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Prairie Fare: Make memories without breaking the bank on family vacations

Packing snacks and beverages from home can be healthier and less expensive.

By Julie Garden-Robinson, food and nutrition specialist
NDSU Extension

Family vacations are memory-inspiring excursions. We have reached the time of summer when vacation time is waning as people think ahead to fall activities.

As I walked by our trusty old van the other day, I looked nostalgically at the family sticker on the back window. It has five “stick people” and three “stick dogs.”

When our van was new, our kids were much younger and smaller, and the stickers reflect those sizes. My husband and I were the tall ones back then.

Now our son towers over us, and the girls are about my height. Our dogs are not quite as frisky.

I thought of the many times our vehicle transported us across the country with three kids. We invested in a video player and headphones for them, so they could be entertained during the long drives.

We brought coolers filled with snacks prepared at home and beverages to allow for healthier, less expensive options compared with stopping at convenience stores.

When you prepare your food at home, you have much greater control over the nutrition in your selections.

A recent report from the NPD Group, which tracks trends nationwide, found that people are continuing to prepare food at home more often even now when businesses have reopened.

During the early pandemic, cooking meals at home greatly increased because many restaurants were closed. According to the report, now people are looking for convenience such as frozen meals and ready-to-eat snacks from supermarkets.

Unfortunately, prices for many food items have increased significantly. While consumers usually save money when preparing food at home, you might not be saving as much as you used to save.

If you are buying food on vacation or cooking at home, you need to be price-savvy. Shop around to find bargains. You may want to visit more than one store when possible. Save gas by planning meals and shopping once a week.

Stopping at convenience stores can be tempting and costly. Bring some snacks and a cooler to keep hunger at bay.

Foods such as whole-grain crackers, pretzels, dried fruits, peanut butter and nuts are tasty portable snacks that do not require refrigeration.

Popped popcorn and whole fruit such as apples are healthful options to bring on the road. If you bring carrot or celery sticks, string cheese, cut fruit or yogurt, be sure to keep these perishable foods in a cooler.

As we traveled when our kids were younger, I was aware of the “mess factor” of kids eating in a vehicle. Our growing kids were always looking for a snack.

“It looks like animals live in this van,” my husband said on some of our first trips.

We brought small trash bags to keep in the front and back seats of our vehicle. We dropped off the trash every time we stopped to refuel. We brought paper towels and wet wipes to keep both the vehicle and our kids somewhat clean. We probably needed a portable vacuum.

We also learned to look under the seats in case someone stashed perishable food for later. That’s another story.

We, at NDSU Extension, have many online resources to help prepare food or for vacation trips.

  • Visit ag.ndsu.edu/food and navigate to “Food Preparation” for an abundance of resources to help you prepare healthful food and potentially, save some money. See the “Cooking 101” series designed for young adults but applicable for any adult without a lot of cooking experience.
  • Under “Food Preparation,” see “Family Meals” and “Now You’re Cookin’” to view two series of handouts designed for families. Many have ideas to promote children helping in the kitchen and learning valuable life skills.
  • See the “Food Safety” section to gather resources for hiking, camping and picnics.
  • See the “Food Preservation” section if you would like to learn how to dry your own fruit leathers and fruit slices.
  • Check out our free monthly e-newsletter subscriptions for “Nourish,” “The Family Table” and “Healthy Communities Alive” for ongoing ideas and resources about food, nutrition and health.

Try making your own snack mixes with your favorite ingredients with this personalized recipe. If you are on a special diet, adjust the ingredients that you can use in your diet safely.

Personalized Snack Mix

4 cups cereal of various shape
(Examples: whole grain or multigrain squares or rings)

1 cup bite-sized crackers
(Examples: Animal Crackers, cheese-flavored crackers)

1/2 cup dried fruit
(Examples: raisins, dried cranberries, apples, blueberries)

1/2 cup nuts (optional)
(Examples: peanuts, almonds, mixed nuts)

1/4 cup “treat” (optional)
(Examples: chocolate chips, butterscotch chips)

Package 1/2-cup “servings” in snack-size zip-top plastic bags to help with portion control to create 12 servings.

The nutritional content varies depending on the ingredients you choose. For best quality, use the ingredients before the “best by” dates; however, cereal-based products remain safe to eat beyond the date.

(Julie Garden-Robinson, Ph.D., R.D., L.R.D., is a North Dakota State University Extension food and nutrition specialist and professor in the Department of Health, Nutrition and Exercise Sciences. Follow her on Twitter @jgardenrobinson)


NDSU Agriculture Communication – Aug. 11, 2022

Source: Julie Garden-Robinson, 701-231-7187, julie.garden-robinson@ndsu.edu

Editor: Elizabeth Cronin, 701-231-5391, elizabeth.cronin@ndsu.edu


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