When your evenings are full of activities and the kitchen table is your back seat, here are some simple and healthy dinner in the car ideas.
Gone are the lazy days of summer.
Suddenly it’s time to shuttle the kids to soccer games, rehearsals, dance classes, playdates, and more.
And you may be wondering: Are we seriously going to sit in the car at dinner time three days a week now?
The answer may be yes, but you’re not alone—and we can do this!
So if going back to school means your mom is back in the taxi business, it’s still possible to feed your folks a healthy, filling, delicious dinner (without losing your mind). Here are smart strategies for figuring it all out.
let’s handle it together
Below, you’ll find some of the easiest ways to fit healthy meals into those busy days with after-school activities. I’ve rounded up some of my best tips, ideas, and favorite recipes for dinner on the road.
The best part: With a little planning and a lot of flexibility, these healthy road trip meal ideas can save you time and money wading through the busy drive-thru.
(Though if fast food is what makes you survive this busy season, there’s no shame in that!)
Reminders to stay healthy for this season of life
- Have a sense of adventure: Consider renaming your meal on the go, such as “Dance Dinner” or “Volleyball Dinner.” It’s an easy way to set the expectation right up front that although we won’t always have PBJ sandwiches and orange slices for dinner, it’s part of going with the flow of the busy season.
- Be prepared: Pack plenty of non-food items such as napkins, utensils, wipes, and drinks. A designated trash bag helps make cleanup easy—otherwise you might be emptying pistachio shells out of your cup holders.
- Lean on comfort foods: Try something new instead of relying on foods you know your family loves when patience may already be wearing thin.
- be flexible: Different things work for different families. Try a strategy and adjust as needed. And when you figure it out, give yourself lots of grace.
- Remember yourself: This should go without saying, but when you’re on a long trip to errands and appointments, don’t forget to feed yourself. Pack foods that work for your kids and you.
dinner in the car ideas
Option 1: Pack Mix-and-Match Healthy Choices
best for: when you don’t have time to put something together
Sometimes a grab-and-go bag of portable, filling, low-mess foods fits the bill better than anything else.
Remember the arsenal of snacks you had when you were a little kid? We’re giving that concept an energy-conserving, quick-dinner upgrade.
You know what suits you and your crew best, and you should definitely focus on those first. But in case you’re drawing blanks, below are reminders of some foods that travel well with and without a cooler pack.
Remember: If it’s not enough to satisfy everyone, you can grab Second Dinner or Filling Snack When will you return home
Foods that have been kept at room temperature for a long time:
- bread, sandwich rolls or pita bread
- Whole Grain Crackers
- soft tortillas
- rice cakes
- Graham crackers
- Homemade Muffins and Quick Breads
- tortilla chips
- dry cereal
- corn slag
fruits and vegetables
- dried fruit
- whole fruit in peel
- cherry tomatoes
- Fruit Cups in 100% Juice
- Mini Sweet Peppers
- unsweetened apple cups
- Jared Olive (discontinued)
- pickle (off)
- Peanut Butter and Seed Butter
- tuna pouches
- beef jerky
- precooked bacon
- Shelf-stable cans of flavored milk (dairy or non-dairy)
- trail mix
- energy bar
Foods to pack in a cooler or insulated bag with ice packs:
fruits and vegetables
- celery stalks
- carrot sticks or baby carrots
- cucumber slices
- sliced or mini peppers
- Chop Raw Broccoli and Cauliflower
- Watermelon Balls
- diced pineapples
- orange and apple slices
- Green Salad (Dressing on the side)
- Store-bought bottled smoothie (or homemade in a thermos)
- Cheese Sticks, String Cheese, and Cheese Cubes
- hummus bowls
- Yogurt Cups and Yogurt Drinks
- hard boiled eggs
- Deli-Meat Sandwiches and Wraps
- Take-Out Sushi Rolls
- Pasta, Tuna, or Chicken Salad
- cold, grilled chicken (our store sells cooked rotisserie chicken)
- Cheese Cups
- drains energy
How to put them together for easy dinner in the car ideas:
- Hummus Cup + Pita Bread + Baby Carrots and Cucumbers + Olives
- Turkey Sandwich Wrap + Celery Sticks + Peanut Butter + Raisins + Popcorn
- Pasta Salad + Chilled Chicken + Applesauce Cups
- Homemade Quick Bread Spread + Cheese Sticks + Chocolate Milk with Nut or Seed Butter
- Sushi Roll + Edamame + Fruit
- Cheese + Berries + Homemade Muffins
- Hard-boiled egg + bagel with nut or seed butter + bottled smoothie
Option 2: Assemble the Dinner Box
best for: When your kids need to eat in a hurry (bonus: they can eat while you’re driving)
If you know you have a busy night ahead, pack some dinner boxes at the same time you’re putting together the lunch boxes.
Unlike giant grab-and-go bags of snacky foods, a dinner box can be given to a hungry child as a complete package, like a mobile dinner plate. These can be bigger and savory than what you pack for lunch. And don’t forget to pack one for yourself!
Half Deli Meat Sandwich + Pretzel Chips snack bite + Broccoli w/ Dip + Berries
Option 3: Tailgate with a hot meal
best for: When you want to eat at your destination and want something more traditional or savory
Sometimes—especially on cold winter days or dinner at the hockey rink—a hot meal is exactly what you need to make the evening go away. Baggy cheese cubes and grapes don’t cut it every time!
Food Safety Note: If your food doesn’t need to be kept longer than an hour or so, you should be able to easily transport any hot food from home so it’s ready to eat when you need it without buying fancy equipment. Also keep it warm. And food in a thermos will stay hot for a long time.
Here are the best strategies for keeping hot foods warm:
- wrap hot foods tightly in foil
- Fill container as full as possible (air pockets can cool foods faster)
- Use a clean kitchen towel for an extra layer of protection from the heat.
- Pack wrapped food in an insulated bag, such as an insulated grocery bag, lunch bag or casserole bags (affiliate link)
- Invest in some quality thermoses (Check out two of my favorite thermoses here,
- Keep hot foods away from cold foods when transporting them together
tip: When serving hot food, make a busy day feel like a special occasion and bring some sturdy picnic dishes or mugs for soup and chili.
Hot Dinner in the Car Ideas:
- breakfast sandwich
- likes baked sandwiches Ham and Cheese Pinwheels (they taste good hot or cold)
- Pepperoni Rolls: With tomato sauce for dipping, individually packed salad or raw vegetables with dip
- Meatball Sub
- Hot dog or sausage sandwich (in a bun)
- Fried rice or fry in a thermos
- Breakfast for dinner: Oatmeal in a thermos (Here are my two favorite thermoses), fruit, and hard-boiled eggs
- Soups and Stews in a Thermos: Pack with crusty bread or dinner rolls and fruit salad
- Macaroni and Cheese in a Thermos
- Pasta in a Thermos: Short pasta is easier to eat than long noodles
tip: hot cocoa or my Homemade Vanilla Steamer Both travel well in a thermos and are comforting on a cold day.
Option 4: Find Food When You’re Out and Around
best for: When you don’t have time or groceries to pre-pack—and want to let the kids choose
If you decide not to bring your own food, you will need to buy dinner. And instead of waiting your turn in a long line of traffic for french fries, you can pick up something even quicker.
Lots of gas stations, truck stops, and rest stops have upped their snack game beyond potato chips and soda. Lots of great food available: lean protein, healthy fats, and lots of easy stuff made with natural ingredients.
Some of their healthy car-ride-friendly foods to look out for include:
- Instant Oatmeal Cups (use their hot water)
- Cereal to Go Cup
fruits and vegetables
- whole fruits such as bananas or apples
- dried fruit
- salad kit
- Cut and Dip Fresh Vegetables
- fresh fruit bowls
- kale chips
- Seaweed Snacks
- yogurt cups
- Beef Jerky (or Turkey Jerky)
- Cheese cubes, crackers, and packs of fruit
- cheese sticks
- Sunflower seeds
- hard boiled eggs
- trail mix
- nut butter packets
- Heat-and-Go Soup
- Hummus Cup
- premade sandwiches
- energy bar
tip: If Gas Station Food Isn’t Your Thing, So Much local grocery store Offer grab-and-go options for people in a rush like you. Find healthy options like pre-shredded cheeses and deli meats, cooked chicken, pre-prepared salads, single-serving drinks, or ready-to-eat fruits and vegetables. Look for them near the front door or by the deli.
Bonus Option: Eat at Home But Splurge on Time
best for: When you just want to eat at home and you have time to prep earlier in the day
Eating dinner in the car may not be right for you for a number of reasons. Your kitchen can still be the home base for family dinners, even if everyone is eating at different times. Here are some options:
- Dinner That Can Be Kept “Warm” in the Slow Cooker and Eaten on Shifts
- Dinner that can be easily reheated on demand
- Cold dinners that the kids and spouse can grab from the fridge and assemble themselves
tip: Make it less daunting by setting up your kitchen in a way that makes it easy to serve and eat without supervision:
- set dinnerware and silverware
- collect the spices
- write a note with instructions
Some of our favorite slow cooker and Instant Pot meals:
Ideas for moving and warming up:
In addition, stock up on some quick, convenient items to serve with these hot meals like:
- Cooked Pasta and Rice in Pouches (Reheat in Microwave Only)
- Tortillas and Taco Shells
- Serve hot with dinner rolls
- Bagged Salad and Jarred Dressing
- Steam-in-Bag Fresh Vegetables
- frozen vegetables
Cold Dinner Ideas:
- Mason Jar Salad: Pack these in a mason jar and make a bunch at the beginning of the week, put heavy toppings in the bottom and salad greens on top, then put in a bowl and top with dressing.
- cold sesame noodles
- Chicken Orzo Salad
- pasta salad
- potato salad
- Deli Meat Sandwich/Wrap
- Fresh/spring rolls with peanut sauce
- Chicken Salad
- Tuna Salad
- snack plate
- Cereal with Milk (Hey, It Matters!)
If all else fails…
You can always come together after the dust has settled for a bedtime snack or dessert so you still have that “family dinner” feel that some kids (and parents) may feel are missing out on. He remembers while eating.
Then again, an exhausting day can feel just a little bit like a special occasion.
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