How To Eat Healthy (and Keep Your Food Fresh) on the Road

road trip
Photo: Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock

Additional reporting and photos by Caroline Whatley.

Traveling in our van has led to some amazing experiences. Epic sunsets, some really great trail runs, meeting new people and way too many campfires to remember.

We love what we’re doing, but our nomadic life does present some challenges, one of which is maintaining a healthy diet of fresh food while traveling around. We’ve compiled some of our top tips and tricks for eating healthy on the road.

Simple Is The Name of the Game

No one said you can’t have eight course meals when you’re on an adventure, but the logistics of doing so are enough to scare most people away. There’s the storage aspect of it as well as the preparing and cooking aspect, not to mention the hassle involved in cleanup.

When we travel, we tend to do a lot of one pot cooking. A typical meal for us includes a vegetable, starch and a protein. Cook the one that takes the longest and add the rest accordingly. Simple cooking doesn’t have to mean that it tastes bad or is unhealthy.

Get Groceries Often

Some vans and rigs have refrigerators in them. Ours is not one of them. It has a bed and some storage boxes as well as a table in it but it’s lacking a fridge. As a result we find ourselves going to the grocery store often (more often than we’d like) so that we can eat fresh, healthy food.

Though it takes a good bit of planning, it’s cheaper than eating in restaurants and healthier than eating fast food. Our limiting factor is storage space and the ability to keep things cool.

Get Yourself a Cooler

how to keep food fresh on the road
This old-school Igloo is worth its weight in gold. Photo: Authentic Asheville

We’ve been making do with a little Igloo cooler that I borrowed from my parent’s garage over 15 years ago.

It no longer has a handle and is a little banged up from heavy use but with ice in it, it’s good for keeping food cool for about 30 hours. Getting a cooler is your first step to maintaining a diet of healthy food while on the road.

Always Keep It Cool

We use a variety of methods to keep our food cool: ice packs, dry ice, frozen water bottles, frozen foods, etc.

Whatever you do, cool early and often. If you’re really on top of things, put some cold ice packs into the empty cooler for about an hour to “pre-treat” it. That way it’s already conditioned when you put things into it. Another thing you can do to maximize the cooling is to pack your cooler full. It’ll keep everything colder longer. Do your best to keep your van and your cooler in the shade (or in the air conditioning) and keep it closed as much as you can. Opening it and staring into it lets out precious cold air.

Learn How to Properly Pack It All

how to keep food fresh on the road
Make the most of the tools you have, but a cooler will always be the lifesaving necessity for your van life.

Getting a cooler and cooling it are good first steps but if you really want to elevate your fresh food game, figure out how to pack it. Before living in our van I used to just open the cooler, throw some beers and food in it, pour some ice on top and go.

Now I realize how important it is to actually have a strategy for keeping food cool because we’ll often need it to stay fresh for more than the afternoon. No matter what cooler you’re using, over time ice always becomes water. As such, be mindful to keep things sealed tight so that it doesn’t become soggy. It won’t take you long to learn this once you experience it. Invest in a couple of lock-tight containers and be sure to drain your cooler every couple of hours.

Consider Dry Ice

No doubt you’ve used ice and ice packs in a cooler but if you can find some dry ice, give that a shot. It can be a little difficult to find but when you do, it can help you keep your food a little fresher even longer than regular ice and ice packs. Keep in mind, however, that is has it’s drawbacks—it can hurt you if you’re not careful. Always use gloves and let the ice ventilate because when it “melts” it turns to CO2 and can be very dangerous, especially in closed quarters.

Get Creative

how to keep food fresh on the road
A quick, fresh fruit snack is what you need to stay on track and get back to what’s important—that next adventure. Photo: Authentic Asheville

When there’s a limited amount of space in your cooler, everything that goes in it needs to matter. Sometimes we forgo icepacks and ice and opt instead for frozen water bottles that we can drink later or frozen fruit that we can eat later. Just remember that if you’re using frozen food to cool your cooler, at some point it’s going to thaw. Make sure it’s double bagged or in a leak-proof container, and that you eat it before it loses it’s freshness.

Buy Food That Doesn’t Need Cooling

Pasta, dried fruits, canned foods, cereal, granola and bread are a vanlifer’s best friend. Why? Because none of them need refrigeration. Which means they can be stored under your bed or under the seat (wherever you have room) and don’t take up precious space in the cooler. Sounds like a no-brainer but by default, choosing foods that can deal with fluctuations in temperature is super helpful.

Carefully Plan Your Meals

how to keep food fresh on the road
Pack wisely. Photo: Authentic Asheville

Though a life on the road lends itself to whimsy, there is a good bit of planning that happens. We almost always try to go into the grocery store with a game plan. A failure to think about the future when it comes to your meals can mean having nothing to eat, wasted food and eating things that don’t go together (beef jerky and wine, anyone?)

It’s a fine line, though, between micromanaging how you eat and thinking far enough ahead so that nothing goes to waste and you actually like what you’re eating. We do our best to purchase foods that we can use for breakfast, lunch and dinner: cheese, tomatoes, avocados, tortillas, and rice, to name just a few. Lucky for us, we’ve yet to get sick of them.

With a little bit of planning and creativity it’s possible to eat healthy while on the road. Keeping food fresh can be difficult and a bit of a hassle, but in the end, it beats eating greasy burgers and french fries daily. For us, making sure we’re eating quality food is one of the ways we keep our spirits high as well as stay fueled for more adventures.

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