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How do you feel after a long car trip? Tired? Irritated? Car sick? Next time you’re on the road, take stock of what you eat. Although it often seems the logical option, fast-food is likely to make the ill-effects of lengthy car travel worse than they need to be.

Eating healthily on the road can take some preparation – but if you don’t have time before you leave, there are some tricks you can rely on along the road. Often a supermarket can be just as fast a food-fix as a burger joint, and getting out of the car to stretch your legs rather than going to a drive-through has to be a bonus. Even if it takes another five minutes of your time, alternatives to fast-food are bound to make your car trip a more pleasant one. Take a look at these ideas.

Lunch box

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A lunch in a box is a good idea, but it doesn’t have to be greasy, fried, or come in a box labelled ‘Happy Meal’! Plenty of foods make an interesting and healthy snack box for the road.

Dried fruit – Get adventurous! Sultanas and apricots aren’t the only dried fruits around. Try dried pears, peaches, apples, dates, prunes, mango and papaya. Skip the banana chips as these are cooked in oil and are high in saturated fat. Also avoid fruit leathers that have added sugars.

Fresh fruit – Apples, oranges, and grapes make the best travelling fruits because they don’t bruise easily, but if you plan on eating your fruit early in your journey try plums, pears or bananas as well. And of course, if you’re feeling extra harried, you can buy tubs of pre-cut fruit salad!

Nuts & seeds – Nuts make a great snack for the road as they’re extremely filling. Raw nuts are your healthiest option, but roasted, unsalted nuts are also a good choice. Watch your portion sizes, and skip the flavoured or coated styles.

Snack bars – Not all “nutrition” bars are nutritious so make sure you read the labels before you choose. Watch out for bars that are high in fat, calories and sugar – many so-called ‘healthy’ snack bars are actually comparable to chocolate bars in nutritional value.

Baby carrots – A bag of baby carrots or some celery sticks are great for munching on, especially if you might be snacking due to boredom!

Cheese – Surprisingly, some cheeses keep very well for a day without refrigeration. Choose hard cheeses like cheddar, romano, or Swiss. Wrap them tightly in cloth or waxed paper to stop them sweating, or pack them in a cooler with freezer bricks.

Peanut butter and crackers – Take the jar or fill a mini plastic container with peanut butter. Put a few plain rice crackers or other reduced-fat crackers for dipping into a snap-lock bag and you’ve got a snack fit for any peanut-butter-nutter! Other nut butters like almond or cashew are also good.

Tuna lunch-packs – You can now find ready-to-eat tuna snack packs in supermarkets that contain tuna and crackers all in one package. These provide a high protein snack that helps stop those hunger pangs.

Water – No need to stop for litres of soft drink if you’ve packed water beforehand. If it’s warm weather, try freezing a few bottles before you go – they’ll melt through the day but keep cold. (Don’t forget to leave a few centimetres at the top of the bottles before you freeze them.) If it’s cool and rainy, consider packing a Thermos® of hot water so you can stop for cups of tea or hot water and lemon.

Deli delights

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If you’re on the road for more than a few hours, a snack won’t necessarily satisfy your hunger. But there are options other than the nearest roadhouse for the hungry.

Most small towns that you pass through will have a supermarket. Visit the supermarket deli counter for a great way to grab a healthy and fast lunch or dinner – just stay clear of mayo-loaded dishes which are high in calories and fat. Try a fresh salad, sushi rolls, or some of the following deli foods with a loaf of your favourite bread, and finish up with some fresh fruit:

  • Low-fat deli salads, such as tabouli, 3-bean salad, green salads
  • Hummus and pesto spreads
  • Marinated vegetables, such as capsicum, artichokes and mushrooms
  • Olives
  • Lean-cut deli meats
  • Falafel

Many deli counters will even make up a sandwich or roll to order. Skip the butter and mayonnaise and go for nutritious avocado instead.

You’ll often find a few outdoor benches around supermarket entrances where you can eat your lunch, or drive on until the next parking bay or rest spot and enjoy your lunch there.

Picnic perfect

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Roadside picnic areas, especially those near rivers or lakes, provide a priceless way to picnic – whether on the cheap or in gourmet style. They’re also a great place for cooped up kids (and adults) to let off some steam and run around. Any of the deli-style or snack foods mentioned above make good picnic foods, and if you’re using a cooler you can pre-pack those foods that keep better under refrigeration. Other good picnicking foods when you’re on the road include:

  • Canned fish
  • Cold quiche (keep it low-fat)
  • Crisp breads and crackers
  • Pre-cut fruit salads
  • Pita breads and bean dips
  • Sushi rolls
  • Savoury muffins
  • Thermos of hot soup, coffee, or tea

If you’re going to picnic, be prepared with some of the following things. Organise a picnic-bag that you simply throw in the car any time you need it, and you’re set to go for any car trip!

  • Can-opener
  • Pocket knife
  • Thermos
  • Salt and pepper packets
  • Picnic plates, cups, cutlery
  • Snap-lock bags for leftovers
  • Rubbish bags
  • Cutting board
  • Wet wipes/Paper towels
  • Picnic rug

Best fast food options

If all else fails and you find yourself at a fast food outlet or roadhouse counter, don’t despair. You haven’t failed in your healthy eating quest yet!

If you’re stopping at a roadhouse or petrol station, the options are often limited. Better choices include sandwiches, grilled chicken or fish pieces (without batter), felafel, rice paper rolls (not fried), salad plates (watch the mayo!) or small low-fat muffins.

Most fast food restaurants now offer “healthy” menu options, but be warned – they’re often calorie-monsters in disguise. For example, a Hungry Jack’s Chicken Caesar Salad has 425 calories and 28 grams of fat!

There are no hard and fast rules for what’s healthy and what’s not when it comes to take-away food. The best you can do is consult your Pocket Calorie, Fat, and Carbohydrate Counter or ask for the nutritional data (many fast food restaurants now make this available). Here are some of our top picks:

Fast Food OutletMenu ItemCalorieskJFatCarbs
Chicken TreatBbq Chicken Salad1335593g3g
Red RoosterChicken Tenders Salad1777405g5g
Nando’sChicken Garden Salad, no dressing2108765g13g
Subway6″ sub Veggie Delite, no dressing, cheese or oil2299584g39g
McDonaldsLighter Choices Lean Beef Burger25110508g26g
Calorie King
CalorieKing's mission is to provide the best information, tools and education to Australians to help them conquer their weight.

CalorieKing is the brainchild of Allan Borushek, registered dietitian, co-found here at food.com.au and author of "Allan Borushek's Pocket Calorie & Fat Counter", Australia's best-selling calorie counter for over 30 years.
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