Pack these food items for a safe road trip (and avoid these or risk barfing)

More of us are vacationing by car these days and packing our own food. Some are long day trips; some stay in hotels and eat food from home requiring minimal prep; and others rent a home or condo with full kitchen.

While we support this trend, we want Wandering Rose readers to understand the pros and cons of transporting food from home in the car and how to do it safely. This will be a new concept for many travelers who traditionally eat snacks at gas stations and meals at restaurants and hotels.

Before you click off and read something you perceive as more exciting, consider this:

  • Each year, 1 in 6 Americans get sick from food poisoning. The first consideration when carrying food in your car is limiting the chance of bacteria multiplying.
  • Cars can heat up fast and become much hotter than the outside temperature. If it is 80° F outside, your car can heat to 99° F in just 10 minutes and 109° F in 20 minutes, according to the National Weather Service.


Wandering Rose Travels contacted Natalie Seymour, Food Safety Extension Associate at North Carolina State Extension and Associate Director of Outreach and Teaching for the Safe Plates Program. Following her advice on food safety when traveling can help ensure your vacation is memorable for people and places rather than a nasty bout of food poisoning.

Wandering Rose Travels: Are there foods you recommend for the car that don’t require refrigeration? Good foods for the cooler on a road trip? Any foods to avoid when traveling by car?

Seymour: There are a lot of great foods for road trips. We recommend foods that don’t require refrigeration such as fruits and vegetables (except cut tomatoes, cut melons or cut leafy greens), nuts and nut butters, breads and baked goods, shelf-stable snacks, dehydrated meats and fruit, shelf stable pouches of protein like tuna or chicken, and hard boiled eggs in shell.

Foods like produce may be better quality if kept in a cooler, though maintaining a refrigerator temperature is not necessary for safety. Try to avoid items that require strict temperature control for safety such as milk, raw and cooked meat, fish and poultry (and foods made from any of these). Also avoid cut tomatoes, cut melons, and cut leafy greens; cooked grains, potatoes, beans, rice and plant foods.

WRT: What are some basic, universal rules of food safety for road trips that we all should follow?

Seymour: The biggest ways that people get sick from their food is eating from unsafe sources, failure to cook food to the right temperature or hold it at the right temperature, poor personal hygiene and contaminated equipment. Picking foods that don’t require temperature control is a great first step.

But it’s also important that any coolers or preparation surfaces that you’re using have are properly cleaned, and that you are washing your hands before eating. If you’re picking up food while on a road trip make sure it’s from a reputable source so that you don’t end up sick from food that is unsafe.

WRT: Is outside temperature a factor in food safety? Can a hot car cause food to spoil that might be okay on your countertop at home?

Seymour: Bacteria and fungi grow faster as temperature increases. Temperatures between 41° F and 135 °F are where we’re worried from a food safety standpoint. Temperature increases cause more than just food safety concerns though. Higher temperature can also speed up enzyme reactions and cause changes in texture, color and flavor that make alter quality.

WRT: Can you share tips on using a cooler properly to keep cold food safe.

Seymour: For foods that require temperature control for safety or quality, it is important to pack the cooler properly. Ideally, all food going in your cooler should start at 41°F or below to give everything the best shot of staying cold. If there are items that can be frozen ahead of time that can help. One way to do this is freezing water bottles to serve as ice packs, or freeze items like yogurt or non-carbonated drinks.

Make sure to use a good quality insulated cooler for long trips that require many hours of low temperatures. Use ice packs and/or ice to keep food cool, distributing it all around all food items. Don’t open the cooler unless you need to, as temperature could increase with frequent opening and closing.

To avoid soggy snacks, either pack them in a resealable plastic bag or fill bags with ice to trap water as it melts.

If you’re traveling for more than a few hours, put a refrigerator thermometer in the cooler to monitor if your temperature-sensitive food has gone above a safe temperature of 41°F.

WRT: Do you have any wisdom on the 12-volt mini fridge that plugs into your car’s accessory port? Good idea or bad?

Seymour: If you want to use a mini fridge do your research and get one designed for how you intend to use it. It’s a good idea to use a fridge thermometer in one of these units as well to make sure it’s actually getting and staying at a safe temperature of 41°F or below. And be sure to clear a space around the unit and use as directed to avoid safety concerns.

WRT: Do you have any advice on snacks in the car?

Seymour: A road trip without snacks is really just a very long drive. Use reuseable water bottles if you have a way to refill them safely. Consider plastic cups for portioning messy snacks like popcorn for kids. They fit neatly into cup holders and are less likely to spill. Canning jars work well for the same reason. If you take food that requires refrigeration and don’t have space in the cooler, be sure to eat it within four hours of removal from the fridge.

WRT: Do you have any other advice for food safety on the road?

Seymour: If you make a stop, wash your hands before you eat. If you are eating on the road consider packing hand or baby wipes to use before you chow down. Pack hand sanitizer as well and use it after you are in a public place or handle your face mask to decrease the risk of getting COVID-19.

WRT: What are good food choices for snacks and meals that don’t require refrigeration?

Seymour: There are lots of good options for road trip foods. Baked goods, crackers, granola and protein bars, trail mixes, nuts and seeds, nut butters, jerky, dried meat sticks, fruit cups, pudding cups, shelf stable fish or chicken pouches and shelf stable drinks are all good options. For fresh items consider hard cheeses, and fruits and vegetables (except cut tomatoes, cut melons and cut leafy greens)

WRT: What if we wish to purchase carry-out food from a restaurant on trips. How long will it keep without refrigeration? What cautions do you have for this?

Seymour: Depending on the item, you may not want to keep leftovers on a road trip. Foods that require temperature control should be eaten within four hours of being removed from refrigeration or hot holding equipment (like a soup bar or buffet). Some leftovers like baked goods, bread, chips or fruit can be kept and saved for a snack for later. But a turkey sandwich, leftover burrito or even half a salad shouldn’t be kept unless you have a way to quickly get it down to 41°F or below.

If you’d like more food safety information, follow @SafePlatesFSIC on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

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