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The Ultimate Guide to Keeping Food in Your Car

Avatar for Chris Thompson Chris Thompson  |  Updated: July 1, 2019
The Ultimate Guide to Keeping Food in Your Car

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Keeping food in your car isn’t a bad thing to do — you just have to know how to do it cleanly and intelligently. Having a snack available for a long drive or some emergency rations in case of a breakdown isn’t just convenient, it’s a must in certain parts of the country where travel by car can be precarious in winter months or during storm season. So here are some suggestions about the types of food you may want to keep and how to keep good food in your car without repulsing your friends when they go to jump in.

Automobiles, you may be shocked to know, are not the same as refrigerators. You might be familiar with one or more cars that are treated like the proverbial frat house fridge, strewn with rotting banana peels and empty plastic bags that carry smudges from their former contents. This type of car often emits a rather pungent aroma.

How to Pack Food

Before we can “unpack” all the yummy food items you can enjoy from your in-car sustenance stash, we should take a moment to consider how you might store them. You could select arbitrary foods and throw them into the passenger seat, but that leads to melted ice cream, stale bread and fouled meat products making your car a very unpleasant place.

Some foods can indeed be tossed into your ride ready-to-eat right from the packaging. For some people, that’s the best option when putting together some in-car rations. It’s definitely the most efficient use of your time and energy. However, sticking with only foods that come in convenient containers will limit your food options and largely rule out anything that’s homemade or fresh. For some people, that’s a problem.

When you want to expand the number of options you have for in-car munchies, you can do so with some cleverly selected packaging pieces. Here are five options:

1. The In-Car Cooler

Modern insulation is pretty impressive. Can you remember the last time you traveled by car for over 72 hours without stopping in a location where you can stock up on ice or freeze up some cold packs? Unless you live in rural Alaska, the answer’s probably no. So why not drop a handy cooler right into your vehicle and take advantage of its food-saving powers?

Coolers come in a number of different sizes — choose a smaller 8-quart cooler if you’re keeping a drink cold, or upgrade to something substantial with enough volume to feed the whole family if you’re keeping a group of young ones fed. You can elect to go with the more traditional hard-sided variety, or if you’re feeling trendy, newer soft-sided coolers offer some unique advantages and might stand up to a bumpy ride better than their more rigid cousins.

The downside of this option — cost and on-road manners. Coolers can get expensive quickly, they take up space in your vehicle and driving around with a box of grub could get messy if your route is windy or bumpy. Still, for sheer capacity and the variety of meals you can store, it’s a tough option to beat.

2. Plastic Containers

Like Kleenex, what you probably think of as “Tupperware” is, in fact, the generic version of Tupperware brand plastic containers. These are a cheaper alternative than a cooler that will allow you to store lots of shelf-stable foods you can make at home.

For something like cereal or cookies, a plastic container will do the job just fine. Just don’t ask them to maintain something the needs to remain at a certain temperature for very long. The extra digits in the price tag of those coolers comes from insulation. These guys don’t have it. But for quick trips where you want to keep things tidy, they’re a great solution.

3. The Actual Wrapper/Container

Some products are made well for portability. Food bars, snack mixes and some cereals fall into this category. You might find variations of the food item that comes in individual snack containers, like cups of cereal or little grab bags of trail mix. These individually wrapped items can be a good way to make sure that when you want a quick bite, you don’t dump an entire box of cereal into your carpet. Then again, they can create a lot of waste material, too.

Like we mentioned earlier, if you’re the type who’s content living on protein bars, this might not be an issue. For things that come pre-wrapped but can melt, some insulation may still be necessary.

4. Baggies/Plastic Wrap

Sealing plastic bags can be a good option for dried fruit or jerky that keep well without much temperature control. Plastic wrap, while a great addition to your kitchen storage options, makes for a difficult solution in the car. This is not our method of choice if you can avoid it.

5. Storage for Waste

If you carry a selection of snacks in your car, you might generate a lot of trash. Allowing your car’s cabin to fill up with plastic wrappers is what you want to avoid, so consider investing in a small waste receptacle for your car. Sure, you could use a cup holder or cubbie, however trash tends to leave some unsavory residues and stains on things, so having a dedicated bag that hangs over one seat or is otherwise secured in the cabin will give kids and other passengers a place to store their waste that you can empty on a regular basis.

What to Munch On

Now that you have a good idea of how to store your foodstuffs, what exactly should you expect to snack on? Here are our suggestions for some good in-the-car foods that will satisfy a number of different tastes, from sweet and sugary candy and cookies to more health-conscious snacks like jerky and protein bars.

1. Sweet Treats

Mom always told you not to eat dessert first, but we’re not your mom. In all but a survival situation where you’ll live out of the car, the occasional sweet snack isn’t going to harm you and is often a convenient item to have with you in the car. Here are some of the items we’ve found work well. Licorice makes for an easy to eat snacking option in the car, as do fun-sized candy bars provided you don’t allow the wrappers to pile up too badly.

For a tasty upscale treat, try some coconut Chocodates from Dubai. The wonderfully chewy texture of dates combined with sweet coconut and chocolate is a tough combination to beat. For a simpler option, some quality German chocolate or an easily broken down bar like a Toblerone can satisfy that sweet tooth. Or try packing smaller candies like M&Ms or Skittles in a resealable plastic bag so they won’t go all over the place. Individually wrapped cookies like those available from Mrs. Fields make a great option too.

2. Salty Snacks

The tried-and-true practice of having a family-sized bag of Doritos sitting in the back seat might seem 90s cool, but it’s also a good way to spend days of your life vacuuming out your car’s interior. Salty snacks are a great choice in the car, but there are better ways to do them. For starters, why not downsize to a more manageable bag that won’t be left open for such a long period? That way you avoid a mess.

Popcorn is one popular salty snack you could choose. However, you want to avoid overly seasoned varieties that will make driving difficult and touch points in your car sticky and gross. You can find resealable popcorn bags, perfect for the car since you can get your fix without leaving an open bag around. Potato chips and other members of the “crisp” category have somehow lagged in getting on the resealable container bandwagon, so maybe just keep a chip clip around to keep your remaining chips from going stale and littering your car.

Dried meats and cheeses have great shelf-lives and can also make wonderful in-car snacks. These are items that are best contained using a plastic resealable bag. Take your pick of the many varieties of jerky and cured meats available from around the world. Everything from antelope to biltong to turkey jerky can satisfy your particular tastes.

As for cheeses, munching on a brick of Parmesan is a little impractical for the car. Consider individually wrapped string cheese and baby cheeses that you can quickly unwrap and nosh on.

3. Nutrition Bars and Survival Food

This is a category that covers a broad array of use-cases. The food bar market in this day and age has been completely saturated and offers options that range from very healthy all the way to something more akin to candy than survival food. We’re not judging, go for whatever makes you happy. Some brands like Clif Bar offer products aimed specifically at children to make it more attractive for them to eat something relatively healthy.

Packing some chewy granola bars into the back seat of the car is a simple, convenient snacking plan that offers individually wrapped items. So it’s not a bad way to go. In the scenario that you use this type of food for an emergency kit, you can find your way into some more purpose-built nutrition that is extremely shelf-stable and will last for a long time. Options like the Mainstay or Mayday emergency ration bars provide you with real nutrition that is used by preppers and elite military operations alike.

They pack a lot of nutrition into a compact item so that should you be in a survival situation, you can slowly work on one shelf-stable item to retain energy.

Some people like to store freeze-dried rations in their car for emergency situations. If you appreciate these foods, it’s a fine option — however, it’s important that you’re familiar with how to use them or you’ll end up wasting your money. Freeze-dried rations often require re-hydration and boiling water to eat. That means you’ll need to have something like a camp stove and the water needed to re-hydrate your meal.

For someone who does lots of off-road driving or is concerned about becoming stranded in cold weather, there might be a real benefit to having this sort of thing around and the time and effort required to source an electrical adapter and stash eating utensils in your car could be justifiable. You do get the benefit of a huge variety of freeze-dried meals to choose from. So it’s not for everyone, but does constitute a robust, calorie-dense option if you choose to go this route.

4. Liquid Lunch

While a smaller category than the others, there are a variety of smoothies and nutrition drinks that you can keep with you if you elected to use the cooler strategy we talked about earlier. Everything from Muscle Milk to Soylent to the multitude of pre-packed juice products on the market can be stashed in your cooler for a quick pick-me-up on the road. We don’t recommend actual fresh homemade juice or smoothies only because they can separate, even when kept cold.

Time to Snack on the Road

As you can see, you should never feel like you’re forced to go hungry just because you have a long drive ahead of you. In a lot of situations, you’d actually receive better nutrition by snacking on some of the items we mention here than visiting a side-of-the-road fast food place. And for those who want to be prepared in case of an unplanned emergency stay in the car, there’s no need to be held to a short list of options.

Let us know what your choice of snacks is on the road — how do you like to store your munchies? What was the best takeaway from this article that you found?

Are there certain foods that you have just in winter or summer months? Drop us a line so we can better inform your prepping and survival efforts!

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5 Responses to “The Ultimate Guide to Keeping Food in Your Car”

  1. Okay, I’m the spoiler. I have an inverter and a microwave. It will make popcorn or scrambled eggs or heat water for hot chocolate or whatever. A passenger can operate it on the roll. Or, when stopped, it will run three minutes engine off and that is usually enough. There is no console in my Astro van, so a seat-high cooler between the buckets keeps on-the-road snacks handy. The cover is reversible and has drink holders and room to make my favorite munchie – a Triscuit, quarter slice of Swiss, and two Pepperonis. A rough-tote has a bunch of canned goods. For longer trips there is an additional larger cooler and a propane BBQ. Latest experiment is a dual-fuel single burner stove for bacon & eggs. I have lived in it for a week at a time. Comments are requested. Abuse is expected!

  2. Jerky in all its flavors is, like you said is a great thing to have as are dried fruits. These make kids happy due to sugar and fruit looks for kids. If only adults then potted meat, spam, and if you are eating out of the car sardines are loaded with good vitamins ect. We used to go to Co. in the winter and so had sleeping bags ect. for use. We had a cig heater that would give you a cup of hot water quickly for small cans of soup, ramen noodles ect. Great srticle.

  3. Quaker Oats Breakfast Flats can take the heat well. They come in three separate 90 calorie flat bars that provide 15 carbs per bar. Slicing one of the package ends off, you can seal the package rolling the edge shut and using a metal binder clip to seal. It only has 3 grams of protein though. But eating one of those will hold an individual for about 2 hours while hiking, so it isn’t a bad choice for us – maybe you too.

  4. This is good information, but I’m always reading things about cold weather. However, I live in the desert and need to know how to keep my car stocked for hot weather and not just for a long drive, but for emergency.

    • I too live on the high desert. In the summer the vehicle temps can get to 140 plus degrees. Even the Mainstay and other emergency food rations will go bad quickly. I only put foods in the vehicle the days I drive more than 10 miles out of town. I take all food items out when I get back home. There is always lots of water onboard but not in plastic water bottles. In my truck I always carry 6 gallons of water, backpacking stove with canned fuel, a pot for boiling water and a small day pack. When heading out, I put three days supply of Mountain House meals for two in as a “just in case” thing. It does seem that few writers live on the deserts. There are a lot of deserts in the US.

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