After a four-day road trip at the end of May, I am living in California once again. Yes, I just moved halfway across the country in the middle of a pandemic. People who know me would not be too surprised by this. I tend to move a lot. And even though I am now quite experienced at it, there were definitely some new challenges this time around.

Under the best of circumstances, planning a road trip with my husband, two small children, a cat, a dog, and a U-Haul trailer would be a bit of work. It would involve finding a route with plenty of places for pit stops, as well as making reservations at pet-friendly hotels. Tedious, but not rocket science. We wouldn’t have to be overly concerned about food or bathroom breaks, since we could just stop at rest stops and restaurants along the way.

Now fast forward to today, with the Coronavirus outbreak in full swing – and suddenly things were not so straightforward anymore.


Planning a road trip when the rules have changed

As we began preparing for our move, my husband and I started hearing little tidbits of helpful information from friends here and there. Someone knew someone who drove through Texas recently and said that although gas stations were still open, their restrooms and food service areas were closed. Someone else told my husband that hotels in California were only open to essential workers. Even though we weren’t planning to stay at a hotel in California, this meant we still needed to call ahead to our hotels and make sure this wasn’t the case there too.

This got my husband and I to thinking about other things that would be different this road trip. Aside from figuring out where to stop for bathroom breaks, we would also need to eat. With two small children in the car, we’d need to have food with us in case there weren’t any places to stop – either for the usual road trip reason (because there were no places close by), or for the Coronavirus-related one (because those place just weren’t open right now). And forget about a free hot breakfast at the hotel. Even if one was still being offered, it would seem unwise to take it. The fact that every state we’d be entering would have different precautions and restrictions in place also made things harder to pin down.

So one night before our trip, my husband came up with a wonderful idea. Along the route he had plotted for us to drive, he found one or two grocery stores we could stop at each day. This ticked off a lot of boxes for us: 

  • Grocery stores would be open reasonably normal hours, so we’d be able to stop there during the course of a long day’s trip.
  • There wouldn’t be extra restrictions on who was allowed to come in (other than wearing a mask, which we’d do anyway, and maybe needing to wait in line if it was crowded).
  • It would give us a place to use the restroom and stretch our legs. And since most people don’t use the restrooms at grocery stores, it would most likely be cleaner than a rest stop or gas station restroom.
  • It would give us a place to purchase food that was actually healthy. (Not fast food! Not gas station food!)
  • It would allow us to buy more than just a single meal’s worth of food, which we could then keep in a cooler in the car to eat later when the kids inevitably got hungry.

A love of good grocery stores

If you know anything about where I had been living for the last few years, you might find this strategy a little funny. That’s because I was in Bentonville, AR, the location of Walmart’s headquarters. Don’t get me wrong, Bentonville is a beautiful place, and I really loved living there. But because Walmart essentially built Bentonville, it has a lot of sway in deciding who gets to have a business there. What this means in practical terms is that nearly all grocery stores in the nearby vicinity are Walmart Neighborhood Markets.

I was so disappointed when we moved to Arkansas from Florida, which had Publix, one of my favorite grocery stores ever, and discovered that there were such limited “regular” grocery stores. No Safeway, no Krogers, no Trader Joe’s, no Sprouts. And forget about ethnic food shops, like 99 Ranch or Northgate Market. Just Walmart, a few small local health food stores, a Fresh Market and some Harps (both overpriced), and a Whole Foods 30 minutes away.

As a dietitian, I found this to be a little depressing. Although I don’t love grocery shopping, I do love meal planning and then executing that plan. Shopping at Walmart meant no fresh meat and seafood at the deli counter, because there really wasn’t a deli counter. No delicious, healthy, and affordable prepackaged, grab-and-go meals, like at Publix or Trader Joe’s. No recipes for tasty meals next to a display of their ingredients. Just low prices, and convenience. Not the worst things to have, but not the best either.

So as we left Arkansas on our road trip to California, we embarked on not just a drive across the country, but a tour of grocery stores too. First, we visited the Trader Joe’s in Oklahoma City, OK. A sight for sore eyes. It came with perks too: a clean store with a squirt of hand sanitizer from a smiling employee upon entry, three empty bathrooms, and a spacious parking lot where we could park the car with the U-Haul attached. In fact, I was able to make my sons PB&J’s for lunch on top of the wheel well of the U-Haul in that very same parking lot.

Although we didn’t stop exclusively at grocery stores, we did visit a Whole Foods in Albuquerque, NM, and a few Safeways too. Because I purchased a heavy-duty cooler before our departure, and because we stayed at hotels with kitchens in the our rooms, we were able to keep the foods we’d purchased for several days (milk, jelly, baby carrots, etc.).


Road trip life-lessons

I’ll admit that I was a little nervous when we went into that first Trader Joe’s in Oklahoma City. It was the first time my two sons had entered a public building, other than the doctor’s office, since the middle of March. But we went. And we have now been in California long enough to know that we did not get sick from going there. I have many things to be grateful for in my life, and being able to complete our move without contracting Covid is now one of them.

And pandemic or not, as far as road trips go, this latest one was really not so bad. After life has returned to normal, and we’ve all managed to put Covid far behind us in the rearview, I will be taking lessons learned from this trip with me. One of them is that grocery stores are actually a great place to stop on road trips. I get that’s not a major life lesson, but it’s something. Gotta take whatever silver linings you can these days.


Looking for more tips and tricks to help you eat well during Coronavirus?


Yours in good health,

Helena Ramadan, MS, RDN

While Helena is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN), she is not providing Medical Nutrition Therapy on this website. Anything found here, including downloads and other content, should not be construed as medical advice. The information provided by her is general nutrition/health/fitness information, and is not individualized to your specific medical condition. Helena is not liable for any losses or damages related to any actions you take (or fail to take) as a result of the content presented herein. Please note that the information presented here is not intended to diagnosis or treat any health conditions. Talk to a qualified health professional, such as a doctor or a registered dietitian, about your specific health questions or concerns. 


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