I love to travel because I love to eat, but when the hungry babies start howling from the backseat, I’ve learned to put my foodie preferences aside and make some concessions. Once we’ve arrived safely at our destination and everyone has had a solid night’s rest, I can demand a farm-to-table house of kale complete with hipsters, their ill-fitting clothes, and all the pretentiousness. Until that point, here’s my list of “go-to” gourmet:
1. Cracker Barrel
I remember traveling with my grandpa to Florida when I was 8 years old. He insisted we stop at Cracker Barrel at least once a day, and I’ve had a soft spot for the place ever since. This southern staple is our first choice for grub along the road. Sometimes it’s the reason I plan a road trip at all.
The relatively large menu has something for every traveler and every mood. Quick sandwich or chicken dinner complete with southern sides? They got you. Breakfast is served all day, so even though kids’ meals are pretty inexpensive, our boys typically split a platter of pancakes. They are still little enough that one adult breakfast fills up all three, so for less than $10, they are fat and happy.
The biggest pull besides those iconic chairs rocking on the front porch, is the fact that I can enjoy a meal without needing to find a rest stop 20 minutes down the road. The food is hearty but not greasy, and there are reasonably nutritious options. I’m not left feeling overstuffed or in need of the facilities – and that’s more than I can say for the majority of chain restaurants.
2. Taco Bell
It isn’t just for drunk college kids. Taco Bell has been our go-to fast food option ever since we had little ones, and we order one thing: cheesy roll ups. A flour tortilla rolled around melted cheese. No ketchup to contend with, no mustard stains on brand new clothes, no burgers falling out of buns. Plus, they only cost $1.00.
Is it nutritious? No. Is it delicious? Probably not. But the kids love them, and they are the least messy option out there. Kid drops it on the floor of the car? Dust it off and hand it back. They are aerodynamic, too, so I can chuck them from the driver’s seat to the third row. Side note: between 2-5 pm, you can snag an equally unhealthy frozen slushy for $1.00, too.
3. Anywhere that Delivers Pizza to the Hotel
There are nights when hauling your family into a public place is going to end in tears…probably yours. This is when you keep trucking to the hotel and order pizza. Nearly every motel (even the seedy ones) has at least one menu from the local pizza shop, so ask the staff for their favorite – and don’t forget to request plates, silverware and napkins. Hotel pens make lousy forks.
4. Food Trucks
Lots of cities are moving to designated food truck areas or plazas like the one we recently visited in Pensacola (Pensacola al Fresco). This was an inexpensive and tasty stop for our family as we grabbed corn dogs, cheeseburgers (like with actual meat) and legit tacos for less than $20. The rain clouds even parted, so we could enjoy the Florida sunshine while we dined.
Yes, it seems contradictory when we’ve been trapped in our car for hours already that we should decide to stay locked inside to dine, but the kids like the throw-back drive-in vibe. They can unbuckle and stretch their legs (we have an SUV the size of a school bus). We can throw on a movie or even attempt a conversation as we scarf down chicken strips, tots and coneys. Top it off with a 10,000 calorie candy-filled milk shake. The sugar buzz and subsequent crash that follow will have everybody ready for bed by the time you reach the hotel.
6. The Local Mexican Place
On nearly every trip, we hit up at least one Mexican restaurant. Our kids can pack away some food (and patience is not their virtue), so the complimentary chips and salsa is a life-saver for our wallets and sanity. Between quesadillas, tacos, beans, and rice, the kids are content and our meals are cheap. Plus, if we hit up the right night, there might just be a special on margaritas.
7. Panera Bread
I can only handle so many fast-food burgers while on the road, and there comes a point when I bite the bullet and find a Panera. Yes, this is a chain, but their food doesn’t leave me chomping Tums for the next 24 hours. It does cost nearly the same amount as a traditional sit-down restaurant, but you have the ability to eat on the run as most Panera Breads offer a drive-thru.
The kids’ meals are large enough for two of our small boys to share, and the mac-n-cheese is always a hit. I can grab a soup and salad, and there’s a long list of sandwiches for my husband to inhale. Plus, the iced tea is on point, and there’s always hot coffee for weary travelers.
8. Texas Roadhouse
You have been on the road for hours. Hangry meltdowns are looming. Texas Roadhouse is your best bet (for those who don’t have raging peanut allergies). There is a bucket of peanuts on your table, ready to be shelled by fidgety children, and my kids love nothing more than smashing open the shells to find the salty treasures. I’m not sure they eat them, but the shucking process keeps them quite busy.
Yes, I understand that bins of food shared by hundreds of strangers are filthier than gas station toilets, but at a certain point in the trip, I no longer care. Germophobe? Not to worry – a never-ending basket of buttery rolls is headed your way as soon as they take your drink order. Ask for a water. You’ll need it when you absentmindedly grab a handful of peanuts.
I hate to include this one, but we visit so often, I would be a liar if I didn’t. For my final pick, there’s always the golden arches. We end up here a lot because America has made it a law that a McDonald’s must appear every 15 miles. Because of this, we’ve learned how to tackle the menu in a way that doesn’t leave us all on the verge of vomiting.
With the extension of their breakfast hours, our kids typically split the pancakes and sausage combo (we eat a lot of pancakes). It sounds messy, but I use the deep plastic lid that comes with it as an additional plate for the youngest kid, keeping syrup spills to a minimum. The boys also devour the yogurt parfaits at $1.00 a pop. Happy Meals live up to their name, too. A new trinket is always welcomed, and our littlest guy lives on the accompanying French fries and milk.
Our list of road trip restaurants might not encompass the latest culinary trends or provide our children with the highest nutritional value, but these places keep us going when we are traveling for days on end. They help us avoid tears, empty bellies, and empty pocketbooks. I don’t ask for much more than that – except maybe some roasted brussels sprouts tossed in a honey balsamic reduction with caramelized nitrate-free bacon when we finally reach our destination.