For anyone working from their car and traveling all day, you will often find yourself making your car your kitchen. Although our office on wheels does not have the luxury of a stocked workplace kitchen, that doesn’t mean we can’t nourish ourselves on 4 wheels! These tips are also great for travelers who spend a lot of time in their cars on road trips or anyone with a long commute too.
1. Keeping Hot Drinks Hot
For many of us, coffee is more than a beverage; it is a life force. Others prefer tea as a way to pamper ourselves and relax. Whichever your choice, keeping it hot on the road is a struggle. We do not have the luxury of a microwave to reheat or brew a fresh pot. Although there are many ways to keep a liquid hot on the go, the consensus is that a metal vacuum flask is the way to go.
Science time: heat is a form of kinetic energy. According to the First Law of Thermodynamics energy is constant, it is not created or destroyed. When a hot liquid is poured in a regular mug the heat energy escapes to the mug and surrounding air until the liquid is the same as the room’s temperature. A vacuum sealed flask creates a closed system so the heat cannot escape, therefore keeping your drink hotter for longer.
Enough science, which flask is best? I’ve gone through my fair share of various travel coffee mugs and one definitely stands out: Thermos 16oz Raya Travel Mug . The link is for 2 at $15 each with free shipping and believe me, you will want 2. I’ve had this mug (in a pink version which I cannot find anywhere) for 5 years and it is still going strong. It easily keeps coffee piping hot for at least 4 hours and still warm at 6 hours. What I really like about this mug particularly is the rubbery grips which are essential for sipping and driving. The bottom is non-slip as well so the mug won’t flail around in your cup holder. There is a simple slide lock mechanism to access the spout which is easily done with one hand, but tough enough to prevent accidental spills. It is very easy to clean, although I wouldn’t recommend putting it in the dishwasher. One down side is you must leave about 3/4″ air clearance from the top or else too much steam can push the lid up, although you just have to push it back down if that happens.
Although I haven’t tried it, the Thermos 16-Ounce Drink Bottle with Tea Infuser seems like a good upgrade from the Raya. It has great reviews, boasts 12 hours of heat and 24 hours of cold and has a loose leaf tea infuser! It’s a little on the expensive side at $25.26, but is dishwasher safe. The average American worker spends $28.80 on coffee in just 2 weeks, so the savings of getting one of these is incredible!
Other devices exist to keep your drinks toasty, but I have not tried them yet. I’m interested in the RoadPro RPBH-012 12V Beverage Heater. It plugs into the car’s power socket and reports heating in 2-3 minutes, which reviewers confirm. Instructions report it can only be used in glass or ceramic cups, but does not mention metal. I believe it would be fine since the concern is burning through a paper, plastic or Styrofoam cub.
2. Keeping Cold Drinks Cold
A nice thing about the vacuum flasks is that they keep cold drinks frosty too, for even longer times, so when you are done with your coffee you can fill it up at a water fountain and it will stay cool. If you would prefer a separate cold drink container I would go with Thermos Vacuum Insulated 18-Ounce Stainless-Steel Hydration Bottle. It has the same vacuum sealed technology which reports keeping drinks cool for up to 24 hours. It also has the rubbery grip which is perfect for handling on the road and a wide spout, perfect for big cool gulps.
A cheap, but not as environmentally friendly, option are packs of plastic water bottles sold in stores. I just bought a 24 pack of Walmart brand water for $2! You can freeze a whole bottle or just freeze a little and fill the rest with water depending how fast the ice will melt in your climate. The safety factor of reusing these types of bottles is controversial. It is not recommended by the manufacturers as repeated use will cause thinning or cracks in the surface which can harbor bacteria in a bottle meant to only be used once or twice. Leaving these types of bottles in a hot car for an extended period of time can leach harmful phthalates into the water. BPA (bisphenol A) is also a hotly debated substance found in many plastic water bottles. To summarize the current knowledge: BPA is not good for you and exposing it to heat is really bad. I am usually skeptical of all “chemicals are evil” granola babe scares, but I do think in the future we will see heating plastics like we see tobacco now. They didn’t know it was bad for them for years and it took tons pressure to see a change.
So if you want a reusable water bottle, go for one that is BPA free. My favorite alternative is the Ello 20-oz Glass Water Bottle with Flip Lid. Many people, including myself, swear that water from a glass bottle tastes better than from metal or plastic. The Ello brand typically has a colorful silicone sleeve to improve grip and protect against being dropped. They also have wide mouths which are great for adding ice cubes and easy cleaning, plus they are dishwasher safe! I like this model because of the one-touch flip lid perfect for driving.
Once you have your container, you need to make the drink cold. Unlike heating, there are no harmful effects from freezing water, just be aware that when water freezes as it expands. To prevent your bottle from breaking leave air space at the top, at least 2 inches and keep lids off or loosely unscrewed. Using a wide mouth bottle allows you to put regular ice cubes straight in. If yours is too small for that, there are many tube-shaped ice cube molds. My favorite is Good Old Values’ 4 Ice Tube Making Trays for Water Bottles – 2pc Sets. Unlike silicone, they are rigid and wont flop around as you take it from sink to freezer, but are still easy to pop out.
3. Keeping Cold Foods Cold and Fresh
Working on the road is tough when lunchtime rolls around. You can find yourself spending a lot of your hard earned money on fast food versus bringing food from home. Keeping food cool and fresh can be a challenge, but not with the right tools.
It all starts with a good lunchbox. There are oodles of great insulated lunch holders out there, but I have friends who swear by the Coleman 9 Can Soft Cooler. It’s a steal at $13.99 for the gray one, but can be a little big for some people. The Coleman 9 Can Cooler Satchel is a smaller and stylish alternative and at only $8.88. My personal choice would be Picnic Plus Outdoor Portable Travel Savoy Lunch Bag. It comes with a plastic food container and has a little pocket, but what really attracted me to it are the variety of fun patterns and colors.
Regarding ice packs, I recommend using a flexible sheet like Flexi Freeze Refreezable Ice Sheets. They come in a large 19×15.5″ sheet and you can cut them to a custom size. This allows you to place one on the bottom of your lunch container and wrap the sheet around the walls of your tote and one on top so coolness is distributed evenly versus one single ice pack.
A lot of people love salad for lunch. The best product for on the go salad container I’ve seen is Ramini Brands Fresh Salad To Go Serving Cup . It holds the dressing in a little cup so the salad doesn’t get soggy and comes with a fork. Once you pour the dressing on the salad you can close the lid and shake to distribute evenly. Best of all, it fits in a cup holder! Perfect to eat in your car on the run.
Using the same concept as the salad cups, a mason jar is the perfect cold food container for the car. They are BPA-free and fit in most cup holders. They are perfect for a pasta, Asian noodle or quinoa salad, also yogurt granola parfaits and even oatmeal. The diameter of a wide mouth jar is 3″ and the average car cup holder is 3″. If you can’t find one to fit your car’s cup holder you may need a cup holder adapter. Since mason jars usually come in large quantities, it is easy for you to just make a bunch of these at the beginning of the week and grab them from the fridge when you need them. Although they are sold online, mason jars are usually cheapest at your grocery store.
If you are going to be using mason jars as food storage a lot, you ,may want to invest in upgrading from those complicated mason jar lids. I recommend Tulid Silicone Mason Jar Lids. They are also BPA-free and have a rubberized grip so it’s easy to open. The lid can be written on with wet erase markers so you don’t forget what you made.
Sandwiches have always been the quintessential lunch to bring from home. Putting them in a baggie leaves the sandwich vulnerable to being damaged, so hard sandwich containers were made. My choice is the Sistema Klip It Sandwich Box Set. The box easily flips open for easy use while driving and is BPA-free, unlike many plastic sandwich boxes. These boxes are large enough to fit most types of bread. Using a box also helps manage crumbs so they fall into the open box as you eat.
On the subject of sandwiches, here is my little trick: to keep sliced bread fresh longer I keep it in the freezer. I use the frozen bread to make my sandwich and by lunch time it is the perfect temperature. This keeps the sandwich contents fresh as well like meats and cheeses which can spoil if not kept cold. Spreading condiments on frozen bread is much easier as well.
I also just found out about Snackeez Travel Drink/Snack Cup. It holds 16 oz of drink and 4 oz of snack in one cup! A great idea.
4. Keeping/Making Food Hot
This is truly my biggest food dilemma working from my car. I crave warm food, but there are plenty of devices and tricks to having a warm meal on the go. Using the same vacuum sealed technology as the coffee mugs, food sized containers also exist and keep food hot for hours. There are many of these thermal food jars that range in size from 10 oz to 24 oz and come in a variety of colors and styles and even cute owls! If I had to pick one favorite I would go with Thermos Stainless King 16-Ounce Food Jar. I feel that 16 oz is a good size and this Thermos boasts keeping food hot 7 hours, which multiple reviews confirm. Something I love about this model is that it has a metal spoon built into it. Dealing with cutlery in the car is a hassle, so this is a great feature.
There are many devices that work off your vehicle’s 12 V plug to heat food including a grill, sauce pan/popcorn maker, slow cooker, and even a frying pan, but the most versatile item to have would be an oven. There are two portable stoves that are the same in size, price and ratings. They are RoadPro 12-Volt Portable Stove and Koolatron LBS-01 Black 12 Volt Lunch Box Stove. Both heat to 300 degrees F, are 11x8x8″ and people rave about both. The cooking area is equal to an aluminum loaf pan which can be found at dollar stores or bought in bulk $37.17 for 200 pans, which is 19 cents per pan. There are reports of the Koolatron heating faster than the RoadPro, 30 min vs 90 minutes.
It is possible to access a microwave even if you work from your car. Many employees have a main office they report to which probably has a microwave they can use. Considering having lunch with a friend or spouse at their office and use the microwave there. Perhaps you are friendly with a certain business and they may let you use theirs. Many gas stations have one for customers to use, but you probably have to buy gas or something else before they would let you use it and they are probably kinda nasty. College cafeterias have them, but good luck finding parking near the cafeteria around lunch. Some hotels have one in their breakfast area, but try not to draw attention to the fact that you aren’t staying there. Truly the best bet is apartment leasing offices and HOA clubhouses which frequently have one for anyone to use, often in a community kitchen. Using it isn’t too suspicious, especially if your work took you to someone who lives in that community.
If you are going to use a microwave, you need to have a microwave safe container. Many leftover-style containers you have at home may release dangerous chemicals when heated in the microwave or cleaned in the dishwasher. My faves are the double-stacked bento-style boxes Bentgo and Effiliv. Both come is several stylish colors, are almost the same in price and, my favorite feature, have built in cutlery!. The Effiliv is slightly larger and snaps together versus Bentgo‘s elastic strap, plus Effiliv claims to be spill proof, while Bentgo does not. Bentgo offers an Bentgo%20Bag – Insulated Lunch Box Bag Keeps Food Cold On The Go – Purpleinsulated bag for $7.99 as an add on as well. If you want something a little more spartan, Rubbermaid%2042-Piece Easy Find Lid Food Storage SetRubbermaid and Pyrex make microwave safe containers as well. Avoid being like your grandmother and reusing margarine or yogurt containers; they are definitely not microwave safe and are meant for single use only. Regarding take out containers, follow their instructions. Some Styrofoam is microwave safe while some isn’t, same with plastic.
5. Dealing with Trash
If you are spending a lot of time in your car you are bound to have trash. Having a designated trash receptacle is a must. I like a model that hangs on the headrest of the passenger seat like the High Road TrashStash Leakproof Car Litter Bag or Mas27 Trash Keeper. Some models hang off the A/C vents or sit on the floor taking up valuable car space and are more likely to spill. The Mas27 is a little bigger, but also more expensive. Both are leak proof which is essential for keeping those last few drops of soda off of your upholstery. Both Velcro closed for keeping anything stinky from smelling up your car.
If you have a lot of trash the best place to dispose of it on the road are gas stations. They are very convenient next to the pumps and are rarely full, unlike fast food restaurants who also might look at you weird taking for your trash in their store.
6. Utensils and Napkins
I have such a high opinion of food containers with built-in utensils for a reason. You do not want to be missing pieces in your once-perfect set of designer silverware because they’re lost in your car somewhere. After they are used they are messy and require a place to be stored where they won’t get anything else dirty, but not forgotten and thrown away. There are many reusable cutlery sets out there, but my fave is Ikea’s colorful 16-piece set. There are 6 complete fork, spoon and knife sets. Great for 5 days of the workweek and one extra! What I recommend doing is keep these all in a Ziploc baggie and have another Ziploc baggie to collect the dirty ones. At the end of the week take the dirty baggie and wash the utensils and you’re ready for next week! Keep this in your glove compartment or center console and you’ll never be stuck without silverware again. Of course you could also by disposable plastic cutlery for single use, but reusable will save you over time and save the Earth.
If you are eating in your car, you’re going to need napkins. I see a lot of people have a roll of paper towels rolling around somewhere in their car, but that takes up precious space and isn’t the most handy. I recommend a visor clip tissue/napkin holder to keep them close. They also make cute ones that strap on to the seat. From there it’s up to you if you want to fill it with actual napkins or tissues that can double as napkins.
7. Good Travel Foods and Snacks
Working on the road, you definitely need to keeps some snacks handy. When it comes to munching in the car, portion control is key. Individual sized servings of muchies are great. Chips, crackers, granola bars, jerky, and cookies are all foods you can keep a stash of in your car for snack-mergencies. Save money by buying in bulk and making your own snack sized portions with Ziploc baggies. Using plastic cups with a lid is a great way to store snacks so they easily fit in the cup holder. You can use reusable or single use cups for this. Be careful of any snack that can melt or get mushy on a hot day like chocolate, peanut butter, caramel and yogurt coatings. (I live in Texas where 100 degrees in summer is a cool day).
There are oodles of great travel foods, but my favorite car snack is almonds. They contain a lot of protein which is great for making you feel full. They are also a good source of many of vitamins and minerals and good fats to lower cholesterol. Blue Diamond makes a ton of awesome flavors; savory ones like habenero barbeque, wasabi and soy sauce and smokehouse and sweet flavors like butter toffee, vanilla and even apple pie! Many varieties come in canisters with a twist off lid that fit perfectly in a cup holder and minimize spill chances. My favorite is the dark chocolate; it isn’t actually covered in chocolate, just cocoa powder, but it still satisfies my inner chocoholic without the guilt. A big plus for almonds is almost no crumbs – something you really appreciate after eating in your car a few times. I’ve linked Amazon for these, but check your local supermarket to see if they are cheaper there.
Another one of my favorite car snacks is string cheese. They come in many flavors, even pizza! They typically have 4-6g of protein and 50-60 calories a piece making them a great healthy snack. They can apparently last 2 to 4 hours at room temperature, but keeping them cool in an insulated container is recommended for freshness. I love the Babybel cheese wheels too, but the little wax packaging can leave a mess in your car on a hot day, so be careful of that.
I’m often in a rush in the morning and need something simple to grab for the day. A great choice is Starkist Tuna Creations. They come in Sweet & Spicy, Hickory Smoked, Herb & Garlic, Ranch, Lemon Pepper and unflavored. The 74g pouches range from 60 to 110 calories and average about 30% of your daily protein requirement which is great for keeping you feeling full. They do not require refrigeration, but I prefer to eat them chilled. There are a lot of recipe ideas to do with these, but I like to just eat them from the packet with a fork. When you are done you’ll want to dispose of the empty packet quickly as it can stink up your car.
You can never have enough fruits and veggies in your diet, so why not take them along for the ride? A banana is a perfect travel companion on it’s own, (although you can buy a special banana case, should you feel so inclined to protect it). Baby carrots and celery sticks are ideal finger foods and pair well with a cup of ranch dressing; either in a prepackaged cup or one brought from home. My favorite fruit is an apple. They need no prep, but if you prefer cut apple slices have you heard of the rubber band trick to keep your slices fresh? Oranges require a hefty time investment for preparation to eat, unless you learn the right way to peel/eat an orange! Fruit leathers and ropes are delicious treat on the go as well; you can even make your own!
Most people’s ideal on-the-go nutrition comes in liquid form. Protein/meal shakes are a very popular, convenient style of nourishment. They come in handy pre-mixed shakes or powders that you add water to. There are so many brands and flavors of these out there I really have a hard time recommending one over another. It truly depends on your personal tastes. To keep you full you’ll want a drink that is high in protein and fiber. If you choose a powder, I recommend the Blender Bottle to mix it well on the go.
8. Where to Eat
Just because you’re on the road doesn’t mean you are limited to eating in your car. Here are some ideas of locations to eat your home-packed food:
- Grocery stores’ tables and seating area- Most Targets have a big area at the front with tables and chairs for anyone to use, as do many other grocery stores like Wegmans, Randalls, Publix and Kroger to name a few.
- Join a friend/spouse at their company’s break room
- Apartment leasing offices/ housing community clubhouses- these often have nice indoor eating areas; most people won’t question you or throw you out because they want to represent their community favorably to you
- Hotel lobbies- again, they probably won’t question you
- Hospital cafeterias
- Mall food courts
- College cafeterias
- Coffee/ smoothie/juice/bubble tea shops-as long as you buy something and they don’t serve their own food
- Office building lobbies
- At a company’s break room that you do business with frequently-call it networking
- Church kitchen, but you should probably actually belong to that church
- Some gyms/fitness centers have eating areas, provided you belong
- Nursing home/assisted living center, but only if your work takes you there anyways
- Parks’ picnic tables
- Highway rest stop picnic tables
- College campuses often have outdoor eating areas
- Tables and chairs outside a fast food restaurant – they probably won’t come out and question you for eating there
- Keep a folding chair in your car and eat anywhere scenic you find!
I personally eat in the car while driving as much as I can. It makes the best use of my time by dual-tasking, but safety remains key. Some important points if you are going to do this:
- Do not eat while driving unless you know the road well and don’t have to use GPS or maps
- Choose foods that only need one hand to be eaten
- Pull over or take advantage of red lights to handle more complicated food tasks like opening pthings
- Avoid messy foods- place a napkin on your lap just in case
- Utilize your cup holders to securely hold things or the passenger seat
- Do not multitask beyond eating- no playing with your iPod, texting or phone calls, even on Bluetooth; your brain can only focus on so many things safely at once
This article has featured a lot of products for making eating on the road easier which some people may find expensive or unnecessary. Two thirds of American workers don’t pack their lunch. In 2013 the average worker who did not pack a lunch spent $7.23 per day, definitely on the cheap side of most meals out in my opinion. But that $7.23 becomes $36.16 a week, $144.60 a month and $1,735.20 per year and $8,676 after 5 years! I assume people who work from their car probably spend even more than the $7.23 average. Plus snacks and drinks from home versus gas stations? Big savings. Also, think of the nutritional value of that food you’re getting out. Your homemade lunch is probably a lot healthier too. The average fast food lunch contains 836 calories. A bagged lunch of a diet soda, turkey and cheese sandwich, an apple, bag of chips and a whole Hershey’s chocolate bar (gotta have my chocolate) only clocks in at 615 calories. After a year that 221 calorie difference equals 15 extra pounds. Consider time spent as well. Let’s say you drive 2 minutes out of the way to get fast food and spend 5 minutes from when you get in line to the food in your hands; that’s 9 minutes a day. That becomes 45 minutes a week, 3 hours a month and a day and a half (36 hours) a year! If you are safely able to eat in your car instead of taking time out of your work day to eat you can save 20-30 minutes a day; that’s an extra 1.5-2.5 hours a week! So, bringing your own food saves you time, money and your health.
Well, that’s it folks! Please share any other tips you have in the comments and happy travels; bon appetit! ❤
Don’t just keep all this great info to yourself, share with your coworkers, friends and on social media!