These grab-and-go snacks will fill you up fast—without breaking the calorie bank.
In an ideal world, you’d pack a cooler full of nutrient-rich snacks to keep you energized on a long road trip. In the real world, you’re lucky to remember your sunglasses and phone charger.
So when you stop to fill up your gas tank, there’s a good chance your body will also need some fuel. The problem: Most options at gas stations or convenience stores are packed with excess calories, sugar, salt, and ingredients you can’t pronounce.
“There’s a lot of temptation toward the saltier snacks, the candy, cookies, soda, and things like that,” says Jen Bruning, R.D.N., a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “But some of those foods can lead to highs and lows in blood sugar, which can really make us feel more distracted and sleepy.”
That’s bad news if you’re the one driving or navigating and need to stay alert.
But if you choose your snack wisely, you’ll end up feeling energized and satiated. Here are the eight smartest ways to refuel while you refuel.
1. Fruit or Vegetable Chips
Yes, chips can be a healthy choice. But we’re not talking about the greasy, salty potato kind.
Many brands offer freeze-dried or dehydrated fruits and vegetables, which come with the same light crunch as a chip but without the added fat and sodium, says Virginia-based dietitian Jill Weisenberger, R.D.N., author of Prediabetes: A Complete Guide.
You can find them made of vegetables like beets or fruits like apples, bananas, and mangoes. They pack a similar nutrient punch as their fresh counterparts, but they’re easier to eat on the go.
Just be sure to read the ingredients list. You want to see only the fruit or vegetable on there, along with possibly a calorie-free spice like cinnamon, Weisenberger says. Fruit or vegetable chips with added sugars or those fried in oil can pack a lot of extra calories.
2. Greek Yogurt
For a quick hit of protein, head to the dairy case, and pick out a yogurt. But make sure it’s Greek, which contains up to three times as much protein as the traditional stuff, says Alissa Rumsey, R.D., owner of Alissa Rumsey Nutrition and Wellness.
“On a road trip, protein helps keep you full and sustains your energy levels,” she says. “It’s also really important for retaining muscle mass as we age.”
Some kinds of yogurt, especially those with mix-ins or fruit on the bottom, can pack in a ton of added sugar and extra calories, so read the nutrition label before you buy. Ideally, your choice should contain less than 15 or 16 grams of sugar, Rumsey says.
You can also get the plain kind and stir in your own nuts for added flavor. Most gas stations are stocked with bags of pistachios, almonds, or other nut mixes.
3. Instant Oatmeal
Most gas stations have a microwave on their condiment counter, meaning you don’t have to hit the drive-thru to get a hot breakfast. Simply grab a single-serving cup of instant oatmeal, add water, and nuke it before you head back to your car.
Oatmeal will keep you full for the long haul. A 2013 study in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition found that when people ate oatmeal for their morning meal, they reported feeling less hungry and had less desire to eat four hours later than those who munched on sugary, cold breakfast cereal.
Oatmeal contains a type of fiber called beta-glucan, Weisenberger explains. This helps boost satiety. Bonus: It also helps control cholesterol and blood sugar levels.
Flavored instant oatmeal can contain lots of added sugars and sodium, so your best bet is to choose plain and stir in your own mix-ins, she says. Most gas stations have single-serve boxes of raisins and packages of nuts, which can add a flavor kick to your cup.
4. Protein Bar
Protein bars are convenient, but beware: Some are candy bars in disguise.
To make a smart pick, first turn to the ingredients label, Rumsey says. You want to see real, whole foods that you recognize: nuts, seeds, fruits, eggs, or beans.
Next, scan the nutrition label. Look for a bar with at least six to 10 grams of protein and at least five grams of fiber, preferably from whole food sources. Eating a bar with too much fiber, especially if you’re not used to it, can cause GI distress like bloating or diarrhea, she says. And nobody wants to deal with that on a long drive.
Ideally, you’d want your bar to be capped at 15 grams of sugar, though a higher number is okay if it contains lots of natural sugars from fruits like dates or figs.
5. Roasted Chickpeas
For a packaged snack that will do more than just stave off your hunger, snag a bag of roasted chickpeas, Weisenberger says.
Chickpeas are a type of legume. Specifically, they’re pulses, a food category that also includes dry peas, beans, and lentils. Most people don’t eat enough of them in their diets, so they end up missing out on some major health benefits.
When researchers from China crunched the numbers from six previous studies, they concluded that people who ate the most legumes were 7 percent less likely to die prematurely than those who consumed the least.
One possible reason: Chickpeas are rich sources of two kinds of carbohydrates—resistant starches and viscous fiber—which have been linked to better control of blood sugar, cholesterol, and weight, Weisenberger says.
But stick to the basics. Fancy flavors, like ranch, may be higher in sodium, she says. And it never hurts to pick the lightly salted option, especially if you have high blood pressure.
6. Nut Butter Packs
More gas stations are now offering individual packets of nut butters like peanut or almond butter, which can help you create a well-balanced snack.
“Spread it on some whole grain crackers, or eat it with an apple or banana,” Bruning says.
Nut butter can be super-satiating, thanks to its combo of protein and healthy monounsaturated fats. If you can’t find a suitable pairing, simply eat it directly from the squeeze pack.
7. Beef Jerky
“Beef jerky is a solid source of protein and keeps you very satisfied when you’re on the road,” Bruning says.
Some bags pack 10 to 12 grams of protein in one serving and are low in carbohydrates, so it won’t spike your blood sugar. Plus, a bunch of brands now offer “soft” or “tender” options that are easier to chew for people with dental issues or dentures.
As always, be sure to read your labels. Some brands are packed with sodium, added preservatives, and MSG. Although it’s admittedly tougher to find in a gas station, look for a brand without nitrates or chemicals that contains less than 400 milligrams of sodium per serving.
8. Sparkling Water
While it’s not technically a snack, your beverage choice is just as important as the food you take to the register.
“Hydrating is the most important thing to keep in mind,” Bruning says. A lot of people avoid drinking too many liquids on the road “because it means more frequent rest stops.”
But if you’re not drinking enough H2O, you can start to feel lousy, tired, and unable to concentrate as fully as you should.
When you stop to get a snack, get a bottle of water too. It may be tempting to opt for caffeinated beverages like coffee, tea, and soda, but those drinks have a diuretic effect that can work against proper hydration—and make you need to pee even more frequently.
If regular water bores you, Bruning suggests fruit-flavored or sparkling water instead.
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