Road Trip Food: What to eat, What to Pack, and How to Save Money

Everything you want to know about eating on a road trip.

Everybody knows that road trip food has no calories, and you can eat all the snacks and frosty treats you want.

Okay, maybe that’s not really true, and you should plan on eating some fresh fruit and other healthy road trip snacks.

But what is true is that food is an important part of the road tripping experience, and traveling for food is an increasing driver (pun intended) of itinerary planning. According to Destination Analysts, more than twenty percent of American travelers self-describe as being “passionate” about food and cuisine.

The only issue, especially if you’re taking a road trip on a budget, is that food can get pricey. Want to know how to spend a lot on your road trip? Eat every day.

That’ll rack up faster than you can say “Feed me, Seymour!”

Since you do actually have to eat, here are some ways you can keep your expenses lean while filling your belly, even if you’re taking a long road trip. This includes a mix of BYO and finding ways to save on local cuisine.

This is just one section from the comprehensive COMPLETE Road Trip Guide (for grown-ups):

Complete Road Trip Guide for grown-ups

COMPLETE ROAD TRIP GUIDE

(FOR GROWN-UPS)

Are road trips in your travel plans? Lucky you! Planning a road trip is exciting. The freedom. The anticipation. The lure of adventure. It’s all part of the experience.

What shouldn’t be part of the experience? Stress! The COMPLETE Road Trip Guide (for grown-ups) will make planning your perfect road trip adventure easy, whether you’re going away for a weekend or taking a much longer getaway.

Best Road Trip Foods

First we’ll explore many ways you can save on food during your road trip, and then I’ve provided several suggestions for snacks, foods to pack, and easy meals that you can make while you’re on the road.

Breaded tenderloin at Oasis Diner in Hendricks County Indiana is some of the tastiest road trip food

There may be affiliate links in this post, which means we may get a small commission. It’s at no extra cost to you and helps keep TLT free. Everybody wins!

How to save money on road trip food

After a few epic road trips, I’ve learned how to save money on food without going hungry.

It’s possible to eat well without sacrificing because you’re watching your budget.

Don’t buy bottled water.

DON’T DO IT. I know it’s convenient, but a) those bottles take up a LOT of space, b) they’re expensive, and c) they’re horrible for the environment.

Keep a gallon (or more) container of water in the car. Start the trip with a frozen gallon of water in the cooler and you’ve got an efficient, space-saving way to keep your food chilled while simultaneously storing extra water.

Refillable Water Bottles

Bring refillable water bottles. You’ll save a ton of money and the environment. I particularly like double-walled stainless steel insulated bottles. These keep cold drinks cold and hot drinks hot.

Do not eat fast food.

Seriously. Or at least really really try to avoid it. Two combo meals at McDonald’s can be around $17 – $18.

Do that every day, one meal a day, and after a week you’ve spent over $100 on food that doesn’t sit well with your stomach, your waistline, or your wallet.

It adds up quickly.

To put that into perspective, a National Parks Access Pass is $80 for the year. You could get into every National Park for an entire year for less than it would cost you to eat a Big Mac every day for a week.

BYO Snacks

If you’ve ever bought chips at a gas station, you know how pricey they are. Plus, even though road trip snacks have no calories, it’s still not a good idea to live on Fritos and Pringles (don’t tell my husband I said that).

Pack your own snacks and you can stave off any hangry episodes as well as save some money.

For our epic road trips, I make a bucket of trail mix and throw in a couple of individual serving containers so we can eat while on the road. We also have containers of grapes, string cheese, apples, and other healthy snacks.

Use a good cooler

A good cooler can mean the difference between shopping for groceries every other day while you’re on the road and the ability to stock up before you leave.

Our Coleman Xtreme has served us well. We camped on our honeymoon in 90-degree heat, and on day three the frozen chicken broth I’d packed was still frozen.

On another trip, our brats took four days to thaw. It was neat eating sausages from Wisconsin while camping in Badlands National Park in South Dakota.

Since you won’t have to search for stores as often, you can spend more time exploring. Plus, especially if you’re visiting popular tourist destinations, groceries can be more expensive on the road.

Use a second, smaller cooler for drinks

The more frequently you open a cooler, the faster the ice will melt. By putting your daily drinks and food items in a smaller cooler with ice packs, you’ll keep the rest of your food colder, longer.

BYO Lunch

It’s a good idea to stop at least every couple of hours on a road trip, if not more frequently. Make one of those stops your lunch break. We packed wraps, nut butters, lunch meat, fruit, vegetables, hummus, salsa, and salad.

TLTip: Tortillas, pitas, and wraps pack better than a loaf of bread because they’re already flat.

Picnic at a Rest Stop

Rest Areas aren’t just for using the restroom. They’re meant for resting, too. Many of them have picnic tables and some even have grills, although you’ll have to bring your own charcoal.

Cook some of your meals

If you’re camping, you’ll presumably be cooking many of your meals. However, you don’t need to camp to cook on the road. You can stay in hotels with kitchenettes. You can also cook at rest areas and parks. To do so, you’ll need some basic equipment:

  • Propane stove – we have the basic Coleman two-burner
  • Cutting board and sheathed knife (great for DIY cheese and charcuterie)
  • Reusable utensils (fork, knife, spoon)
  • Reusable plates and bowls
  • Iron skillet or versatile pot/pan
  • Spices and seasonings – pick a few of your favorites and put them in small containers
  • Collapsible bowl, sponge, towel, and dishwashing detergent

Skip coffee shops

I’m a coffee drinker. I need my coffee every morning. What I don’t need is to spend $5 every morning on a cup of my daily fix.

If you’re not staying in a hotel with a coffee maker, or if you don’t like their coffee or are camping, bring your own coffee, a French Press, and a kettle to easily boil hot water.  I’ve got a French Press from REI that is just right.

French press in Badlands National Park South Dakota
Have French Press, will travel.

If you’re a tea drinker who prefers loose leaf, like my tea-snob husband, get a collapsible tea strainer or individual bags that you can fill yourself. TLTip: those bags work for coffee, too.

Pack a growler

If you like beer, bring a growler. Visiting local breweries is one of my favorite ways to learn about a place. Not only do I get to try new beers, but I also get to meet the locals.

You can bring a glass growler, or my personal favorite is the uKeg from GrowlerWerks. It’s pressurized, so you can fill it in Deadwood, South Dakota, and have a delicious, still carbonated beer at Devils Tower, Wyoming.

Get grocery discount cards.

Check into the grocery store chains where you’ll be and see if they have discount cards. It’s often worth the five minutes (or less) it takes to sign up. Some of them will have gas stations, too.

Eat out at lunch.

If there’s a restaurant you want to check out that’s open for lunch, it’s usually cheaper than it would be at dinner.

Eat where the locals eat.

Locals know the best places, and they also know which are overpriced and which are reasonable. Ask them where they go out to eat.

Church Street Cafe in Old Town Albuquerque
Church Street Café in Old Town Albuquerque came highly recommended by a local.

Eat local.

Instead of eating at a chain restaurant, find a local spot. Not only will you get an experience unique to that destination, but you’ll also be supporting the local economy.

Find Happy Hours.

Happy Hours aren’t just for cocktails. Many have discounted appetizers and small plates. Check local publications to see if there are listings, or if there’s a restaurant or bar you know you want to visit, check its website or call ahead.

Plan meals so you won’t have leftovers.

When you do eat out, servings can be HUGE. Leftovers can be a challenge to store and reheat, so consider sharing meals if you’re traveling with others or stick with the appetizer or salad menu.

Chili made over the campfire

Plan meals so you will have leftovers.

If I’m cooking my meals, I try to make extra for dinner and plan the next day’s lunch around it. I pack foods that work well together. For example, if I make chili over the campfire, there will be either chili dogs or a salad with chili for lunch the next day.

If I’m eating out, a great way to be frugal is to consider what would reheat well the next day for breakfast or lunch.

Stay in hotels with free breakfast.

Staying at hotels and motels that provide free breakfast cuts out the expenses of the most important meal of the day. When you’re on a long journey, that savings will add up.

Breakfast spread at Hampton Inn in Janesville Wisconsin
Impressive spread at Hampton Inn in Janesville, Wisconsin

Just be sure that you’re not paying an extra cost for that hotel than you would if you stayed at another one and either got breakfast at a restaurant or made your own.

Stay in hotels with kitchens.

Kitchenette at Staybridge Suites in Hendricks County Indiana
The kitchenette at Staybridge Suites in Hendricks County Indiana

If you’re staying in one spot for a few days, getting a hotel with a kitchenette is convenient and can save money on eating out.

Most of the time these suites will consist of a refrigerator and freezer, a microwave, and a stovetop. They’ll also have pots, pans, and all the utensils.

Use Restaurant.com

Restaurant.com sells certificates at a discounted rate. For example, you can get a $10 certificate for just $4.

There are restrictions, of course. There’s almost always a minimum purchase required and they’re usually for dine-in only. They’re often restricted on the weekends, too, so make sure you read the fine print.

Ultimate road trip food list

Need some fresh ideas for your road trip snacks and easy road trip meals? Start with these.

Best road trip snacks for the car

Go beyond potato chips and Twizzlers with these ideas. Snacks are more than just something to keep you occupied while driving; they also keep your blood sugar at an even level.

  • Grapes
  • Bananas
  • Apples
  • Blueberries
  • Raspberries
  • Strawberries
  • Blackberries
  • Oranges
    peeled in advance; you don’t want to peel an orange in the car
  • Nuts and seeds
  • Granola
  • Trail mix
    make a big batch with nuts and dried fruit of your choice
  • Celery
  • Peppers
  • Cucumbers
  • Carrots
  • Pita bread
    cut into wedges
  • Hummus
    use a small container that fits in the cup holder
  • Guacamole – same
  • String cheese
  • Baby Bels
  • Fruit leather
  • Roasted chickpeas
  • Jerky
  • Popcorn
  • Protein bars
  • Protein balls
  • Peanut butter-filled pretzels
  • Coconut chips
  • Vegetable chips
  • Multi-grain crackers

Best food to pack for easy meals on the road.

Pack these ingredients and pre-made dishes for lots of variety in your breakfasts, lunches, and dinners, even if you’re taking a long trip. Lots of these items can be kept at room temperature.

  • Dry cereal
  • Instant oatmeal
  • Milk
    cow or plant-based
  • Breakfast cookies
  • Breakfast bars
  • Granola Bars
  • Muffins
  • Raw eggs
    store in plastic shell or crack into a jar
  • Wraps
    flatbreads or tortilla wraps don’t get squished
  • Pita bread – same
  • Hard boiled eggs
  • Yogurt
  • Small containers of mayonnaise and mustard (or whatever condiments you choose)
  • Nut butters
  • Pumpkin seeds
  • Sunflower seeds
  • Dark chocolate chips
  • Dried fruit
  • Lunchmeat
  • Sliced cheese
  • Pickles
  • Salsa
    great with chips or as a salad dressing
  • Bagged salads
  • Applesauce cups
  • Romaine lettuce
    washed and stacked with damp paper towels (less bulky than iceberg)
  • Tuna
    canned or in pouches
  • Canned salmon
  • Canned chicken
  • Pasta or potato salads
  • Cole slaw
  • Cherry tomatoes
  • Grape tomatoes
  • Bell peppers
  • Canned beans
  • Canned soup
  • Ramen soup
  • Olive oil
  • Coconut oil*

*The last two will help you get some healthy fats into your diet while you’re on the road.

Easy road trip meal ideas

If you pack the right ingredients, you can make your own food on the road. You’ll want to make some of these easy meals in advance.

I like to make ahead meals I know will freeze well and will heat them on my propane stove, or in my hotel microwave/kitchenette. There are some tasty road trip breakfast ideas plus lots of healthy options for lunch and dinner.

  • Breakfast burritos
  • Breakfast sandwiches
  • Egg muffin cups
  • Bagels with cream cheese or nut butters
  • Yogurt, fruit, and granola parfait
  • Cereal with fruit
  • Salads – bagged salads with canned chicken, lunchmeat, or beans are easy
  • Rotisserie chicken – great for multiple meals
  • Tuna salad
  • Chicken salad
  • Sandwiches
  • Wraps
  • Fresh vegetables with hummus
  • Cheese, charcuterie, fruit, and crackers
  • Roll-ups and pinwheels
  • Quinoa salad with beans, diced vegetables, and dried fruit
  • BLT – pack pre-cooked bacon
  • Burgers – bring pre-formed patties
  • Rice with vegetables and meat (or beans)
  • Baked beans
  • Burritos
  • Chili
  • Tacos

I hope these road trip foods gave you ideas for what to eat on your next road trip.