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It’s Tough to Eat Well at Highway Rest Stops. Here’s How Eater Editors Do It

Practical advice for your next road trip

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Hillary Dixler Canavan is Eater's restaurant editor and the author of the publication's debut book, Eater: 100 Essential Restaurant Recipes From the Authority on Where to Eat and Why It Matters (Abrams, September 2023). Her work focuses on dining trends and the people changing the industry — and scouting the next hot restaurant you need to try on Eater's annual Best New Restaurant list.

There are two things you must accept if you want to road trip in peace. One: If anyone needs to go to the bathroom, find a way to stop soon and don’t harass that person for having a human body with human needs. And two: Highway rest stops and gas stations will sometimes be the only places to eat if you need to stick to a specific route or schedule.

If you want to debate point one, please exit the vehicle now. We can’t road trip together. But if point two is getting you down, Eater’s got you covered.

Strategies for Rest Stops, Gas Stations, and Convenience Stores

“In the year of our Lord 2017, if a rest stop has a working toilet, it probably has a Starbucks. The real secret to enjoying Starbucks is thinking of it not as a coffee shop but as a purveyor of milkshakes, hot and cold. That’s right, hot milkshakes. The white mocha latte? Delicious. The salted caramel mocha? Excellent. The S’mores Frappuccino? Chef’s kiss emoji.

The second secret is you should never order anything bigger than a medium; it’s too much milk, and that much the sugar will put you in a deep coma that will almost always set in the moment you find yourself in a swell of traffic. (Never get whip on top.) The third secret is that if you cannot tolerate a sugar WMD dropped directly into your gut, and want ‘real’ coffee, whatever that means, the most palatable options are the toasted coconut cold brew, followed by a short cappuccino, and the blonde roast. But if that’s the case, why not just pound a sugar-free Red Bull and a bag of beef jerky instead?” — Matt Buchanan

“If there’s a Pinkberry or, even better, a TCBY at your rest stop, that’s the move. It tastes good, feels mildly transgressive to substitute a meal with straight sugar, and, since I typically top with berries, chocolate chips, and granola, does include some fresh(ish) produce. If you have to get McDonald’s, which has a stranglehold on the Northeast rest stops I’m most familiar with, stick with McNuggets. They’re easy to eat in the car (don’t eat while you drive, okay!) and are also nostalgic. When it comes to snack food, I like Haribo gummies (no mess in the car) and Flamin’ Hot Cheetos (extremely messy, for passengers only).” — Hillary Dixler

“Texas is the land of gigantic gas stations, like Buc-ee’s and Slovacek’s and Woody’s Smokehouse. All of these spots are famous for various regional food offerings, and people legitimately consider stopping at a place like Buc-ee’s part of their trip. You can find sandwiches and other prepared foods — sometimes they even have barbecue! — but the best move is to buy an absurd amount of beef jerky, Beaver Nuggets, smoked sausage, and kolaches and snack your way through the state.” — Amy McCarthy

“I love to eat, but get a little finicky about wasting calories on foods I don’t enjoy during road trips. That means my husband and I usually go the sit-down meal route (diners and homestyle, non-chain restaurants are good bets here) or just choose a single snack treat to get us by on road trips (my go-tos are weird regional barbecue chip varieties and sour candy). But every once in awhile, the rest stop meal is a necessary evil. If Taco Bell is an option, I’m not above indulging in Taco Snack, but it’s rarely available at a certified rest stop on the road trips I take. So my strategy is chicken nuggets, from whichever vendor happens to be selling them. It’s rare you can’t find some version of nuggets at a rest stop, I enjoy them well enough, and they’re mostly protein, so they’ll keep me full longer than, say, soggy fries. This was a much more appealing alternative when Wendy’s still had spicy nuggets in the mix (RIP), but it still gets the job done.” — Missy Frederick

“While traveling in the South, there’s a good chance of running into a gas station with a massive pork rind display of every flavor imaginable. I always like to pick up a bag for local flavor and some protein. Boiled peanuts are another good snack to grab, as the shelling process helps pass the time while on the highway.” — Erin Perkins

Canoe Creek Service Plaza, St. Cloud, Florida
Jeff Greenberg/UIG via Getty Images

“I actually hate road trips because I tend to get car sick unless I’m driving. If I decide to suffer through a drive (instead of opting to take a train or fly) my strategy is to seek out roadside farms and eat whatever nuts, cheese, fruit, and pie they have for sale. I’ve done this on drives from Chicago to Door County, Wisconsin (do not miss the cherry pies or cheese curds); from LA to the Central Coast, where if you have the time (and aren’t the designated driver) you can also stop for a wine tasting or two; and from upstate NY to NYC where I’d also stop at roadside stands selling Cornell chicken (look out for the smoke) and ice wine. If the farm stands are closed, I look for rest stops where there’s a restaurant that sells pizza. It’s hard to find bad pizza, and the leftovers — when it’s not too hot — are fairly easy to eat while driving.” — Daniela Galarza

“I let myself have those push button cappuccinos at gas station rest stops. I top off the crap coffee with a quarter cup of French vanilla fake cappuccino. It’s a delight.” — Carolyn Alburger

“I keep it simple (bathroom, water, gum, and some packaged snacks) and check my expectations in the trunk, but I also have an open mind for surprises and out-of-the-box opportunities. You can stop for gas and find that the finest prosciutto di Parma is available sliced to order in front of you (oh, Italy!). There is a burger shack in Colorado that is a gem in the middle of nowhere and it was only the willingness to give it a shot that led us to its discovery. Some things are obvious, others are a shot in the dark. When you go for water and get an amazing burger too, your (open-minded) road trip game goes up significantly.” — Andra Zeppelin

“On road trips, I always look for the classic burger spot. This both cuts down on disappointment — burgers tend to be a safer bet than, for example, sushi — and comes with a fun but not impossible challenge: find a locally owned burger stop, so I don’t have to eat bad fast food. Good signs are a quirky mascot, milkshakes, an old-school building, and tables full of families, kids, and truckers.” — Mattie John Bamman

“At gas stations, the Mexican dried fruit and nut snacks are the best snacks.” — Meghan McCarron

“I rarely go on road trips in the States, but I go on at least one every time I visit Korea. Even if the drive isn’t too long, my family always pulls into a rest stop for the experience more than anything else. The food options are vast and wide, from snacks, like corndogs-but-with-much-better-batter with a perfect squiggle of ketchup, to legit meals, like steaming bowls of udon probably from a package that you can buy at a Korean supermarket. After eating, my brother and I go into the small convenience store attached to the rest stop to pick out several crunchy snacks to tide us over until we eat dinner in our destination town (which is usually mak guk su, a buckwheat noodle dish, at a small restaurant that only has a handful of menu items). It’s perfect.” — Nicole Bae

“My mom once told me chewing cinnamon gum helps you stay awake while driving, so I always buy packs of it before long trips (and never chew it otherwise). And the best rest stops are definitely the giant ones in the Southwest designed for truckers, the kind with really vast gift shops.” — Emma Alpern

“So I don’t know how to drive (I blame my New York upbringing), but whenever my husband and I set off for a road trip, I make sure we have water, coffee for myself, and Diet Pepsi for him. We try to plan for a midway stop somewhere along the road (we tend to make the drive from Austin to Houston and back a lot because of my in-laws) for a break, food, and bathroom stop. We usually try to stop at Hruska’s because kolaches are the best and the bathrooms are clean. For other road trips, we allow ourselves to indulge in fast food, and our go-tos are either Burger King (I like the nuggets and fries) or Wendy’s. For majorly long road trips, I stock up on fun snacks like Koala’s March cookies and Cheetos." — Nadia Chaudhury

Or you can bring your own food

“Trail mix. I’m talking handpicked from the bulk section: There’s nothing like the best roasted nuts — like cashews, peanuts, and almonds — dark chocolate chips (delicious and caffeinated), and maybe some raisins or craisins. I eat it at home sometimes too, but it’s particularly satisfying for the road in a reusable container, and you can always refill at your destination for the return trip.” — Adam H. Callaghan

“I bring a lot of vegetarian snacks and DEAL WITH IT.” — Sonia Chopra