The Struggling Student Rants—The Best Food to Pack for Road Trips

The Struggling Student Rants—The Best Food to Pack for Road Trips

Spring is in the air, summer is just around the corner, traditional students are nearing the end of their semesters (not us AU die-hards, obviously), and everyone is dreaming about warm, lazy sunsets and BBQs.  But for those of us at AU who were not lucky enough to have escaped this past winter, wanderlust is now taking over.  Now that the long, dark, frigid nights are behind us, we get to roll down our windows, crank up our playlists, and hit the highway.  And what better way to watch our savings from working hard all winter disappear, than a cross-country road trip?  Some expenses will be necessary.  Eating is considered essential, for example, there is no negotiation there.  I hate to be the one to burst the bubble, but, with food costs on the rise, it’s hard to not go over the budget in this category.

Most people will just accept this as fact and think there’s not much anyone can do about this.  People have to eat–I won’t argue there.  I will point out, however, that we can control what, when, and where we eat.  I also realize that when we go on holidays we look forward to the luxury of having no meals to plan and prep for, and no dishes to clean up.  We also look forward to all the greasy diners along the way and the niche, eclectic eateries once we get to our destination.  I am by no means opposed to some well-deserved rest and relaxation.  We’re all humans after all, and without pauses in our pursuits, we can wear out.  The result can be a toll on our mental and physical health, and it can seem impossible to keep going without burning out.  I will, though, remind us all of the importance of our financial goals–whether that’s becoming debt-free, saving for retirement, paying for your AU tuition, or even something as simple as paying cash for that new washer and dryer our household needs.  And if you think eating out while on holidays won’t get us any of these things, I invite you to do the math for your own family vacation.  For myself and my spouse, a $50.00 meal allowance per day, for one week, equals $700.00–that’s 3 AU credits right there, paid in full.

That greasy diner may be calling our name, but our wallets and guts will thank us for resisting the temptation.  We can still survive a fifteen-hour road trip, with plenty of pit stops for sightseeing, and plenty of delicious and healthy snacks along the way.  Some easy-to-make, popular snacks include popcorn, protein bars, trail mixes, and string cheese.  We can also fill up bags and coolers with pre-made grocery store snacks.  This will save us more than just a couple bucks, but there are plenty of other fun and frugal options out there to consider as well.

Fruit and Veggies

Most road trip snacking is born out of boredom.  The first hour of the road trip can be exciting: exiting the hustle and bustle of the city; trying to get comfortable; picking the right playlist; adjusting the temperature so everyone is happy; you know the drill.  After that first hour, though, the passengers start to fall asleep, the driver gets annoyed, the kids get restless, and soon we hear the usual, “Are we there yet?” echoing from the back seat.  So, passengers and driver alike start to snack without realizing it, and before we know it, a family-sized bag of Doritos is gone, our jeans’ zipper is open, and there’s a thick coating of orange cheese glued to our fingers and anything we touch.  Plus, with all those carbs, we now need a nap at 9:00 a.m.  Veggies can solve most of these problems.  It doesn’t have to be the usual carrots and dip, unless we want it to be, of course.  I have learnt to fill up a Ziploc bag with cauliflower and broccoli florets and go to town.  Tip: Costco now has Kraft KD cheese mix in a bottle–sprinkle on top, and enjoy!  We can do the same with baby carrots, snap peas, celery sticks, radishes, and anything else that comes to mind.  Stick with veggies that aren’t messy though, not those juicy peaches from the farmer’s market.  Because Murphy’s Law says that if the kids insist on those fresh cherries, there is a one hundred percent statistical probability they, and the entire back seat area, will be covered in red cherry juice.

On a side note, if we’re not a big fan of veggies, we can trick our brain into thinking they’re great.  There are single serve Tupperware containers we can fill up with ranch, guacamole, hummus, or a mayo and ketchup combo (trust me on this one).  We can also choose some dried fruit pieces as a great snacking option but look for those with the least amount of additives, such as sugar, flavour, colouring, and preservatives.  We can also make our own a few days ahead of time.


All our hard work at the gym this past winter does not need to be sacrificed to the carb gods during our road trip.  Bad, or low-quality carbs, will make us feel hungry almost immediately after consumption, and we’ll be looking to open the next bag of potato chips before we even make it to the next exit!  The key to satiation is protein.  Not all protein sources come from chalky-tasting, dry, brick-like bars.  There are some great-tasting, all-natural, protein-rich options out there, that I prefer.  Eggs are my numero uno go-to–boiled, egg salad, deviled, try experimenting.  Greek yoghurt is also a good place to start.  Buy a big tub, portion it into single-serve containers, sprinkle some walnuts and honey, and store it in the cooler to enjoy along the ride.  For an extra protein boost, try adding almonds to the yoghurt, instead of walnuts.  And if you aren’t a big fan of yoghurt, just portion off little Ziploc bags of 15-20 almonds, with or without pre-popped popcorn, and snack away (almost) guilt-free.  Most nuts are high in fat, however, so don’t go too overboard on these.  Roasted chickpeas are another great protein source.  They’re sold in bulk at Superstore and Bulk Barn, salted or unsalted, or at Costco in large family-sized bags, with a variety of flavours to choose from.


Finally, if we have to satisfy that sweet tooth, there are frugal and healthy ways to get around this.  There’s nothing to feel guilty about, we all need something sweet as a pick-me-up between lunch and dinner.  Instead of grabbing the usual chocolate bar from the gas station (guilty), don’t give up entirely on the idea of protein bars.  Most supplement stores have samples to try before you buy.  If they don’t have any displayed on their counters, there’s no shame in asking, I’m sure they prefer your business over opening up one protein bar.  Plus, Mars launched their protein-enriched chocolate bars–yes, you read that right!   Mars, Snickers, and Bounty protein-packed bars have approximately the same calories, less fat, and triple the protein of a regular candy bar, and they taste amazing!  Popeye’s, Amazon, and many supplement and health-food stores offer them, in single bars and bulk-packs.  They are a bit pricier than your dollar-store candy bar, and I get the irony of this being mentioned in a column urging smart spending habits; however, your health is non-negotiable.

Another choice for something cheap and sweet, if there are no health concerns, is dollar-store junk food.  Local dollar stores usually carry any type of snack and junk food item out there, and even more.  Most times it will be a knock-off brand but at a fraction of the price.  Fill up the cart with cookies, candy bars, and gum, but also consider some graham crackers, apple sauce, and Jell-O cups as a better alternative to plain old jujubes and KitKats.  Finally, if there’s any free time before the trip, we can also whip up some homemade goodies too–some of which can also substitute for breakfast-on-the-go and save us an extra $10-$15 per person.  It all adds up!  Classics, like low-sugar muffins, scones, cookies, brownies, and bacon-n-egg cups can be portioned and kept in the cooler.  Serve the bacon-n-egg cups with ketchup packets and crackers and enjoy!

Boxes and Bags

The last thing on the list, that can help save some cash, is the packaging.  Plastic take-out containers are great for the road–they’re light, they stack well, and they’re disposable.  Another bonus is that if we lose or break one it’s not the end of the world.  If we’re going to use disposable cutlery, save all the cutlery that gets tossed in the paper bag at the drive-thru.  I put all that cutlery in a dedicated tin can in our junk drawer, and when we hit the road it’s ready to go.  We can also find reusable plastic utensils and food containers at the dollar store to bring back home with us.  At a dollar a piece, we won’t care if they break, and they won’t break the bank.  Finally, don’t forget the accoutrements!  It’s never a bad idea to have a roll of paper towels, some baby wipes, and some hand sanitizer in the car within easy reach.  Again, these are all available on the cheap at the local dollar store, versus having to dish out triple that amount at the first gas station we pull up to.  Especially, if we gave in, let the kids take those cherries along for a snack, and now we have fruit juice dripping down the back windows.

This summer, make sure to unwind and relax from all the hustle and bustle of the daily grind, but above all, make sure your road trips don’t derail you from your vision and long-term financial goals.  Happy travels everyone and stay frugal and safe.

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