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Packable Meals for Long Summer Drives

Road trips don't have to mean days of fast food. Here, how to fuel your excursion with healthy options.

couple packing a cooler in their car trunk.

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En español | Airplane travel may be inching back to pre-pandemic levels but according to one recent poll, nearly 60 percent of families say they would still prefer to drive to their next vacation destination. It seems the 2020 trend of fueling up and hitting the road is still going strong.

A major challenge of road tripping? What to eat and how to pack it up. (Back-to-back fast-food meals appeal to almost no one over the age of 10.) However, with a little forethought, mealtime on the go can be satisfying and energizing.

Loading the cooler

First, a few notes about packing: Generally, you'll want to pack the food that needs to stay coldest (meats, dairy) at the bottom and keep the cooler closed as much as possible. Resist the urge to go in and out for cold drinks and ice up an insulated water bottle instead. It's also worth investing in refreeze-able ice bricks because they stay colder longer than ice and you don't have to deal with melting. Lastly, it's best to keep dish components separate and assemble on site, so nothing gets soggy and wilted.

Creating a portable platter

Eating on the go doesn't have to be lowbrow: One elevated and filling meal that can be eaten for lunch or dinner, and doesn't require much on-site prep or deep refrigeration, is an antipasto plate filled with crudité, dips, charcuterie, cheese, nuts and crackers. It's an easy way to hit all your food groups, too. Keep it healthy by going heavy with veggies like carrots, green beans, radishes or sugar snap peas. (Consider blanching the veggies ahead of time, which keeps them crisp but not totally raw.)


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From there, go for a few ounces of different styles of cheese (maybe a white cheddar or Manchego plus something softer like blue or Brie), and add a little high-quality salami or prosciutto (but keep in mind these are the less healthy options on the plate.) And while it's easy enough to buy a tub of a dip, you can also easily make something like your own protein-packed baba ghanoush. Recipes abound online, and the only time-consuming part is broiling or roasting the eggplant before scooping out the flesh and blending it with a few ingredients like lemon and tahini.

Then, load up a few small containers with the fun stuff: Marcona almonds, a fig jam, baguette or crackers, olives and market-made marinated veggies like roasted peppers and artichokes. Pack up a large plastic platter, and once you find a park along your way, you might as well be at your favorite bistro.

two jars with salad and a bowl of vinegar dressing.

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Rotisserie chicken sandwiches, salad-in-a-jar or thermos gazpacho

If it turns out that you'll be doing most of your driving during the day, there are plenty of sandwich options that pack well beyond peanut butter and jelly. Homemade chicken salad tastes even better (and is more nutritious) when you add fruit, nuts and fresh herbs. Poaching or roasting chicken isn't hard but using rotisserie chicken is a great no-cook option. Put it in a croissant and add an avocado to make it filling and provide healthy fats. (Keep the avocado whole until you are ready to eat; just don't forget to pack a knife.)

You can also whip up a quality BLT while on the road. Cook some turkey bacon that morning — it can stay crisp for hours unrefrigerated — and marinate tomatoes the night before you go. (Just sprinkle tomato slices with a splash of red wine vinegar and olive oil and store in a container in the fridge.) Get fresh bread, lettuce and mayo or an avocado and assemble it when you're ready to eat.

If you need dinner, too, make the time spent in the car work for you: Whip up a salad that gets better the longer in marinates, like an Asian slaw salad that you can toss with pre-pulled rotisserie chicken, cooked shrimp and/or cashews before serving. Another creative way to get your greens in is to compose a salad in a jar that you stash in the cooler. These score lots of road-trip friendly points for being easy to store and eat, and the layers keep ingredients fresher and crisper.

You can really add what you want — maybe blue cheese and bacon for a take on a Cobb salad; shrimp and beans for a taco spin — then just shake to dress it all up. Pasta salad versions work here, too. You can try something as simple as mixing jarred chick peas with onion and oil and vinegar, then layering it on top of spiraled pasta, a handful of arugula and a couple tablespoons each of olives and feta. When you're ready to eat, just shake.

Lastly, consider a light lunch or dinner of drinkable soup like gazpacho. The recipe below is tasty, fresh and stores well in an insulated travel cup.

Sippin’ Green Gazpacho

Yield: 6 cups

Ingredients

2 pounds English hothouse cucumbers (about 2 large), chopped

2 garlic cloves, smashed

2 cups coarsely chopped arugula

2 cups coarsely chopped mixed tender herbs (such as basil, parsley, cilantro and/or mint)

3 tablespoons (or more) sherry vinegar or red wine vinegar

Kosher salt

3/4 cup (or more) olive oil

Instructions

1. Purée cucumbers, garlic and 1/2 cup water in a blender until smooth. Add arugula, herbs, vinegar and a large pinch of salt and purée, stopping to scrape down the sides of the blender as needed, until very smooth. With the motor running, slowly stream in oil; blend until emulsified. (The mixture will turn pale green and look creamy, almost like a salad dressing; add more oil and/or water if needed.) Taste gazpacho and season with more salt and vinegar, as desired. You want it to be borderline too salty and acidic at room temperature. Transfer gazpacho to an airtight container. Cover and chill until very cold, 4 — 12 hours.

2. Taste gazpacho and adjust with a little more salt and/or vinegar, as needed, just before pouring into chilled glasses.

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