Official News Magazine of the Canadian Snowbird Association


Roadside restaurants, eat your heart out!

Heading to your winter home? A “drive-by” approach to eating may be the safest way to feed yourself.

by Alexis Campbell


Before 2020, there was an even chance whether typical U.S.-bound snowbirds would choose to fly or drive to their winter homes. As of this past March, the COVID-19 pandemic has made it impossible to predict what the medical, travel and political situations will be like this fall. Today, the U.S.-Canada border is closed to ground travel, but it’s possible to fly to the U.S. In October or November, the situation might be reversed. However, if the border is open, one question will be top of mind for all travellers: “How can I reduce my chances of catching COVID-19 while I’m travelling?”

Before 2020, there was an even chance whether typical U.S.-bound snowbirds would choose to fly or drive to their winter homes. As of this past March, the COVID-19 pandemic has made it impossible to predict what the medical, travel and political situations will be like this fall. Today, the U.S.-Canada border is closed to ground travel, but it’s possible to fly to the U.S. In October or November, the situation might be reversed. However, if the border is open, one question will be top of mind for all travellers: “How can I reduce my chances of catching COVID-19 while I’m travelling?”

Air versus ground travel

While the safety precautions for air travel may be onerous, they aren’t that complicated. Try to book a flight with adjacent seats that are empty, bring your own food and beverages and carry a “COVID-19 safety kit” − a supply of masks, hand sanitizer and disinfecting wipes to keep your immediate surroundings as free as possible of bacteria and viruses.

Ground travel is another matter entirely. While you have more control of your immediate surroundings while driving, you will need to leave the relative safety of your vehicle many times over the course of a two- to three-day drive to refuel, eat and use the washroom.

If you’re starting to think, “It’s either fly or buy an RV and a hazmat suit!”, don’t be discouraged. There are ways to lower your chances of catching COVID-19 and still drive to your winter destination. CSA News has covered the topic of staying safe in public washrooms elsewhere; in this article, we’ll focus on precautions related to eating during a road trip.

Risks of (eating on) the road

Generally, the most convenient (if not the healthiest or cheapest) options for eating while driving are to stop at roadside restaurants or to grab something at a drive-through. Both of these carry similar risks.

Restaurant risks

Health authorities tell us that you are most likely to become infected with COVID-19 from being close to another person (transmission can occur through respiratory droplets expelled during coughing, sneezing or speaking, or from being in close contact by shaking hands or otherwise touching the other person). Another route of transmission occurs when you touch a surface contaminated with the virus and later touch your mouth, nose or eyes with hands that are now carrying particles of the virus.

Restaurants offer plenty of opportunity for both kinds of COVID-19 transmission. Diners will come close to the host and the server and may be fewer than the recommended six feet (two metres) distance from other customers (especially during busy periods). As high-traffic locations, restaurants have many “high-touch” surfaces that may have been touched by an infected person. These may include door handles, chairs, tables and tableware (such as salt-and-pepper shakers or jars for condiments, including ketchup or mustard) and possibly others.

Transmission can be minimized by social distancing (tables at least six feet or two metres apart), good hygiene (staff and customers frequently washing hands), proper cleaning and disinfection practices (such as regularly disinfecting frequently touched surfaces) and both customers and staff wearing masks unless they are eating or drinking. The real question, of course, is whether you can be sure that the restaurant you stop at is following all of the recommended measures for reducing the spread of COVID-19. While some measures are obvious (distance between tables, customers and staff wearing masks), others (such as frequent handwashing, cleaning and disinfecting) are not.

Risks of drive-through and takeout food

Drive-through and takeout food are likely less risky than restaurant dining simply because you spend less time in the company of people who are not members of your household. There is still some risk of transmission, however. If someone with COVID-19 prepared your food, there’s a chance that virus particles are on the packaging, and there are a few potentially contaminated “high-touch” surfaces that you may touch while getting your food (such as PIN pads).

Safer dining

When it comes to risk, everyone is different (otherwise, we might all be going skydiving or bungee jumping or, conversely, hiding at home). If you want to eat in a restaurant or rely on takeout or drive-through for your meals on the road, there are a few things which you can do that may help lower your risk of becoming infected with COVID-19.

If you decide to dine in:

Practise social distancing.

Ask to be seated at least six feet (two metres) from other patrons.

Wear a mask (except when eating or drinking).

Sanitize your hands immediately before and after eating.

Consider disinfecting the surface of your table and places where your hands may touch your chair.

Consider disinfecting tableware, such as salt-and-pepper shakers, condiment containers, the outside of drinking glasses and utensil handles (but not the business end – remember that stomach acid will kill the coronavirus, so accidentally eating virus particles is not an issue).

Be prepared to make a U-turn if you see any obvious signs that the restaurant may not be following recommended risk-reduction measures (patrons and/or staff not wearing masks, tables too close together, staff not practising social distancing with patrons, any signs of dirt or poor sanitation)..

Be prepared with a backup dining strategy (such as a stash of energy bars) so that you won’t go hungry if you decide to skip a restaurant.

If you don’t want to sacrifice takeout:

Wear disposable gloves when opening packaging.

Immediately place packaging and gloves in a garbage bag for disposal.

Bring your own disposable paper plates, plastic utensils and containers for any leftovers.

Consider packing your own beverages.

Sanitize hands before and after eating and after putting your garbage in a trash container.

Be sure that you have a backup food source (such as trail mix or energy bars).

What’s your risk tolerance?

Some people will not want to run the risk of restaurant, drive-through or takeout food, even with precautions. If you’re one of those people, take heart! You’re about to learn the fine art of “drive-by dining.”

Is your server sick?People who work in low-paying industries including food service or restaurants may be more likely to come to work while sick because they often don’t have benefits, such as sick days, and because they may be closer to the poverty line and in desperate need of their paycheque. It’s one factor to consider when you’re planning your trip south. 

Your guide to drive-by dining

The only hard-and-fast rule in drive-by dining is “bring your own food.” How you put that into practice will depend on a number of different factors, from whether you like to cook to how far you have to drive. But before you start planning your strategy, you’ll need to answer a few questions:

How many days of driving will it take you to get to your destination?

How many hours do you plan to drive per day? (This may influence the type of food you bring with you – on a short drive, you have more energy to get your food ready than you do after 12 hours on the road.)

How many meals and snacks do you typically eat in a day of driving? (This will inform the amount, as well as the type of food which you choose to bring with you.)

How big is your vehicle, and how much space can you allot to your food storage? (You can only carry as much food as you have room for.)

Do you have an automobile refrigerator, or can your car accommodate a cooler?

Do you have a portable camp stove, or some other way to heat food?

Are you willing to reheat meals by the side of the road?

Are you prepared to cook and prepare food in advance, or to purchase prepared food for your trip?

What about food?Ironically, it turns out that food doesn’t appear to be a route of transmission for COVID-19. To date, there is no evidence that the coronavirus responsible for COVID-19 is passed on through food, including food prepared by an infected person. Scientists are pretty confident that this won’t change. While the novel coronavirus is just that – new – research on other coronaviruses going as far back as the 1960s shows no evidence of coronaviruses being spread through food. (And if you did eat food contaminated with a coronavirus, the stomach acid in your digestive tract would destroy it.) 

Ten steps to eating well on the road

  1. Plot your route. Get a U.S./Canada road map and sketch it out. Do this even if you have your route memorized; it’s the first step in scheduling and planning the meals for your trip.
  2. Set your schedule. On your map, mark out the approximate locations where you will be, when it’s time to stop and eat. Know yourself and be realistic. Some people can drive for six hours before they have a meal, while others will want to stop much sooner.
  3. Research your recipes. Remember all of those questions that you just answered? Your answers will influence what kind of recipes you choose. (If you hate to cook and think that “variety” will mean different flavours of energy bars, keep reading. You’ll be surprised at the kinds of meals you can make on the road.)
  4. Choose your equipment. This doesn’t have to be complicated. While more adventurous cooks may want to use a camp stove beside the highway, most people will do well with disposable utensils, dishes and napkins, a cooler and a can opener. Do be sure that you have everything you need on the road.
  5. Plan your menu. This is a matter of deciding when you’re going to eat the meals which you’ve already chosen. You may want something simple for breakfast so that you can get going quickly in the morning, but be willing to spend a bit of time preparing your food at lunch or dinner.
  6. Write your lists. What ingredients will you need? Do you need containers to portion out bulk foods, such as trail mix, or to organize supplies, such as utensils or napkins? (Don’t forget garbage bags.)
  7. Buy what you need. Be sure you have enough of everything, but not too much.
  8. Do your prep. Whether you need to cook and freeze portions, organize packaged food or something in-between, do it at least a few days in advance of your trip so that you’re not rushing to get it done at the last minute.
  9. Start your trip. At the appointed time, hit the road.
  10. Chow down. At meals and snack times, park, relax and eat!

Planning your menu

Coming up with ideas for what to eat on the road may seem challenging (we certainly thought so!). After doing some research (including consulting someone who hates to cook), we put together two sample menus (including breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks) to give you some idea of what’s possible – even if you don’t like to cook or won’t be using a cooler.

“Cooking” in your car

As the sample menus demonstrate, it’s possible to feed yourself on the road for three days, even without refrigeration. The key to having a little variety is simple: just open a can. Canned foods are already cooked, so it’s a matter of using a little imagination or doing some research (we did a bit of both). Tuna dip paired with crackers, beans rolled into a tortilla, chicken salad in a sandwich, spaghetti…whether you stick to basics or decide to experiment, there’s something for just about anyone in the canned goods aisles at your grocery store. If you want, you can even make your meal more nutritious by adding some (canned) vegetables as a side dish! (And if you like, canned fruit for dessert.)

To chill, or not to chill?

You may think, “A cooler isn’t worth the space it takes up because the ice cubes will melt in less than a day. I could buy more ice, but we’re trying to avoid shopping during our trip!”

Good news: the secret to keeping your food fresh is to use block ice instead of ice cubes. It doesn’t melt as quickly and will easily keep things cool for a couple of days. You can make ice last even longer by ensuring that everything which goes into your cooler is already chilled.

If you decide to use a cooler and have enough room, consider bringing two: one for food and another for beverages. You’ll likely reach for a drink more often than a meal or snack, so reserving one cooler for beverages means that you won’t open your food cooler very often, thereby allowing the ice to last longer.

“Oh no! I forgot the…!”

Even the most organized people can make mistakes. If you do forget to bring something that you can’t do without, go to a store and buy what you need. Wear a mask, focus on staying away from other customers, and spend as little time as possible in the store.

Make your own iceInstead of using block ice, consider freezing water in large jugs and using these. As the ice melts, it becomes your drinking water instead of puddling at the bottom of your cooler. Remember, water expands as it freezes, so don’t fill the jugs to the top. 

When you reach your destination

If you commit to drive-by dining and make it to your winter home without buying any food on the way, congratulations! It’s hard work that takes time, energy and planning. You should feel the satisfaction of a job well done.

Cooking (or any kind of food preparation) is probably the last thing you want to do at this point. So, after you unload your car, take yourself out for a nice meal. (Or, on second thought, perhaps consider ordering in.)



COVID-19 Articles

COVID-19, the flu & you

Roadside restaurants

where do we stand with COVID-19?

Travel Readies For A Rebound

(416) 441-7028 • 1-800-326-9560 •

©Medipac Communications