My family spends a lot less time in the car than the American average, but we get into our car for hours-long errand binges some weekends and several long road trips each year. For the past three school years, my son had to be driven through urban rush-hour traffic to a weekly activity at dinnertime. (We got him all the way to sixth grade before experiencing that, but it did happen eventually!)
My own childhood was more typical of family life in the United States: I grew up in a town with mile after mile of ranch houses on big lots with no sidewalks, occasional strip malls, a half-dead downtown, and no public transit–with 50 miles of highway between our town and the city where our church and some of our doctors were located. I was in the car every single day until second grade, when I started going to school within walking distance–and even then, I was in the car more days than not, going to after-school activities or on errands with my parents.
So I’ve experienced the temptation to multi-task by eating while traveling in the car–to save time, to prevent hunger from frazzling the kids’ nerves or mine so that we get irritable or tired during errands, to distract the kids from complaining about a long ride. Car snacking isn’t a thing we never do! It’s a strategy we reserve for times when we really need it, not part of our normal routine.
This has been easy for me because my parents set an example: Although I grew up riding in the car a lot, we rarely ate in the car. Our hectic lives were planned around most meals being home-cooked and eaten at the table before or after travel, or packed as a picnic to eat while we were out. Exceptions mostly involved eating in a parked car at the drive-in restaurant or when it was raining at picnic time. Food was never offered as a form of entertainment on the road.
Starting into parenthood familiar with lots of alternatives to car snacking and the assumption that it’s undesirable–and with my partner Daniel on the same page–made it easy to avoid starting a car-snacking habit for our kids. When our son choked while snacking in the car, and we realized that if only one parent had been there he might have died or suffered brain damage from oxygen deprivation before we could help him, that motivated us to be even more careful.
My new article at Kitchen Stewardship explains in more detail the reasons to minimize car snacking:
- Eating while in a distracted state impairs digestion and nutrient absorption.
- The habit of eating during car trips can turn into, “I need to eat because I’m in the car,” which is out of touch with your body’s needs and can lead to weight gain.
- Driving while distracted by eating (or drinking) increases the risk of accidents.
- Choking is a risk, particularly for young children.
- It’s tempting to eat less healthy food in the car than you would at the table, because of the convenience of packaged snacks.
- Eating in a moving vehicle while restrained by a seat belt, both kids and adults drop a lot of crumbs and spill sticky stuff. Cars are hard to clean, and ants crawling around your car are a dangerous distraction!
Here are some specific strategies to help you get through a busy day without eating in a moving car! Some of these will be right for your family, and others won’t. Look for strategies that suit your schedules, your personal metabolic clocks, and the particular places you’re going and places you could stop.
Is Food Really What You Need?
This is an important question to ask before stuffing a snack into your schedule! Could it be that you or the kids want to eat on the road because of boredom, anxiety, or habit instead of a genuine need for nutrients? Have you been feeding the kids just to keep them busy so they don’t complain about sitting in the car? If so, skip the snack and try something else, like
- talking about what you did today and what you’re about to do next
- talking about what you see outside
- thinking out loud about how you drive and how you navigate
- telling a story, or asking your kid to tell you a story
- playing verbal games like “I’m thinking of a fruit that starts with G”
- getting toys with straps that attach to the car seat so baby can’t drop them
- giving kids a magnetic drawing tablet with attached stylus (easier to use than crayons and paper)
- having someone who can read in a moving vehicle read aloud to everyone else
- listening to music, stories, or podcasts (Better than video, this gets everyone to use their imaginations while staying aware of their surroundings.)
- singing (As a child, I knew several parents who each had a default song to sing LOUDLY when the kids started bickering!)
Someone recently told me I “must not have had a car-seat screamer” or I’d understand why kids have to eat in a moving car.
I was surprised because we did have a child who screamed every time we put him in his car seat–it’s just that he started at 5 months old, when he wasn’t eating solid food and couldn’t hold his own bottle, so it never occurred to us to placate him with food except by stopping the car so that I could nurse him! We did some of that, and we spent a lot of time speaking soothingly about how it would be okay–but mostly we played loud music to drown him out, and after a few minutes he’d calm down.
Getting through that season in parenting our first child got us used to strategies for taming car tantrums that we’ve continued to use with both kids. We don’t use food to shut them up unless we have good reason to think they’re hungry! Of course, hunger can be the motivation for a bad mood, and that’s why it’s important to plan your days so that everyone gets food when they need it.
Get Up in Time for Breakfast
Could you carve out 10 minutes to eat your real-food breakfast at the table instead of in the car? There are lots of foods you can make ahead so that your morning mealtime is all about eating.
Even if you’re relying on packaged cereal, having it at home makes it much easier to toss in yogurt and fruit for a more balanced and filling breakfast.
Eat on Arrival
I’ve worked with many people who eat breakfast at their desks immediately after arriving at work. DIY instant oatmeal is an easy, quick, healthy, green, and thrifty option. (And if you drink coffee, make it garbage-free and save money!)
It’s best for your digestion to enjoy your meal before you “clock in” to work, instead of taking bites in between answering emails and planning your tasks for the day. (But if you have to choose between eating while driving and eating while working, I’d guess that your metabolism is more disrupted by the task that’s literally life-threatening! Certainly, eating at your desk is less of a risk to the people around you than being distracted while you drive.)
My kids’ public schools offer free breakfast to students who come into the cafeteria before the bell rings. It’s a convenient option for those whose school bus, ride with a parent, or walking gets them to school a little early. If the school breakfast doesn’t meet your family’s standards, pack that healthy muffin to be eaten in the cafeteria instead of the car!
Driving to an activity may take longer if there’s heavy traffic. If you have to allow 40 minutes to drive 4 miles just in case it takes that long today, scout out a nice place to eat if you arrive early! Online maps make it easy to find a park near your destination, or maybe a church or school won’t mind a family enjoying a few minutes in the yard, or maybe your destination has an outdoor space or indoor lobby where you can sit. Even if it’s raining and you just eat in your parked car, at least you can take off your seat belt and look around at stable scenery. It’s only when you do end up trapped in traffic that you’ll need the emergency strategy of eating on the road!
Hey, Wait–Does That Activity Include Snack?
It’s startling how many gatherings of people these days include food! Even a one-hour meeting of adults at a typical “after dinner” time may have refreshments. When your kids are involved in a recurring activity, ask them if there was a snack at the first session.
You don’t need to feed them on the way if they’ll be eating 20 minutes after arrival! My son was in an awesome mentoring program that actually provided a full dinner every week.
If your family’s food restrictions mean that the food provided is likely to be something you can’t eat, pack your own food to eat at the same time as the rest of the group.
Eat Before You Go
This might mean a quick stop at home to put down the school bags, eat food prepared earlier in the day and stored in individual covered dishes, and pick up the dance gear.
It might mean eating a packed snack in the schoolyard before getting into the car or hiking a few blocks to an activity.
It might mean that a parent packs both lunch and dinner to eat at the office before spending the evening driving a kid to one of those “might take 40 minutes to drive 4 miles” locations and grocery-shopping nearby during the 90 minutes he’s at his activity which provides dinner. (This is how I managed Nick’s mentoring program, which provided dinner for him but not for me! I highly recommend eating in advance over getting hungry during the stressful drive and then eating grab’n’go supermarket food in a parked car!)
At Nick’s childcare center when he was little, a dozen kids and two teachers convened every day for Five O’Clock Snack, a tradition implemented when the teachers realized they weren’t the only ones who needed sustenance for the long commute home! Some kids faced up to 90 minutes in the car with parents who worked near the school but lived in outer suburbia. I picked up Nicholas at 6:30, took two buses to get home, and then cooked dinner. The teachers suggested to the parents who picked up after 5:00–when enough kids had gone home that the remaining 2-to-5-year-olds were gathered into one group–that we pack each child a snack so they could eat together. This fostered a community spirit that helped the kids feel less lonely after friends had gone home.
Have Food Ready When You Get Home
If some family members are at home while others are out, get the folks at home to cook! It’s surprising how long it took us to think of this solution when Daniel started working from home and I was dropping off and picking up Nicholas during my commute–Daniel can cook about as well as I do, yet he rarely thought of starting dinner so it would be ready when Nicholas and I got home. It wasn’t until we were preparing for kindergarten (with its early start time requiring early bedtime) that we agreed I would plan the meals and Daniel would cook every weeknight. Big improvement!
A slow-cooker is a life-saver for families who are rushing around right up until mealtime! You can set up a nourishing meal hours in advance, turn on the cooker, and leave it home alone getting dinner ready for you to serve when the hungry hordes come home. (Don’t worry, it’s not a fire hazard unless the cord or outlet is damaged or you set up the cooker in a dangerous place.)
Could You Drive Less?
It’s tempting to get our kids and ourselves involved in all the enriching activities that are available here on Earth! It’s tempting, too, to shop at many different stores to get the lowest price and best quality of every product! Of course, we can try to combine several goals in one car trip (like my grocery shopping during Nick’s mentoring) to minimize total time in the car and fuel use.
But sometimes you’re just trying to go too many places in one week, or you’re going to places that are too far away for such frequent visits. If you’re feeling overloaded with car travel, see if you can pare it down!
Kids don’t have to do every activity available. Some families limit the number of different activities, others the number of days per week or the distance from home. The town where I grew up is about 10 miles in diameter, so we generally limited our activities and shopping to places in town. Living in Pittsburgh now, we’re able to stay within 5 miles of home for weeks at a stretch. It’s true that we can get some great bargains at Gordon Food Service out in Monroeville–but we make a list and go once every couple of months, not every week.
Walking or taking public transit is a way to reduce driving that may or may not reduce stress and usually doesn’t save time. But it works some exercise into your day, it gives you more opportunity to focus on your companions, and it’ll break a car-snacking habit!
Clean the Car and Turn Over a New Leaf
Get the whole family involved in giving your vehicle(s) a thorough cleaning. Be sure to take out the child safety seats and clean under them. Everyone will see how much food, beverages, and wrappers contribute to the mess. Then say, “We are not going to eat in the car.” Maybe you won’t be able to abstain from road-snacking completely and forever, but setting a rule that “we don’t do that” will reduce it to those times when you have a really good reason. You’ll curb mindless eating and help the work-arounds work by making eating on the road a non-option.
I grew up with a general rule that we didn’t eat in the car, and I don’t feel that the exceptions undermined the rule. We ate at a drive-in restaurant several times a year, so obviously we’d eat in the car there–but we didn’t start moving until everyone finished eating. On long road trips, we brought snacks that might be eaten in the moving car if someone was really hungry with no rest stop in sight–but more often, we stopped for a picnic. If it was time to leave and I hadn’t finished eating, I might bring the last bit to eat in the car–but usually we allowed enough time that that didn’t happen.
Generally, the rule was upheld: Our weekly hour-each-way drive to church typically involved not eating between breakfast at home and late lunch after returning home. Our monthly 3-hour trip to visit grandparents typically started right after dinner on Friday, and we’d come home right after lunch on Sunday. Those long rides across the boring prairie were reading time or listening time, not eating time! Water in my dad’s Army canteens was all we needed.
I’m grateful that I wasn’t raised with the expectation that hitting the road means having a snack! It’s important to me to raise kids with healthy eating habits that have helped me stay slim all my life–and although living in a walkable neighborhood with public transit has made it a lot easier to avoid car snacking, we still have to resist the temptations of snack options all around us. (Before they started Five O’Clock Snack at childcare, I had been bringing Nicholas a bag of trail mix to eat while waiting for the bus home every evening–and I started that to stop him from begging for a snack at the mini-mart we passed on the way to the bus stop!)
We pack healthy snacks for our all-day road trips, and there are other occasional exceptions, but eating in our car happens less than once a month. There are lots of good reasons to keep it from becoming routine!