I was in the middle seat, which is not where anyone wants to be on a packed plane. Especially on a flight from California to Florida.
But in my hands I cradled a fresh chicken and pesto sandwich from a market in San Francisco. I bet the guy sitting next to me would give up that window seat for a bite.
As I ate, I delighted in the fresh flavors of herbs and vegetables, and thought: It should always be like this. However you travel, a prepacked meal or snack makes the journey much more comfortable and delicious. If a summer road trip is in your future, eating well should be as important as getting an early start on the highway.
Packing or picking up food before hitting the road is a good idea whether it's just you or the whole family, so no one gets hangry (that's hungry + angry). Consider meals like wraps, which are less messy than sandwiches. Or homemade maple-rosemary pecans, a fancier version of homey roadside peanuts. On short flights, I'll pack a mason jar filled with date truffles rolled in crushed hazelnuts to hold me over until I land and make my way to the dinner reservation I've been looking forward to for weeks. (Tip: On the return flight, that jar works as a water bottle.) These items are designed to keep for a stretch of time, making them ideal for traveling. A couple of the following recipes can even be made up to a week before you take off.
But if you have time to detour and explore, consider finding good eats along the road, which can make for the richest parts of a road trip.
On trips to Charleston, S.C., my husband and I always stop for boiled peanuts. The humbly spray-painted Go Gators sign greeting us from the roadside stand is as comforting as the warm bag of peanuts that'll keep me company for the next stretch of road. Sometimes I also grab a jar of local honey.
Pam Brandon, one of the authors of Good Catch: Recipes and Stories Celebrating the Best of Florida's Waters and managing editor of Edible Orlando magazine, has traversed the state while researching her books and traveling with her family. If you have the time, she says, it's worth getting off the interstate for a while.
On the back roads of Florida, Brandon said she has found slices of real life and little bits of the state's history at hole-in-the-wall type eateries. A busy parking lot always gets her attention and makes her pull over at a particular diner or roadside stand.
"We stopped at a diner and it was just a cast of characters," Brandon said. "You really get the local color."
She has had her fill of local oysters around the Panhandle. She found cornflake- and almond-crusted fish tacos near Jacksonville, and fried mullet in a diner right out of the 1950s. She often finds herself talking about these off-road meals for hours after they've eaten.
"It's good and honest food," Brandon said. "And it creates good, honest conversation for a family."
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Kristen Miglore, a California native, often traveled by car with her parents and a cooler full of food for days when she was younger. Miglore, now executive editor of Food52 and author of Genius Recipes, packs olive oil granola or whole wheat chocolate chip cookies for a trip, but she mostly loves to stop on the road for food.
Instead of packing for every meal, stopping along a route offers an opportunity to get a taste of the local food scene — and to stretch your legs. In January, Miglore traveled the winding coastal highway along the edge of the Pacific Northwest. She recalls leaving the car behind for a few minutes to munch on a crab sandwich while gazing at the harbor of Bodega Bay.
The last few summers she has road-tripped through Maine, popping local blueberries along the way and pulling over for lobster rolls and cups of creamy chowder.
"It's much more memorable than if you're that person always grabbing the Fritos at the gas station," she said. (Not that Fritos are the worst choice if you do find yourself at a gas station; with so many processed foods crowding convenience store aisles, Fritos chips boast just three ingredients.)
Brandon uses smartphone apps to find gems on the road, and, though it's old-fashioned, she loves a paper map to get around. Surveying friends on Facebook always yields recommendations, too. And RoadFood.com is a practical resource for where to stop for food around the country. It even includes routes revolving around breakfast, lunch and dinner.
Eating on the road is usually inexpensive but it can be indulgent, Brandon said. For that reason, she and her family break up the day's stops at roadside eateries with stops at Publix for lighter snacks including fresh fruit.
Indeed, it is a good idea to stock up at the grocery store before your trip. Trader Joe's, which now has locations in Tampa, St. Petersburg and Sarasota, has a strong following for its snacks.
Daniel Gardner, the captain-store manager at Trader Joe's in St. Petersburg, said road trips with his family are often fueled by the store's trek mixes, peanut butter-filled pretzels and bags of baby carrots. For his kids riding in the backseat, there's also always beef jerky, which he loves as much as they do. It means no crumbs slipping between the seats.
Still, there are always cookies and chocolate-peanut butter cups in the car to keep his children happy, too, and quell that perennial question: Are we there yet?
Ileana Morales Valentine writes the In Our Kitchen column for the Taste section, and she lives in St. Petersburg with her husband. Follow her blog, alittlesaffron.com. Say hello at firstname.lastname@example.org.