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Road trip! Healthy snacks, fun activities (no screens!) keep kids happy in the car


Nothing says Wisconsinite in summer quite like heading to a cabin up north, whether it’s a family property or a place you’re renting.

And for folks living in southeast Wisconsin, getting there requires a more broadly American summer tradition: road trip!

There’s a thrill for me in packing my life up into a minivan and spending a solid half day (or more if you’re heading out of state) with no choice but to sit still. Oh, the books to be read (or listened to), conversations to be had, thoughts to be pondered, roadside panoramas to be enjoyed and music to be sung along to during those hours between here and there. Time stretches out like the pavement before us.

Unfortunately, my little passengers in the back don’t have quite the same stamina for sitting still in a confined space. Sure, they will look at books, listen to music and play games for a while, but inevitably boredom, and hunger, sets in.

When my kids were toddlers, snacks were basically the go-to way to keep them entertained on road trips. A slow and steady stream of small bites kept everyone happy.

Now, with children at 7, 5 and 4, we have to be more creative with entertainment, but snacks are still very important. Everyone gets their own snack cup that my husband or I can portion food into throughout the journey. If we vary the food groups enough, it may even add up to a balanced meal.

My favorite road trip snack is homemade trail mix. A few summers ago we drove 16 hours to Colorado sustained primarily on a mix of almonds, cashews, dried banana chips, raisins, pretzels and, my favorite, sesame sticks.

Making the mix yourself not only ensures you get all your favorites in there, but lets you create a batch large enough to last the drive.

Cookies are another strong road trip snack — but I’m not talking about your regular dessert variety. A healthier batch that packs some protein and bonus nutrients will satisfy your sweet tooth and fill you up.

Nothing against Cheerios or Goldfish, but by comparison, cookies generally don’t spill a million tiny, crunchy pieces all over the backseat.

For the healthiest cookies ever, simply mash two overripe bananas with 1 cup rolled oats and ¼ cup chopped walnuts. Form into cookies and bake at 350 degrees 15 minutes. These are so easy my 5-year-old was able to basically make them on her own.

The only downside is they also taste healthy. Two of my kids liked them, but the one who usually eats anything wasn’t a fan. They will get you only so far on the road.

The following recipe, adapted from ambitiouskitchen.com, is more sophisticated, while still full of good stuff you won’t regret letting your kids munch on at any hour.

Alison Sherwood is a Pulitzer prize-winning journalist, a mother of three and freelance writer. Find her on Instagram @alisherwood. Email her at alison.sherwood@gmail.com.

RECIPE

Double this recipe so it lasts the whole trip.

Blueberry Road Trip Cookies

Recipe tested by Alison Sherwood

Makes 10 large cookies

  • 2 tablespoons melted coconut oil or butter
  • ¼ cup coconut sugar or granulated sugar
  • 1 medium banana, mashed (see note)
  • ½ teaspoon vanilla extract
  • ½ teaspoon almond extract
  • ¼ cup flaxseed meal
  • ½ cup almond meal or flour
  • ½ teaspoon baking soda
  • ½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • ¼ teaspoon salt
  • 1 ¼ cups old-fashioned rolled oats
  • 1 tablespoon chia seeds
  • ½ cup frozen or fresh blueberries (see note)
  • ¼ cup chopped walnuts

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment.

In a medium bowl, mix together coconut oil or butter, sugar, mashed banana and vanilla and almond extracts until smooth and creamy.

Fold in flaxseed meal, almond meal or flour, baking soda, cinnamon and salt and mix until a thick dough forms.

Fold in oats and chia seeds until evenly distributed. The dough will be thick. Gently fold in blueberries and walnuts.

Scoop ¼ cup dough into your hand and form into a tight ball before placing on the prepared baking sheet. Gently press top of the ball to flatten into a cookie shape. Repeat with remaining dough.

Bake in preheated oven 13 to 16 minutes until edges of cookies begin to turn slightly golden brown. Allow cookies to cool 15 minutes before removing from pan and transferring to a wire rack.

Notes: Normally I like to bake with bananas that are so overripe they are turning to liquid, but for these cookies a yellow banana works fine, or one that’s a bit spottier but not too mushy. The darker the banana, the sweeter it is, but to keep the cookies together it can’t be overly soft.

Dried fruit would work fine too, and be less messy for the car.

*****

Top 10 screen-free road trip activities for kids

While movies and mobile games may be the new go-to car activities for kids, I still believe there’s a world of screen-free fun to be had on the road.

Audiobooks. Borrow from the library and look for stories the whole family will enjoy. Some of our favorites are Roald Dahl books, Pippi Longstocking and the Chronicles of Narnia series.

Activity books or workbooks. Might as well use some of your time in the car to keep those academic skills sharp.

Stickers. Let your little ones decorate their seat if you’re brave, or just give them a notebook or sticker activity book.

Joke book. This is one of my 7-year-old’s favorite car activities right now.

Out-loud games. 20 Questions and I Spy are classics. We also play a game called, “Oh no! But…” where one person starts a sentence with, “Oh no!” followed by a bad situation (“Oh no! A shark is swimming at us!”).

The next person replies with, “But…” followed by something that stops the situation from being bad (“But it’s only looking for fish.”). Then everyone takes turns adding “But…” sentences that alternate turning the situation from bad to good and back again.

Blanket forts. Use windows, hooks and headrests to hang your child’s blanket up and create a fun space to play (or ideally, nap!).

Singalong. I know you can only handle so much “Baby Shark,” so surprise your kids with some favorite songs from your youth.

Silly putty. Good for keeping little hands busy.

Dry-erase board. They can just keep erasing and drawing again, and again, and again.

Trip notebook. Give kids a small notebook, colorful tape and markers to document the trip with drawings, writing and mementos. You could also lend them an old digital camera or disposable camera to photograph the journey.

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