Parenting Hack: How to Pack Car Meals So You Can Skip the Drive-Thru

Jul 28, 2016

It’s easy to tuck a bunch of snacks into the car, but when you’re heading out on long road trips, packing a proper meal can save you from a dinner of nibbling, give the kids something to do, and save time and money as you’ll be prepared to avoid the drive-thru. Whether you’re heading to the cottage, visiting relatives or have a camping trip planned, DIY dinner kits are the road food version of TV dinners, only you get to choose what’s inside.


Waffles cut into strips, packed into a container with a small container of yogurt and blueberries.

  • Little boxes of cereal are fun, but not structurally sound — you can make your own using lidded plastic bowls, and pack a thermos of milk (or a container in the cooler). This kind of breakfast is best if you pull over, but even if you buy a big box and pack a stack of bowls and spoons, you can all eat for less than the price of a coffee.
  • Pancakes and waffles travel well, if you skip the syrup. Spread pancakes with peanut butter and wrap around a banana, or cut waffles into strips (they’re chewy and don’t produce many crumbs) and pack with berries and a small container of yogurt for dipping.
  • Granola parfaits are the thing at coffee shops and other take-out eateries, but can be expensive. Make (or buy) your own granola, then pack in snack-sized zip-lock bags with individual servings of yogurt. Let everyone add the granola (and a handful of berries, if you like) to their yogurt when they’re ready to eat, so it doesn’t go soggy.

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  • Grilled cheese is perfectly delicious cold, and holds together well; cut them into fingers, and save extra packets of ketchup for squirting on top.
  • DIY Lunchables will keep kids occupied assembling little cracker stacks, sandwiches or tacos in the back seat — pack sliced ham or roasted chicken, grated or sliced cheese, halved cherry tomatoes, lettuce leaves, or whatever else they’d like.
  • Bagels & schmear are suitable any time of day; pack mini bagels and a tub of cream cheese — add smoked salmon or stir tasty things into the cream cheese to make it more interesting. Add plastic knives for kids to make their own.
  • Grainy salads travel exceptionally well; try a base of barley, quinoa, wheatberries, lentils or other legumes, or chunky pasta like rotini or penne. Young kids might just like the plain pasta to eat with their fingers — try a whole grain variety, or some made with legumes for added fibre and protein. Add veggies, chunks of leftover chicken or hard-boiled eggs, cubed or grated cheese and dressing to the rest for the grownups to eat.
  • Salads in jars provide an option if you want greens (but not soggy ones). Use an old jam jar or one you’d recycle anyway, pour dressing in the bottom, top with greens and whatever salad ingredients you like, top with a lid and tape a fork to the side. When you’re ready to eat, turn it upside down and shake to dress your salad, then eat from the jar and toss in the nearest recycling bin.

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A plate of meat and cheese and bread.

  • Cheese and charcuterie makes for perfect road food — pack a bento box with sliced salamis, pepperoni sticks and other cured meats, bite-sized cheeses, olives, dried fruit, crackers and breadsticks — anything you’d put out on a charcuterie board works. This is also a great idea while you’re traveling — stop by cheese and butcher shops in the towns you’re traveling through to stock up on local offerings.
  • Sushi is easy to eat with your fingers or you can pack a pair of chopsticks. Make your own or pick up a package to distribute between everyone’s dinner boxes.
  • Sliders can be assembled on the road using grilled sausage, leftover roasted meat, veggie patties, leftover pulled pork, cheese, greens — anything you can stuff inside a bun. Pack soft dinner rolls for filling with ingredients and eating out of hand. Bonus: their small size makes them easy for kids to handle; teenagers and adults can eat more based on their appetites.
Article Author Julie Van Rosendaal
Julie Van Rosendaal

Read more from Julie here.

Julie Van Rosendaal is the author of six best-selling cookbooks (with a seventh due out this fall), the food editor of Parents Canada magazine and the food and nutrition columnist on the Calgary Eyeopener on CBC Radio One. She is a recipe developer, TV personality, food stylist and writes about food for local, national and international publications. She is perhaps best known as the voice behind her popular food blog, Dinner with Julie, where she documents real life at home in Calgary with her husband and nine-year-old son. Connect on twitter @dinnerwithjulie.


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