Eating on the run is a challenge: It requires planning ahead and organization, and can feel like a hassle until we get the hang of it. Portable food is increasingly important for locavores—a necessity that goes beyond taking leftovers to work. As we travel during summer breaks, we want to continue eating healthy food from the best and nearest sources.
When I spent summers in London early in the 2000s, I was dazzled by a string of lunch shops called Prêt à Manger that, at the time, were like manna in the desert as I walked and bused all over the city. I was always scrambling for an inexpensive lunch that would sustain me until dinner. The shops were on every street corner, it seemed, the way Starbucks feels in Seattle or NYC; Prêt has since opened dozens of shops in the Big Apple, one in D.C. and a host of them in Hong Kong, so they are on many street corners. The fresh, natural and high-quality ingredients put American notions of fast food to shame, and given the trade practices between the U.K. and the Continent, "local" can reasonably be extended to include Spain, Italy and France. That means avocados, seasonal veggies, strawberries from different altitudes, Valencia oranges and fresh and aged cheeses came together in sandwiches, savory tarts and cold chopped salads you could eat in the park or at a cheerful stainless steel bar right in the shop. I have translated many ideas from Prêt à Manger into picnic fare, road food and work lunches.
As much as I like to cook, I'm protective of my time out of the kitchen, especially in summer when I'm likely spending some extra time putting up produce for winter. So, inspired by Prêt, I crafted this poolside menu. We keep coolers of various sizes handy, and ice packs in the freezer. With a picnic basket always stocked with reusable plates and utensils, plastic wine glasses and opener, cloth napkins and tablecloth, salt, pepper, etc., we can jump in the car and drive to the pool after work, taking our supper with us to extend the time and exercise. The prep time is super quick and no fuss.
If you've ever waited in line for a ferry to the Outer Banks without having packed your lunch, you know the feeling of wishing you'd come prepared. I like the freedom of having healthy, homemade meals and snacks close at hand (especially with young children on board). On road trips or airport layovers (even more important now that airlines have cut back their meal offerings), you can save not only money but also the time you would have spent scouting out edible fast food or a decent local tavern that you don't really have time to enjoy. How much more relaxing to either pull off at a rest stop or get to the gate in plenty of time, pull out your brown bag and feast away, perhaps checking the map or dipping into your summer paperback.
When packing snacks for a road trip, having an assortment of reusable, unbreakable containers is essential. Loading these up in summer, one item per container that can be eaten as is, and keeping them in a car cooler, can be quick-food heaven. Leftover dinners in individual serving containers can be eaten cold or at room temperature.
Even if you didn't pack from home, there are options on the road that don't involve fast-food chains. Stop at any farmers market or roadside stand you happen to pass and pick up blueberries, cherry tomatoes, peaches, cucumbers (which can even be eaten like bananas), N.C. pecans or peanuts, and baked goods and sweets from local artisans.
(Localharvest.org offers a national directory, if you want to plan your route ahead of time.)