Eating Cheaply (but well) On the Road

On my recent road trip to California with my two daughters we averaged just over $10 per person per day for food but we didn’t starve or get scurvy or anything! Here’s how we did it…

  1. Think Nutritious Snacks: When you’re spending a lot of time in the car you don’t often need or crave large meals so I aim for lots of well-rounded snacks. Proteins are easy to get through nuts and seeds as well as meats and cheeses and essential vitamins can be picked up through dried and fresh fruits/veggies. More than anything when I’m driving I find that I eat out of boredom so smaller snacks are ideal. I like to have a variety of salty, sweet, savory, and even bland to keep the snacking interesting.
  2. Buy in Bulk: A big bottle of Simply Lemonade at the grocery store costs about $3 whereas each tiny single-serving bottle is about $1.25. You don’t have to be a math genius to see how fast those savings add up. Similarly, a jug of water (with a handy little spigot built in) holds 40 8-oz servings and is the same price as 3 8-oz bottles. The same holds true for most foods. We stocked up on large boxes of granola bars, jars of nuts, granola, beef jerky, pretzels, crackers, and dried fruit which all had the benefit of not needing refrigeration. To keep things tidy, I relied on my standby Ziploc bags even dumping out a box of mini crackers into a bag to keep them fresh and contained. For serving ease, we each had a reusable cup with a straw that we refilled when stopped, as well as dry cups we used to hold servings of pretzels/trail mix/etc. For the items that needed to be refrigerated (or at least chilled) and wouldn’t last the duration of the trip we used rules 3 & 5.
  3. Go for Grocery Stores (NOT gas stations): Gas stations are great for convenience but terrible for your budget. Part of it is due to the individual serving prices (vs bulk) but to a large extent you’re paying for convenience. A big bag of beef jerky costs almost twice as much as the gas station as it does at a grocery store or Target. Granola or snack bars are even worse and even candy is more expensive. Pretty much the only thing I buy at the gas station (other than fuel) is ice for the cooler. Sometimes grocery stores can be tough to locate off a freeway but Target, Walgreens, and Walmart also have good grocery selections at decent prices and giant signs you can see from miles away.
  4. DIY: I am not a huge fan of real cooking while camping and certainly not in a moving vehicle or on the side of the road but that doesn’t mean you can’t still prep your own food. Packages of rolls, sliced meat, sliced cheese, and some mayo/mustard can be easily assembled into several sandwiches for a fraction of the cost of individually packaged options. My kids and I also like yogurt with granola and there’s not much that’s easier than dumping a handful of granola into a freshly purchased yogurt cup. Plus, eating your picnic style meal on a rock ledge at the side of the Grand Canyon is not just cheaper than a sit-down meal, it’s infinitely more memorable.
  5. Fresh Fruits & Veggies: Subsisting on shelf-stable foods like granola bars is doable but pretty boring. Even in a car with limited refrigeration options fresh fruits and veggies are great – I just break my buy-in-bulk rule for this one. No one wants a mushy nectarine that’s been cooking in a hot car but when you make your grocery store stop it’s easy to pick up just what you’ll eat that day like a bag of baby carrots or one piece of fruit per person. Roadside stands are also great options depending on your location.
  6. Splurge Strategically: Vacations should be fun so plan to splurge a little here and there but I try to do it in such a way that it adds to the trip and isn’t just a money sucker. For example, we spent way too much on a sourdough breadbowl of clam chowder along the piers in San Francisco but it just felt right. We also got some amazing Ghirardelli chocolate in Ghirardelli square that was part of the whole experience not just some stale chocolate bar from a 7-11. When we were cold, wet, and tired and we all wanted a hot meal we picked up a pizza to-go from a local restaurant in Wyoming. Have you been inside a Perkins restaurant? If so, you know what they look like and you could probably tell me what you order there. Where’s the adventure in that? When it’s time to splurge go for the experience, not just the food.


Here’s a list of some of the things we ate on our trip:

  • Granola bars
  • Pretzels
  • Mini peanut butter sandwich crackers
  • Beef jerky
  • Flavored almonds
  • Trail mix (with dried fruit, seeds, and nuts)
  • Dried bananas, cranberries, and raisins
  • Fruit leather
  • Fig newtons
  • Crackers
  • String cheese
  • Sunflower seeds
  • Granola
  • Yogurt
  • Fresh nectarines, peaches, strawberries, grapes, and tangerines
  • Baby carrots
  • Chips & candy (all things in moderation!)
  • Lemonade
  • Green tea
  • Gatorade
  • Scrambled eggs (at our friends’ house with eggs from their chickens)
  • Sandwiches (made ourselves)
  • Pasta salad (purchased from the grocery store deli)
  • Jalepeño grilled cheese sandwiches
  • Ghirardelli chocolates
  • In-N-Out burger (not available in the Midwest)
  • A salad and chicken strips at Safari Park (do as I say not as I do – this was a terrible idea – the food was expensive and gross but I didn’t plan ahead to pack lunches beforehand)
  • Ice cream
  • Pizza
  • Clam Chowder

3 thoughts on “Eating Cheaply (but well) On the Road

  1. Pingback: California or Bust 2014 Finances | wan·der·lust

  2. Wow, you are amazing! I always start out with good intentions and packed food but end up getting lured in by the ease and fun of eating out. We do stick to your advice to skip the Perkins though and eat somewhere memorable at least. We did a little better this trip, mostly because Jesse was sick and didn’t want to eat at all! We had quite a few wayside rest picnics and you are right, they are more memorable.

  3. Pingback: California or Bust 2014 Finances | BohemiAnna Travels

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