Road trip food. You know—cheap, convenient food that won’t make a huge mess if you're eating it in a moving vehicle.
Fast food, chewy bars, gushers, soda pop, and trail mix were my car-food options growing up, and things stayed on this course through college and beyond. I’m still haunted by the 30-hour drive to Mexico from Ann Arbor, Michigan, in a van full of college students, stopping only for fast food. Eating well on the road has never been a forte of mine, but my most recent adventure forced me to change my ways.
My partner, Donnie and I quit our jobs and moved our San Francisco lives into a 2006 Ford Econoline in early January 2016. Equipped with our cameras, microphones, and computers, we set out to explore alternative lifestyles and tell the stories of people pursuing their passions.
We wanted to compile honest accounts of people living a little less conventionally, and in order to do so, we had to start living a little less conventionally ourselves.
This would not just be a vacation on wheels, this six-plus-month adventure would be a transition to a new kind of life: van life.
In San Francisco, we were both conscious eaters who prioritized local and vegetarian food and would bicycle, run, climb, and do yoga during our free time. But our routines dramatically changed as our paychecks came to a halt and we set out on the road. We knew eating well and staying healthy in our van would be a challenge.
Different routines have developed around the different kinds of days we have on the road. During the six weeks we spent in the Arizona desert, for instance, we'd cook each meal outdoors using a setup that fits right into the wilderness. We'd wake with the sunrise and light our propane Colman camp stove to heat water for tea and oatmeal. We’d slowly juice kale and baby spinach with a hand-crank juicer, which took some serious patience and cleanup. After breakfast we’d hike, read, write, meet strangers, do yoga, and explore the natural landscape.
We’d plan for a few trips into town throughout the week to restock our water and food supply. We’d optimistically and unsuccessfully search for local, organic produce in town, and try to look the other way when confronted with craft beer. Lunching on leftovers midafternoon, we’d watch the bright pink hues sneak into the sky cueing sunset, and we’d begin dinner. For dinner, we loved pairing rice and beans, but it got old fast, so we’d play around with different combinations of spices and sauces.
Traveling days demand more preparation and prediction on our end, because we have limited time and space. Leading up to a long day of travel, we'll find someplace with big portions for dinner, so we can save the leftovers for morning breakfast. We also know we'll want coffee the next day, so we'll stake out a Starbucks and get our $.54 coffee refills to save for morning. We go to sleep in a parking lot and wake to a feast of leftovers, coffee, and the road.
If we’re going to be sitting and driving all day, we really try to eat fruits and vegetables to feel better about things. But by midday, we tend to be more vulnerable to the temptation of junk food at gas stations and rest stops. There have been some dark moments when we've rediscovered the flavors and immediate satisfaction of white popcorn, cheap chocolate brownies with colorful sprinkles, and the occasional Red Bull. On good days, however, we’ll stop to lunch on a huge spinach salad with Trader Joe’s Goddess dressing, pecans, and an avocado, or hummus sandwiches.
On city days when friends loan us their kitchens, we make to share lots of great food. As guests, we constantly want to treat our hosts, and we often end up spending more than we'd like to on meals and drinks, but we try to plan home-cooking events as much as possible. We'll make big batches of Kitchari or pastas to hold us over for many meals before hitting the road again.
It's always great to prepare today the things we'll likely crave tomorrow because we’re much less likely to give in to spontaneous cravings. While staying with friends and family, we always brace ourselves for a few hyper-social days, late nights, and great conversation. It can be very hard to turn down a big bed, tall ceilings, and running water, but we now always get sick when sleeping indoors, and after a few short days in a guest room, we long for our tiny home.
Even during the rush to find fresh food, the cold desert nights, and those moments the garbage truck squeezes by our van/home and wakes us up at 4 a.m., we’ve never questioned our decision to take on this kind of lifestyle. After all, we wake up every morning to days that haven’t been promised away to anyone else.
We get to pick a new home every single night, and we have the time and space to slow down, to connect with people and the natural world, and to pursue our own passions.