or that run-down but packed clam shack in Maine.

Oh, and Diane in Bexley offers this: “Hey, what’s the worst that can happen? Indigestion? Bring some Tums!”

Of course, as responsible (ahem) parents, you may also want to heed the recommendations of Jule Anne Henstenberg, professor of nutrition at La Salle University in Philadelphia. She says that when faced with an array of fast foods, stick to the rules you apply at home.

Henstenberg points out that most kids will eat what you give them, and that you should choose foods that are both age-appropriate and healthy. While that is challenging on the road, it can be done.

“A good choice would be a plain hamburger or chicken nuggets, apple slices and a milk,” she says, adding that you should take advantage of newer, healthier choices that most fast-food chains are offering these days.

She also says that if you are in a position to pull off the main road, look for coffee shops and delicatessens that typically offer more choices than your basic burger joint.

“There are all kinds of little funky places where you can get a grilled cheese,” Henstenberg says.

Sounds good to me. I have just one more question.

Can I get fries with that?

Themes: Family Travel

Activities: Eat

User Comments

Informative Article Created interest in the Road Food

great article love this piece - great writing, great humor. can you believe my child prefers mashed potatoes though???

RE:Grocery Stores Momvoyage, you are so right about that. So many places these days have really great (and really fresh and yummy) prepared food selections. Great idea!

Grocery stores Particularly those with a salad bar/prepared foods section and seating are also good bets since you have a bit more control over what you buy and they tend to be less expensive than sitdown restaurants, and you already have the To Go container if your kid acts out. We had a lot of picnic lunches on our recent long haul.

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