While doing the Harry Potter thing at Universal Orlando two weeks ago, we spotted a Ben & Jerry’s ice cream kiosk. Score! Real ice cream amid the hyperprocessed powder-based soft serve that dominates the park. Except it turned out the Ben & Jerry’s was soft serve, too. I had no idea there was such a thing, but I was hopeful the ingredients might be better than average. Then I asked the counter girl for the list and she didn’t have it. I gambled and ordered Tess the plain chocolate anyway*, commenting that I’d just assume it had good ingredients. “Aw, you’re on vacation!” the ice cream girl said. “That doesn’t matter!”
Ugh. Do you hate that kind of reasoning (rationalizing) as much as I do?
Then read on. Because we just spent 16 days traveling almost 3,400 miles, in nine states, and we managed to eat great. It does matter. For our health and our kids’ health. And for our well-being, too. Who wants to feel awful on vacation? And it doesn’t have to be hard! Whether you’re traveling by highway or back road, there is real food to be found, for eating out or stocking up. Often it’s within just miles of the fast food, gas stations and vending machines that seem like the only options.
Sure, it takes some research and flexibility, and a little creativity, but I think it’s worth it. And hopefully you can find some ideas and inspiration among the posts I wrote while microblogging the trip on Facebook. I’m compiling those posts and photos here (as I did with another road trip last year).
Thanks so much to everyone who followed the journey in real time. It was a lot of fun hanging out with you on the road. We didn’t know our exact itinerary when we started, but we traveled from New York to Florida and back, taking different routes each way. We hit seven states in-between: Pennsylvania, West Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Virginia and Maryland. Highlights: New River Gorge and Beckley (WV); Savannah and Okefenokee Swamp (GA); Universal Orlando and the Wizarding World of Harry Potter (FL); Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Pisgah National Forest, Asheville, Boone and Charlotte (NC); and the Blue Ridge Parkway (NC and VA).
For more about eating well on the go, see these posts about bringing food when you travel and navigating hotels, restaurants and stores along the way.
And now the round-up…
Real Food Road Test:
The Spoonfed Guide to Vacation Food, 2013 Edition
Real Food Road Test #1: June 28, 2013
And we’re off, with supplies to get us started, including fruit, veggies, cheese and hummus; nuts, dried fruit, Larabars and other snacks; and granola, sprouted-grain bagels, almond-butter packets, and unsweetened oatmeal packs and honey sticks for breakfasts.
Real Food Road Test #2: June 29, 2013
Tess is packing this before each day’s road travel, and keeping it with her bag o’ stuff in the backseat. If you’ve seen my lunch photos, you know we’re PlanetBox fans. They sent me their newest model, the “Shuttle,” and we love it. Perfect for snacking on the road.
Real Food Road Test #3: June 29, 2013
Even truck stops in the middle of nowhere have something edible. (If you look hard enough.)
Real Food Road Test #4: June 30, 2013
Oatmeal in a glass, made with water heated in the coffee maker. Fruit cut with travel staples: mini cutting board and sheathed knife. Hotel breakfast!
Real Food Road Test #5: June 30, 2013
When in the south, you’ve gotta eat a biscuit (or three). But thanks to my TripAdvisor app, we found a little balance with sides of sweet potatoes and black beans. (Zada Jane’s in Charlotte, NC — and wish you’d been in town, Lisa Leake!)
Real Food Road Test #6: July 1, 2013
If you carry a collapsible fabric shoulder bag, you’re always prepared to grocery-shop on the fly, like we did today when walking by a funky little grocer in Savannah, Ga. And if you have a backpack, you can even haul some adult beverages. We grabbed Australian cheddar cheese and some mango chips, plus supplies for a quick microwave meal when we hit the inevitable barren town later in the road trip: Annie’s mac & cheese, some locally made red-pepper sauce (to dress up the Annie’s), and a pack of pre-cooked shelf-stable lentils and peas. We’ve never bought the Annie’s microwave mac before, but Tess spotted the label in a sea of far less desirable options, and the emergency meal idea was born.
Real Food Road Test #7: July 1, 2013
If you spot good chocolate, buy it.
Real Food Road Test #8: July 2, 2013
Making OJ from the oranges on the hotel buffet. (Took those, tea bags and napkins!)
Real Food Road Test #9: July 2, 2013
This isn’t about eating on the road, but we like to pick up edible goodies from our travels. Just got some pecan oil and peach preserves in Georgia. And these are from West Virginia: honey, Appalachian ramp wine (for cooking), and a sunny Fiestaware bowl (yes, made in WV!).
Hey Sally from Real Mom Nutrition: Thought of you when I bought the bowl!
Real Food Road Test #10: July 2, 2013
Wine comes in travel size. I had no idea.
Real Food Road Test #11: July 3, 2013
How I was able to get work done late last night after a long drive into Orlando. #universalthinksofeverythin
Real Food Road Test #12: July 3, 2013
When you see free ice water, fill up your thermoses!
Real Food Road Test #13: July 3, 2013
Food at the Wizarding World of Harry Potter leaves a lot to be desired. But we brought our own nuts, freeze-dried fruit and raw veggies, then picked a few menu items to cobble together lunch: salad, grilled corn on the cob, and some wedge-cut fries. Also shared a Butterbeer for the novelty. (See #14 for more on that.)
Real Food Road Test #14: July 3, 2013
What Tess thought of Butterbeer at Harry Potter World. We ended up all taking a sip, then dumping it and saving the mug. She loved the chocolate frog, though!
Real Food Road Test #15: July 4, 2013
This kids’ menu gets a lot right. (Love this: “Kids are just little adults.”) Sad thing is, though, that as I was ordering to-go last night, a woman next to me was reading the menu to her three sons, naming only the hot dog, burger and chicken “fingers” (even though the menu calls them tenderloin strips). One son asked: “Is that all?” To which the mom replied: “All you’ll eat.” And this after the dad informed the hostess that the kids were “picky.” Sigh. This stuff makes my head and heart hurt. Kids can’t learn to like new things if we don’t even give them a chance!
(This menu, BTW, is from the Loews Royal Pacific Resort at Universal Orlando. And we didn’t actually order off it — we all shared spring rolls and yaki soba noodles instead!)
Real Food Road Test #16: July 4, 2013
Cost us six bucks, but there is fresh fruit to be found at Universal Orlando!
Real Food Road Test #17: July 4, 2013
What you see is a 34-inch fill-it-yourself pixie stick. 34 INCHES. Almost 3 feet of nothing but colored sugar. I feel like I should offer some takeaway here, but, truly, I have no words.
Real Food Road Test #18: July 5, 2013
We just left Orlando for the next leg of our trip, and we didn’t leave the resort the whole time. So, on our way there, we stocked up at a great natural-foods store in Savannah, Georgia (Brighter Day). Found lots of organic produce and local yogurt, among other things. I learned about the store from a reader (thanks, Michelle Allan!), but this is the book I would have used if Michelle hadn’t been so quick! We’ll be using Healthy Highways to stock up again in the next day or so.
Oh, and next door to Brighter Day was a great coffee shop and vegetarian cafe called The Sentient Bean. Best. Name. Ever.
Real Food Road Test #19: July 5, 2013
Got in late and threw together a quick snacky dinner: cheddar, veg grain sausage and cucumbers from shops in Savannah; and hummus, carrots and Ak-Mak crackers from home. I brought a couple empty food containers to use for serving and storage. (I heated the sausage on a paper towel in the microwave, though we’ve also eaten it cold.) Took only a few minutes — quicker even than a drive-through!
Real Food Road Test #20: July 6, 2013
We stayed in Valdosta, Georgia, last night. This morning I used Local Harvest to find a farmers’ market downtown. We scored some fresh, all-natural salsa and hummus, as well as tomatoes and cucumbers grown by a local school. And met some great people, too.
Real Food Road Test #21: July 6, 2013
I’ve certainly been in grocery stores with no or few organic or “natural” products. But, more often than not, the local grocer might surprise you. This is a Kroger store in Waycross, Georgia, and I easily could have loaded up for the week if car and cooler space weren’t an issue.
Real Food Road Test #22: July 7, 2013
Mini colander means fresh berries on the road. I bought this melamine one at Target when Tess was tiny, for her play kitchen, then repurposed it for travel. But I’d like to get one of the small collapsible colanders they have now. Every inch of space counts!
Real Food Road Test #23: July 7, 2013
Georgia peaches grown in the orchard right next to the market. And the farm works with the University of Georgia to keep pesticide use low. At the same market, we also scored some local whole, vat-pasteurized milk. Often I use Local Harvest to find farm markets and stands when traveling. But this one just popped up along the way. One of my favorite parts of road tripping.
Real Food Road Test #24: July 9, 2013
We use our camping dishes even in hotels, but now we’re camping (in a yurt!) in Asheville, NC, so hooray for campgrounds with washing sinks!
Real Food Road Test #25: July 10, 2013
Once again my TripAdvisor app saved the day. Like an oasis in the desert, this crunchy little cafe was a welcome find in a small town filled with chains and greasy spoons. We had only about 20 minutes to grab a to-go lunch before heading to a reserved horse ride (in the Smoky Mountains!), so I crossed my fingers and selected the app’s “near me now” option. Bingo! Later I used the same app’s “vegetarian” filter to find a terrific dinner spot in Asheville, NC (Plant). Even if you aren’t veg, that filter often delivers restaurants that source local and/or organic food.
Real Food Road Test #26: July 11, 2013
In another installment of “kids’ menus are for coloring,” this otherwise imaginative and terrific restaurant in Asheville, NC (Laughing Seed), had a disappointingly standard kid menu. But for just a couple bucks more, Tess got a “market plate” that let her choose three sides as a meal. This was an actual menu item (on the regular menu), but you could easily assemble something similar at any restaurant. One nice perk of going to a well-sourced eatery: We could deviate from our usual water and treat ourselves to real ginger ale. Yum.
Real Food Road Test #27: July 11, 2013
When you go to an old-timey mercantile with barrels of candy (including crazy stuff you ate in your own childhood), you say sure, have at it. Then you’re glad when she picks nothing but chocolate and a giant roll of Smarties. (This is at the Mast General Store in Boone, NC — what a terrific town!)
Real Food Road Test #28: July 12, 2013
Best travel utensils ever. I’d seen these before, but finally bought some yesterday at the Mast General Store in Boone, NC.
Real Food Road Test #29: July 12, 2013
Travel salt-and-pepper shaker + little jar of olive oil + farmers’ market tomatoes and cucumbers = hotel salad du jour.
Real Food Road Test #30: July 13, 2013
This is how we carry water and coffee thermoses on road trips. It’s meant to be a wine bag (got it at an LCBO store in Ontario, Canada), but it’s great for this purpose, whether carried separately or inside something else.
Real Food Road Test #31: July 13, 2013
We’re wrapping up our trip (on the road home now!), but I wanted to say one last thing about hotel buffets. We stayed at a lot of Hampton Inns on this trip. They’re everywhere in small towns and just off the highway, plus they always have fridges (and clean duvet covers!). And the Hilton Honors points add up quickly for free nights. They also all have included breakfast buffets, which we use not for the food (except for fruit), but for the hot water, toasters, napkins, dishes, etc. When on the road, I’m always looking for ways to MacGyver a meal, and the buffet amenities help. Tess wanted to try some of the cereals (raisin bran and toasty o’s), so we dished that up with our own milk. But otherwise we stuck with our own granola, cereal, oatmeal and bagels. And a couple times we lucked out and found local spots serving pastured eggs and/or whole-grain pancakes with real maple syrup. It can take a little foresight and prep, but breakfast on the road doesn’t have to be food-service or drive-through fare!
Real Food Road Test #32: July 13, 2013
Back home! 3,372 miles and nine states in 16 days. And only a couple yuck moments (lousy ice cream and hot pretzel, and an unfortunate slice of Harris Teeter pizza). Otherwise we ate well! Thanks for following along.
*About the Ben & Jerry’s soft serve: Often I google ingredients on the spot, but I just didn’t feel like messing with it. Then Tess ended up dumping half the soft serve anyway (she didn’t love the taste or texture). Sometimes things just take care of themselves…
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I love these posts. (Especially the Trip Advisor app rec). But I’m just so, so sad over the mother who wouldn’t even tell her children all of the options on the Kids’ Menu.
Isolde: I really had to restrain myself from saying something to her. I did try to position my copy of the menu so the one son could see it himself, but, sadly, he didn’t notice.
Love this post! We aren’t quite as careful as you, but we do pack a lot of food on our road trips so we don’t have to worry about stopping at cruddy restaurants…cheese sticks, veggie sticks, dried fruit, homemade granola bars and muffins, homemade bread…
And proud to say we rarely order off the kids’ menu — our 4-year-old would rather have pesto pasta, edamame and rice, or a side of steamed green beans or broccoli than the typical kids’ food.
Next time you go through NC, give us a shout! We’re near Raleigh.
Linda: We’ll definitely be back to NC. We loved the mountains and the towns along the Blue Ridge!
Love this post! Thanks for the inspiration … I hate the kids’s menu! We just spent a week at the beach, luckily with our own kitchen, but the few times we did eat out, my kids ate from the “sides” menu. My nephew got chicken nuggets and my kids wouldn’t touch them! (Thank goodness)
Ha ha ha…no words for the 34 inches of sugar. That’s classic!
Thank you for this — I enjoyed every word. You are inspiring in your commitment to Tess’ health (and yours, obviously). I covet those Georgia peaches!
We’re not as strict as you are about food, but when we travel, we prefer to pack our own food as much as possible because it saves us a ton of money (we have 5 kids) and because restaurant food is just gross. Health concerns aside, who actually likes how that stuff tastes?!?! Thanks for the links to resources for good eating on the road – those will be helpful on our next trip!