Healthy & Easy Dinner in the Car Ideas for Busy Nights
When your evenings are full of activities and the kitchen table is your backseat, here are some simple and healthy dinner in the car ideas.
Gone are the lazy days of summer.
Suddenly it’s time to shuttle kids to soccer games, play rehearsals, dance lessons, playdates, and all the things.
And you may be thinking: Are we seriously going to be in the car at dinnertime three days a week now?
The answer might be yes, but you’re not alone — and we can do this!
So if back to school means your mom taxi is back in business, it’s still possible to feed your people healthy, filling, delicious dinners on the go (without losing your mind). Here are smart strategies for figuring it all out.
Let’s handle this together
Below, you’ll find some of the easiest ways to make healthier dinners happen on those busy days with after-school activities. I’ve rounded up some of my best tips, ideas, and favorite recipes for dinner on the road.
The best part: With a little planning and a lot of flexibility, these healthy road trip meal ideas can also save you time and money versus zipping through the busy drive-thru.
(Though if fast food is how you survive this busy season, there’s no shame in that!)
Stay-sane reminders for this season of life
- Keep a sense of adventure: Consider renaming your meals-on-the-go something like “dance dinner” or “volleyball dinner.” It’s an easy way to set expectations right up front that although we won’t always have PBJ sandwiches and orange slices for dinner, it’s all part of going with the flow of a busy season.
- Be prepared: Pack plenty of non-food items like napkins, utensils, wipes, and drinks. A designated trash bag helps make cleanup easy–or else you might end up vacuuming pistachio shells out of your cup holders.
- Lean on comfort foods: Rely on foods you know your family loves, rather than trying something new when patience might already be sort of thin.
- Be flexible: Different things work for different families. Try one strategy and adjust as needed. And give yourself lots of grace while you figure it out.
- Remember yourself: It should go without saying, but don’t forget to feed YOURSELF when you’re on a long journey of errands and appointments, too. Pack foods that work for your kids AND for you.
Dinner in the Car Ideas
Option 1: Pack mix-and-match healthy choices
Best for: When you don’t have time to put something together
Sometimes a grab bag of portable, filling, low-mess food items fits the bill better than anything else.
Remember the arsenal of snacks you’d carry around when you had little kids? We’re giving that concept an energy-sustaining, quick-dinner upgrade.
You know what you and your crew like best, and you should definitely lean on those things first. But in case you’re drawing a blank, below are some reminders of foods that travel well, with and without cooler packs.
Remember: If this isn’t enough to satisfy everyone, you can grab a second dinner or filling snack when you return home.
Foods that keep at room temperature for a long time:
- Bread, sandwich rolls, or pita bread
- Whole grain crackers
- Soft tortillas
- Rice cakes
- Graham crackers
- Homemade muffins and quick breads
- Tortilla chips
- Dry cereal
FRUITS & VEGGIES
- Dried fruit
- Whole fruits in the peel
- Cherry tomatoes
- Fruit cups in 100% juice
- Mini sweet peppers
- Unsweetened applesauce cups
- Jarred olives (unopened)
- Pickles (unopened)
- Peanut butter and seed butter
- Pouches of tuna
- Beef jerky
- Pre-cooked bacon
- Shelf-stable cartons of flavored milk (dairy or non-dairy)
- Trail mix
- Energy bars
Foods to pack in a cooler or insulated bag with ice packs:
FRUITS & VEGGIES
- Celery sticks
- Carrot sticks or baby carrots
- Cucumber slices
- Sliced or mini peppers
- Cut raw broccoli and cauliflower
- Melon balls
- Pineapple chunks
- Orange and apple slices (pour a splash of orange juice over the apple slices to prevent browning and give them a flavor boost)
- Green salad (dressing on the side)
- Store-bought bottled smoothies (or homemade in a thermos)
- Cheese sticks, string cheese & cheese cubes
- Cups of hummus
- Yogurt cups and yogurt drinks
- Hard-boiled eggs
- Deli-meat sandwiches & wraps
- Take-out sushi rolls
- Pasta, tuna, or chicken salad
- Cold, grilled chicken (our store sells cooked rotisserie chicken pulled off the bone)
- Cups of cottage cheese
- Energy bites
Here’s how to put them together for easy dinner in the car ideas:
- Hummus cups + pita bread + baby carrots and cucumbers + olives
- Turkey sandwich wrap + celery sticks + peanut butter + raisins + popcorn
- Pasta salad + cold chicken + applesauce cups
- Homemade quick bread spread with nut or seed butter + cheese sticks + chocolate milk
- Sushi rolls + edamame + fruit
- Cottage cheese + berries + homemade muffin
- Hard-boiled egg + bagel with nut or seed butter + bottled smoothie
Option 2: Assemble dinner boxes
Best for: When your kids need to eat in a hurry (bonus: they can eat while you’re driving)
If you know you’ve got a hectic night ahead, pack a few dinner boxes at the same time you’re assembling lunch boxes.
As opposed to the giant grab bag of snacky foods, a dinner box can be passed out to a hungry kiddo as a complete package, like a mobile dinner plate. These might be larger and heartier than what you pack for lunch. And don’t forget to pack one for yourself!
Half deli meat sandwich + pretzel chips + Snack Bite + broccoli w/ dip + berries
Option 3: Tailgate with hot food
Best for: When want to eat at your destination and have something more traditional or heartier
Sometimes–especially chilly fall days on the sidelines or dinner at the hockey rink–a hot meal is exactly what you need to make it through the evening. Cheese cubes and grapes from a baggie don’t cut it every time!
Food safety note: If your food doesn’t have to hold more than an hour or so, you should be able to easily transport any hot food from home so it will still be warm when you’re ready to eat without buying fancy equipment. And food will keep hot even longer in a thermos.
Here are the best strategies for keeping hot foods hot:
- Wrap hot food items tightly in foil
- Fill containers as much as possible (air pockets can cool foods faster)
- Use a clean kitchen towel for an extra layer of warmth protection
- Pack wrapped food in an insulated bag, such as insulated grocery bag, lunch bag, or casserole bag (affiliate link)
- Invest in a few quality thermoses (see my two favorite thermoses here)
- Keep hot foods away from cold foods when transporting them together
Tip: When serving hot foods, make a hectic day feel more like a special occasion and bring some sturdier picnic dishes or mugs for soups and chili.
HOT DINNER IN THE CAR IDEAS:
- Breakfast sandwiches
- Baked Sandwiches like Ham & Cheese Pinwheels (they taste good hot or cold)
- Pepperoni Rolls: With tomato sauce for dipping, plus individually-packed salads or raw veggies with dip
- Meatball Subs
- Hot Dogs or Sausage Sandwiches (in buns)
- Fried Rice or Stir Fry in a thermos
- Breakfast for dinner: Oatmeal in thermos (here are my two favorite thermoses), fruit, and hard-boiled eggs
- Soups and stews in thermos: Pack with crusty bread or dinner roll and fruit salad
- Macaroni & Cheese in a thermos
- Pasta in a thermos: Smaller pasta cuts are easier to eat than long noodles
Tip: Hot cocoa or my homemade Vanilla Steamer both travel well in a thermos and are comforting on a cool day.
Option 4: Find food while you’re out and about
Best for: When you don’t have the time or groceries to pack in advance–and want to let the kids choose
If you decide not to bring your own food, you’ll need to buy dinner. And rather than wait your turn in a long line of traffic for French fries, you could opt for something even quicker.
Plenty of gas stations, truck stops and rest stops have stepped up their snack game way beyond potato chips and soda. There’s plenty of great food available: lean proteins, healthy fats, and lots of easy things with natural ingredients.
Some of their healthy car-ride-friendly foods to look for include:
- Quick oatmeal cups (use their hot water)
- Cereal to go cups
FRUITS & VEGGIES
- Whole fruits like bananas or apples
- Dried fruit
- Salad kits
- Cut fresh veggies and dip
- Cups of fresh fruit
- Kale chips
- Seaweed snacks
- Yogurt cups
- Beef jerky (or turkey jerky)
- Packs of cheese cubes, crackers, and fruit
- Cheese sticks
- Sunflower seeds
- Hard boiled eggs
- Trail mix
- Nut butter packets
- Heat-and-go soups
- Hummus cups
- Pre-made sandwiches
- Energy bars
Tip: If gas station food isn’t your thing, many local grocery stores offer grab-and-go options for people in a hurry like you. Find healthy choices like pre-sliced cheeses and deli meats, cooked chicken, prepped salads, single-serving drinks, or ready-to-eat fruits and veggies. Look for them near the front door or by the deli.
Bonus Option: Eat at home but tinker with the timing
Best for: When you just want to eat at home and have time to prep ahead earlier in the day
Eating dinner in the car might not be the perfect fit for you, for plenty of reasons. Your kitchen can still be a home base for family dinner, even if everyone’s eating at different times. Here are some options:
- Dinners that can be held on “warm” in the slow cooker and eaten in shifts
- Dinners that can be easily reheated on demand
- Cold dinners that kids and spouses can grab from the fridge and assemble themselves
Tip: Make it less difficult by preparing the kitchen in a way that makes the food easy to serve and eat without oversight:
- Set out the dishes and silverware
- Gather condiments
- Write a note with instructions
Some of our favorite Slow Cooker & Instant Pot meals:
Ideas to make ahead & reheat:
Also, keep some quick, convenience items stocked to serve with these hot meals such as:
- Cooked pasta and rice in pouches (just heat in microwave)
- Tortillas and taco shells
- Heat-and-serve dinner rolls
- Bagged salads and jarred dressing
- Steam-in-bag fresh veggies
- Frozen veggies
Cold dinner ideas:
- Mason Jar Salad: Pack these in mason jars and make a bunch at the beginning of the week, putting heavier toppings on the bottom and salad greens at the top, then dump into a bowl and top with dressing.
- Cold sesame noodles
- Chicken orzo salad
- Pasta salad
- Potato Salad
- Deli meat sandwiches/wraps
- Fresh/spring rolls with peanut sauce
- Chicken salad
- Tuna Salad
- Snack Plate
- Cereal with milk (hey, it counts!)
If all else fails…
You can always come together after the dust settles for a pre-bedtime snack or dessert so that you still get that “family dinner” feeling, which some kids (and parents) can feel like they miss when eating away from home.
Then, an exhausting day can end up feeling a little like a special occasion.
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