Healthy family road trip

A two-day drive and no fast food. Impossible, you say? Find out how one family (almost) did it

By Teresa Pitman
Healthy family road trip

Here’s the plan Me (the grandma), my daughter-in-law, Esmaralda, and three kids (Sebastian, seven; Callista, four; and Xavier, almost two) will drive from southern Ontario to Walt Disney World in Florida (and back again) without eating fast foods. That’s 2½ days of driving each way. We’ll shop at grocery stores, picnic in parks and rest areas along the way, and maybe fit in a sit-down restaurant or two if the money holds out. Our goal: to save money and stick to our family’s healthy eating goals. Did it work? Read on and see!

Day one

We left home after dinner the night before and picked a hotel that offered a free breakfast buffet — with the goal of saving time as well as money. Good choice: Sebastian and Callista have bagels with cream cheese and orange juice, and Callista adds scrambled eggs and bacon to her meal. Xavier tops off his bowl of Cheerios by peeling the foil off a mini peanut butter pack and licking it out.

Our next stop is a giant grocery store to get some food for the trip.

With those supplies, we create a mid-morning snack — yogurt and applesauce for all.

We’re using Along the Interstate 75 by Dave Hunter as a guidebook — it shows every rest stop, restaurant, gas station and hotel along the way. Unfortunately, when we reach the rest area where we intended to have a lunchtime picnic, it’s closed for renovations. Great. We stop at a Walmart instead, spread plastic wrap over the rear bumper of the van, and put together some sandwiches: whole wheat bread, butter, lettuce, ham. We also have a large bag of cut-up vegetables from the grocery store, which we divide into individual portions, along with small containers of dip. I don’t know why we bothered making sandwiches because only Sebastian eats his this way. The younger two immedi­ately take theirs apart and eat the buttered bread, lettuce and ham slices separately. Xavier actually eats only the bread and lettuce, decoratively draping the ham over his head. They all eat some of their veggies, although Sebastian decides, after one taste, he doesn’t like the dip.


After a couple of hours of driving, we have to stop for a bathroom break. The only option nearby is a fast-food burger joint. “Just because we’re going in doesn’t mean we’re eating here,” I warn them. But, boy, that greasy-salty-french-fry smell is hard to resist. We stay strong, though, and remind them we have snacks in the car.

Back in the car and naturally everyone wants that promised snack. We have apples, but the kids want them in slices, and I realize we forgot to pack a sharp knife. (Ever tried cutting up an apple with a plastic knife?) “Why are these apple slices so weird looking and lumpy?” Sebastian asks. We tell him to just eat them, and pass out granola bars as well.

At suppertime, we find a rest area — and this one is open! While the kids stretch their legs, we discover that our cooler is not really keeping things cold (the weather is getting warmer). Esmaralda decides to toss the rest of the ham, just in case. We make peanut butter and jam sandwiches and serve up the salad (also not as cool as we’d like) and more cut-up vegetables.

I try stabbing my salad greens with one of the plastic forks we’ve brought, without success. I give up and eat with my fingers. “Grandma’s a rabbit!” says Callista, delighted. “I wanna be a rabbit too.” They all decide to eat their salad with their fingers. No worries, we’ve packed plenty of wipes and napkins.

At our next stop for gas, I discover a treat I remember from previous trips: peanut-butter-filled pretzels, in a giant canister. These get handed out for a bedtime snack, and they’re a big hit (150 calories in 11 pretzels, five grams of protein and eight grams of fat — about the same as half a peanut butter sandwich).


Day two

We do breakfast at the next hotel, and Sebastian sticks to his bagel and cream cheese with OJ. Callista puts peanut butter on her half-bagel, has bacon again and adds a bowl of Raisin Bran washed down with OJ. Xavier opts for his usual Cheerios and milk, along with OJ and half a banana. Then into the van we go.

At snack time, we hand out more peanut butter pretzels, with apple slices (or apple “lumps,” as Sebastian describes my efforts) and raisins.

By lunchtime, it’s raining — hard. We stop in the parking lot of a Target store and eat in the van. Multi-grain tortilla chips, mild salsa and garlic hummus, with oranges for dessert. They like the food, but are getting fed up with being in the car. We run in to buy more vegetables — this time, broccoli, carrots and celery, plus some red peppers we plan to use at suppertime.

For snack, we hand out individual bags of cut-up veggies, plus more of those ever-popular peanut butter pretzels.


We make roll-up wraps with hummus, red pepper strips and salad greens for supper, but only Sebastian and the adults eat them. Xavier has some applesauce and yogurt. Callista wants more ham, but we threw that out several states ago. Esmaralda makes her another sandwich, and she says plaintively: “Is that all they have in the United States? Peanut butter and jam?” We hope we’re not warping her concept of American culinary traditions too much.

As we drive toward our next hotel, the kids are clearly restless. Since it’s still raining, we decide to stop at a McDonald’s play space to let them work off some energy.

And that’s where the no-fast-food plan breaks down. Callista, the ham-deprived carnivore, begs for a burger, and the boys want fries, so we order a Happy Meal with an extra order of french fries, and everyone is, in fact, happy.

Day three

We breakfast at a hotel again. Sebastian enjoys his reliable bagels and cream cheese; Callista has scrambled eggs, a bran muffin and half a bagel with peanut butter. Xavier goes for oatmeal this morning, with some peanut butter stirred in, and half a banana. Plus OJ all round.


Later that day we arrive at the townhouse we’ve rented for the week. While we visit theme parks each day, we make all our meals at the house. Since we have a stroller for Xavier anyway, it’s easy enough to prepare food in the morning, pack the cooler and tuck it in the bottom of the stroller. We supplement with a few treats — Popsicles and ice cream help us get through some very hot days! The drive back is much the same — although we do eat dinner at Cracker Barrel one night. It’s sort of semi-fast-food.

This kind of road trip and vacation requires a bit more effort for the adults, but for us it was worth it: We stayed within our budget, kept the kids fed with healthier foods, and managed it all without too many tears and complaints. And, yes, next time I’ll bring a real knife.

Tips for road trips

Preparation • A guidebook or map that lists rest areas and other picnic spots can help you plan your route. • If you’re crossing an international border, remember that you usually can’t bring fruits and veggies, so plan to stop at a grocery store once you’ve cleared customs.

What to bring • good cooler that fits in your car, plus smaller, more portable cooler that you can bring to theme parks and other outings • sharp knife for cutting fruit and vegetables • cutting board, plates or bowls, real forks, spoons, drink containers • plastic tablecloth to cover a picnic table or back of car for food prep • wipes and paper towels


Where to stop • Most US rest areas have washrooms, picnic tables and grassy areas where kids can run. Take advantage of these as much as possible! • Need an indoor spot? A mall can work — just walking (or skipping or running) from one end to the other burns off a little energy. • Fast-food restaurants have play areas for a reason — kids love them.

Bathroom breaks • While some restaurants have signs saying “washrooms are for customers only,” I’ve never had someone turn me away when I’ve shown up with a squirming child and asked politely. • Most hotels have washrooms near the front lobby — just go to the reception desk and ask. Large department stores and supermarkets also usually have easily accessible washrooms. • Gas station washrooms are unpredictable. If the washroom’s disgusting, but your daughter has to go, bring out the plastic wrap and cover the parts of the seat she’ll be touching. • No other choice but a fast-food restaurant? Before you go in, discuss the plan — whether you will buy something small or just use the facilities.

Getting kids on board • Talk about how too many fries and nuggets make them feel sluggish and sometimes upset their tummies — you want them to be able to enjoy every minute of the vacation, and eating well helps. • Don’t be too rigid — there’s room for some treats and splurges even when your overall goal is healthy eating.

This article was originally published on Oct 05, 2009

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