Chances are you’ve been hungry on a road trip and had to turn to a mini-mart for sustenance. Whether you were driving through parts unknown for a climbing trip, or bike touring through a desolate, rural nowhere, the bright glow of a gas station’s sign on the horizon stirred your emotions and promised nourishment, provisions and ample Three Wolf Moon t-shirts.
Some gas stations—like the legendary Tioga Gas Mart outside of Yosemite—had more to follow through with on that promise. After all, it’s not every day that you stumble across a Mobil gas station offering wine tasting, live music and lobster taquitos (listen to this great podcast from The Dirtbag Diaries about the Tioga Gas Mart). But more likely, the shimmering snack oasis that rose up out of the mist was of a standard sort, with limited spoils. Twizzlers, Slurpees, Flamin’ Hot Cheetos: You’d have to forage through the offerings like an apocalypse survivor to put together an actual meal.
But there are ways to subsist on gas station food without wrecking your health plan or tempting the gods of early-onset Diabetes. When you can’t find fresh food on the road, try these junk food alternatives:
Sunflower seeds. When you’re bored in the car, snacking on sunflower seeds in the shell is a great way to stay occupied without plowing through a whole bag of Cool Ranch Doritos or breaking out the Auto Bingo boards. Unfortunately, if you want the seeds to be healthy—or at least not burn cracks into your lips—you’ll need to choose an unsalted or low-sodium bag.
Fruit, fresh or dried. Mini-marts usually have a single, bruised and broken banana, and I’ve often wondered if it got there through a bartered transaction or a “Take a penny, leave a penny” exchange gone awry. Buy this abandoned banana, if you dare, or resort to low-sugar dried fruit.
Nuts. Almonds are your best choice, but keep an eye on the sodium content. Go for cashews or peanuts if unsalted almonds are in short supply.
Protein bars. Most gas stations carry these now, but you might have to look for them under a thick layer of dust, cobwebbed into a shelf corner with the pickled eggs and circus peanuts. Try to find a bar with whole grains, dried fruit, nuts, high fiber and a lot of protein.
Yogurt. Yogurt can pack a ton of added sugar, which is why you should look for a variety with 14 grams or less per six-ounce serving. No, eating yogurt will never be as meaningful or liberating as Yoplait commercials would have women believe, but it can make a tasty meal if you mix in fruit, cereal and nuts.
Breakfast cereal. Ignore the Frosted Flakes, and choose a small package of whole-grain “adult” cereal. Mix it into some low-fat milk or yogurt.
Trail Mix. Go for a mix with a high nut ratio unless you just want a glorified bag of candy. By all means, in times of food-selection trouble, let “nut ratio” be your guide.
Water. Obviously, you need this.Get one of the big gallon containers if you’re in a car.
Truck Nutz. These have no nutritional content whatsoever, but if you’re traveling through the Midwest or South, you might consider adding a pair to your bike saddle or car hitch for luck on the road. Happy trails!