Ever since I moved to the Northeast, winters have been rough for me. I become a shell of my summertime self, happy to rot in bed for days at a time, begrudgingly suiting up to brave the cold so I can bring home grocery store bakery muffins and frozen chicken nuggets I’ll end up eating for four consecutive meals. So, yes, I feel like I’ve gone through a minor crisis for three Februaries in a row, but being in this part of the country has also given me a newfound appreciation of spring and early summer. It’s no exaggeration to say that Boston literally comes alive on the first day the temp tops 75, an experience that has no parallel in the South, where I’m from.
There are only a few weeks the temperature remains comfortable in the Northeast before the worsening, oppressive heat of July takes hold, and I’m taking full advantage of them by going on a short road trip with a friend. I wrote last year about how much I love road trip snacks in general, but as I was thinking about what I wanted to eat on the road, I realized that I have a very specific—and, in my opinion, pretty solid—list of what to pack for a road trip.
Everyone has their own road trip traditions, and my list of summertime road trip essentials may or may not match your expectations of a good trip meal plan, but ultimately, it’s more about a balance of different flavors and types of food than it is about the specific ingredients themselves. It’s inspired by the foods my parents would pack for our long road trips to visit family when I was a kid—they stoke a sense of nostalgia. I hope your road trip snacks do the same for you.
1. Fresh Fruit
Summer road trips are often unbearably hot, even with the air conditioning on full blast, and cold, cut fresh fruit is just what you need to cool off. My mom swears by grapes because she says they hydrate you without forcing you to stop the car every hour to use the bathroom. I personally love blueberries and strawberries, but really, just about any fresh fruit will do.
Granted, one time I brought an entire case of mangoes on a road trip (it was a weird time for me) and they went bad seemingly overnight, leaving a nauseatingly tropical scent reminiscent of a decaying Bath & Body Works in the car for the remainder of the trip, so just something to keep in mind.
2. Crunchy Carbs
What we’re going for here is mindlessly crunching. You’re on an open road, and there’s nothing to look at besides more road in front of you. You’re tired but somehow wired, you’re bored but none of your usual entertainment is hitting like it normally does. This is the time to pull out a bag of crunchy carbs. I don’t care what they are. Pretzels are my road trip carb of choice, but chips, nuts, popcorn and pumpkin seeds all work too. It’s not even really about tasting; it’s more about using the sound of the crunching to drown out your thoughts.
3. Bologna and PB&J Sandwiches
You may be wondering why you have to limit yourself to bologna and peanut butter and jelly, and you definitely don’t. But to me, these are the ultimate road trip sandwiches. They’re easy to throw together in the last 30 minutes before you leave the house, and having both on hand gives you both a savory and a sweet option. If you’re not usually a bologna person, trust me—it tastes better on the road.
4. Iced Coffee
Obviously, coffee is important for practical reasons—you shouldn’t drive when you’re drowsy—and it heightens your excitement about the adventure ahead. You can approach the iced coffee issue in one of two ways. If you’re traveling along a sufficiently urban route, you can stop to get some coffee shortly after you get on the road. But if you’ll be traveling someplace where there are fewer spots to stop, you may want to bring bottled iced coffee with you in a cooler.
I will forever be a string cheese acolyte, but it’s definitely not ideal for a road trip snack when you’re driving. Bring it along, but save it for the times when you’re in the passenger seat. For easiest handheld cheese-eating results, I prefer cutting up a block of cheese before getting on the road. Of course, those little wax-wrapped Babybel cheeses are a solid option here.
I don’t even really eat jerky that much, but there’s something about gnawing on a piece of dried meat as you’re driving down the highway that’s immensely satisfying. The flavor is solid, sure, but the chewing itself is the most satisfying part of the snack. It will, at least, delay the point in which you reach the end of your bag of crunchy carbs.
7. Your Favorite Childhood Snack
For me, it’s Cosmic Brownies. For you, it may be something completely different, like nacho Lunchables or Oreos or Go-Gurt. The only requirement is that it’s packed with sugar and/or artificial dyes for best results.
Samantha Maxwell is a food writer and editor based in Boston. Follow her on Twitter at @samseating.