The Best Foods for Road Trips with Kids

We get it – some people prefer the convenience of flying over driving and are willing to spend the extra money. But think of it this way: The Smith’s, a family of four (two adults and two children) – will pay $276 per person to fly from Cleveland, OH to Orlando, Florida to go to Disney World next June and spend about $1,200 (for tickets, baggage fees, etc.) on air fare alone! Sure, they’ll arrive in two hours, but there is a much more frugal option: the road trip.

To drive (in this example The Smith’s have a mid-size SUV – a pearl white Jeep Grand Cherokee – that gets twenty-five miles per gallon at $2.00 per gallon. So, a total of $240 would be spent on fuel, to and from Disney. Of course, they would have to account for food and possibly a hotel room, but they would still spend less than flying.

You might be dreading driving across the country (or maybe even a few hours) with your kids (the ‘are we there yet?’ and stopping for frequent bathroom breaks, but we have road trip meals covered (while you handle the rest – we’re sure you’ll rock it!)

Here, you’ll find tips on planning meals for on the go and be able to see a list of must-try fast food by region (i.e. South, Midwest). You might even find a new, future favorite spot! This is the breakdown:

• Fast food… fast.
– Love greasy fries and milkshakes? Here are some places that should be on your ‘Fast Food Bucket List.’ Or am I the only one that has one?
• Affordable restaurant stops.
– No five-star cuisine here. If you want to take a break from driving and just relax with some half-priced appetizers, you’ve come to the right place.
– Why it’s important to plan out meals and snacks if you’re packing them from what you have at home or grocery shopping.
– We’ll go beyond sandwiches and chips for easy, delicious, and no-fuss road-trip meals.
• Healthy Options
– Being on the road doesn’t have to mean burgers and gas station potato chips.

Let’s get started…

McDonald’s may be the most popular fast-food place around, but, no matter where you are, you can throw a stone and hit a McDonald’s. We wanted something a bit… different. These are some fast food places, divided by types of food served, you just have to try. Sorry, Big Mac.

Fast Food

• Whataburger: With locations in Georgia through Arizona, Whataburger’s claim to fame is their Root Beer Shake and the fact that they use 100% beef on all of their burgers.
• In-N-Out: This West coast fast food place has a sort of cult following, but for good reason: it offers a secret menu that is posted on the restaurant’s website and will stack as many as four patties and four slices of cheese on one burger. Also, it’s considered to be one of the places for a fast food burger.
• Five Guys Burgers and Fries: They have ‘the best burger in the world’ and locations throughout the country. Not all locations have drive-thrus, though, and, strangely, taste varies restaurant by restaurant. Regardless, it’s worth checking out. Also, if you aren’t in the mood for a burger (which are fantastic), I recommend the Bacon Cheddar Dog. (Note: Everything here is really greasy).
• Culvers: Located predominately in the mid-west and Texas, Culver’s serves up frozen custard, burgers, and crinkle cut fries. They also have their own brand of Root Beer.
• Habit Burger: They are similar to In-N-Out in location and taste, but Habit Burger burgers are flame-grilled for an extra kick. Also, customers are able to choose their own toppings, such as caramelized onions, avocado, pineapple, and jalapenos. The burgers are simple and fresh – what more could you want?

• Harold’s Chicken Shack: Located primarily in Chicago, Harold’s offers a quarter or half chicken (with white or dark meat or a mix), French fries, two slices of white bread, and a cup of coleslaw. Their chicken is as close to Southern fried chicken as you can get and it is fried to order (no warming racks here).
• Chik-fil-A: This fast-food place, located in the Southeastern United States, arguably has the best chicken sandwiches, fries, and many breakfast options. Just be aware that they are closed on Sundays, Thanksgiving, and Christmas.
• Church’s Chicken: This is the fourth largest chicken chain in the United States and they can be found throughout the country and even have several international locations. Their menu includes coleslaw, mashed potatoes, corn on the cob, fried okra, honey butter biscuits, sandwiches, nuggets, and tacos.
• Popeye’s Chicken and Biscuits: You can have a taste of New Orleans without being in Louisiana. Popeye’s 2,000 locations are concentrated in California, Texas, Louisiana, Tennessee, Florida, Illinois, Maryland, New York, Georgia, Virginia, Ohio, and Mississippi. They are known for their spicy flavors and quick service.

Hot Dogs
• Pal’s Sudden Service: Pal’s is hard to miss with their light blue exterior that is the backdrop for a giant hot dog. They have locations in east Tennessee and southwest Virginia and are the best in hot dogs and burgers and have the fastest drive-thrus if you’re in a hurry.
• Portillo’s Hot Dogs: While they are based in Chicago, they have locations in Indiana, Illinois, Arizona, California, and Florida. They serve incredible chili cheese hot dogs and a life-changing Chocolate Cake Shake. Also, some restaurants are themed (i.e. ‘30s Prohibition) and will give you a free cake on your birthday.

• Potbelly Sandwich Shop: Known for their made-to-order subs and flats, Potbelly often has live musicians and gets accolades for having the politest staff. They also have locations in twenty-three states, including Ohio (so they would be a great option for The Smith Family).
• Firehouse Subs: Started in Florida by firefighters, they have locations in thirty-six states, from the Midwest to the South. Firehouse Subs is known for piling on their fresh ingredients and offering options under 500 calories.
• Jason’s Deli: I don’t know who Jason is, but I’d like to shake his hand. This joint was founded in Texas, but has locations from California to New York. The subs are superb.

• Hot Head Burritos: This Mexican chain offers a buffet of fresh ingredients for you to choose from to create a one-of-a-kind bowl or burrito. There are franchises in Ohio, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, Indiana, Florida, Michigan, and Connecticut.

Gas Stations
• WaWa: I can confidently say that WaWa has the best gas station food around – everything tastes like it came from a casual restaurant. This is a mid-Atlantic chain that serves pizza, chicken tenders, smoothies, iced coffee, and everything in between. Here, you can fuel up your vehicle, get food to go, and get moving!
• Sheetz: With locations in Ohio, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Virginia, Maryland, and North Carolina, it’s worth checking out. They’re open 24/7 and you can get MTO (made-to-order) food all night long. They’re menu is extensive and they also have a full convenience store and the cleanest gas station bathrooms I’ve ever seen.

Vegetarian Friendly
• Amy’s Drive-Thru: Believe it or not, this place sells organic, vegetarian fast-food. The menu includes veggie burgers, burritos, mac and cheese, pizza, and milkshakes. Every item can be ordered gluten-free or vegan, too. Unfortunately, their only location is in California.
• Noodles and Company: As a former vegetarian, I had Noodles and Company while in Baltimore for the weekend. The macaroni and cheese is to die for and they even have tofu options. So, if you’re ever on the East Coast, stop by!

Healthy Options
• Wendy’s: This fast food place offers healthier options than most. Our top pick for those watching their waistline is the “Chili Baked Potato.” All you have to do is order a plain baked potato and a small chili, mix it up, and enjoy a meal under 500 calories.
• KFC (Kentucky Fried Chicken): Despite the name, not everything is fried. A great option, tasty option is the grilled chicken breast, mashed potatoes, and corn on the cob for a total of 434 calories. Also, KFC has franchises throughout the country so you can eat right anywhere.
• Jack in the Box: Another healthy fast-food meal is the Chicken Teriyaki Bowl from Jack in the Box. It has 585 calories, but it contains plenty of protein. There are locations in twenty-six states, from California to Florida to Virginia.

• Taco Bell: There are Taco Bells everywhere – so, what? I can tell you that this is THE place to go for fast-food breakfast. The Sausage Breakfast Crunch Wrap is really good and the Cinnabon Delights are heavenly. Also, the hash browns are the best hash brown patties of any fast-food place.
• Dunkin’ Donuts: This is kind of obvious, but worth mentioning. The breakfast items are good, the hash browns are my favorite, though they don’t give you nearly enough of them, and they have fantastic coffee and donuts. Also, some locations even have a drive-thru for added convenience.

Regional Favorites
• Skyline Chili (Cincinatti, OH): This is how Cincinatti does chili: spaghetti noodles that are piled with chili and topped with cheese. Only in Ohio can you get this tasty treat and experience food like the locals do.
• Pat’s or Gino’s (Philadelphia, PA): These are two Philadelphia eateries, located right across the street from each other, that claim their Philly Cheese Steak Sandwiches are the best. Namely, it’s become a tourist must to sample a sandwich from each and decide whose Cheese Steak reigns supreme. You be the judge!

• Waffle House (Multiple Locations): The Waffle House is great because it’s open 24/7. It’s a traditional diner with ala carte pricing and a very homey feel.
• Smokey Bones (Multiple Locations): This is a great place for families. They have an extensive BBQ menu and some locations even have bars and pool tables.
• Calhoun’s (Tennessee): Calhoun’s specializes in BBQ and only has five locations throughout the state.
• Trolley Car (Philadelphia, PA): This Philly diner is, quite literally, located in a steel trolley car. If you’re ever near Philadelphia, the breaded fries are worth stopping for. Also, they boast an extensive menu and an impressive collection of beer that is available for purchase.
• Taco Time (Multiple Locations): This is the best place for tacos. Taco Time, which only serves home-style Mexican food, has fresh ingredients and great deals. Plus, you can dine-in, pick up take-out, or go through their drive-thru. There are 300 locations between Utah, Washington, and Canada.
• Casey Key Fish House (Osprey, FL): The service was surprisingly quick and the seafood was incredible. Also, you couldn’t beat the view of the ocean and the fun atmosphere. (Note: This is not the place to go for a quiet meal – it’s a lively environment).

Packing for the Road

If you want to save time and money, here are some of the best items, taken in part from a list at, that can be packed in a cooler to stave off hunger until you reach your destination:

• Hard boiled eggs
• Carrot and celery sticks, radishes, cucumber slices, etc.
• Cherry tomatoes, pickles, olives, etc.
• Sandwiches, wraps, burritos – Especially with sliced meats/cold cuts or some type of salad (i.e. egg salad or chicken salad).
• Fruit – grapes, oranges, cherries, watermelon, apple slices
• Cheese (and crackers) and string cheese
• Pepperoni sticks and sliced meat
• Potato salad or macaroni salad
• Lunchables or crust less PB&Js
• Paper towels
• Cups (including sippy cups for toddlers)
• Paper plates, forks, spoons, butter knife
• Sharp knife, small cutting board
• Thermos
• Wet wipes
• Garbage bag
• Foil / Zip lock bag

By packing healthy items like the above, you’ll be able to give your kids healthy snacks and avoid the drive-thru for every meal (while saving money). The most important thing to remember when packing for a road trip is that organization is key. Make a list of everything you need to do and prep your food a day or two ahead of time (i.e. boil eggs and assemble sandwiches) and pack the cooler the morning of your trip. Chances are, if you wait to do everything until right before your departure, you’ll be rushing and forget items. Also, you can pack dry goods into a tote the night before and leave the tote in the vehicle, making sure you or the kids have easy access to it.

This guide was designed to allow you to make the best decisions for your family’s meals, try new fast-food joints and restaurants, and make the most of eating while on the road. Just remember that there are miles upon miles of highway out there, waiting. So, pack a bag, gather some snacks, and let’s explore!