A Family Trip to Washington, D.C., Part 12: Eating on the Road

In case you missed the first few posts in this series, we are chronicling our family trip to Washington D.C.  The first post in the series is here.  You can find the rest under the travel menu on our main page.  Last week Melissa recalled our wonderful day spent at the Creation Museum.  This week I will go over our restaurant selections while on the road.

I promise that we do not shelter our children, but you would never know it when it comes to restaurants. Melissa and I asked them what they would like to eat while on the road. Their responses? Sonic’s slushies, shamrock shakes from McDonalds, Panda Express, and Chipotle. It is not that we never eat out, we just don’t eat at many fast food places.

dc ice cream treat

Melissa and I had a few other ideas for food stops. They were slightly more adventurous and grown-up. We wanted to try some things that we do not have available in our area. No surprise to anyone that knows us, we spent a great deal of time planning restaurants. We had criteria, we made a spreadsheet, and we stuck to it. Almost.

So what criteria did we use to select the places we would grace with our business?


All our hotels included complimentary breakfasts, so we only needed to worry about lunch and supper on the road. The lunchtime meals normally coincided with our long “leg-stretching” stops on our full travel days. We wanted places that were convenient and easy. The evening meals were planned relatively close to our hotels. We knew that after a long day of driving the last thing we would want to do after eating was climb in the car for more travel. We did make a couple exceptions to that in order to check some of the things off the kids’ lists.


Our family has no picky eaters. That being said, there are a few who are less adventurous than others. Variety in the style of restaurants was crucial. We also did not want to eat pizza or tacos every day. While we did repeat cuisine types a little, we tried to make sure there were a few meals between them. We also needed to be aware of the type of food we ate for lunch. Our family is not used to greasy food, so we tried to steer clear of that in the middle of the day. It was one of the many ways we kept from getting car sick.


In case you haven’t figured it out yet, Melissa and I are frugal. We are always looking for a deal. Sometimes we even find new and creative ways to do it. Two of the methods we used for this trip were Swagbucks and Restaurant.com. Swagbucks is a site we will discuss a little more later, but the short story for this post is that you can redeem your points for Restaurant.com gift cards. On Restaurant.com you can buy half price gift certificates for select restaurants. We searched the areas around our hotels and stops to see what places were available.

So after all the time spent researching, what did we eat?

Three of our meals were combined with our entertainment stops for the day. The Hard Rock Café, Lips to Go, and the café at the Creation Museum. Another day we had a picnic at the Columbus zoo. We shopped at the grocery store the night before, and brought it will us.

We had a couple meals that were new experiences for the kids. One night we ate Thai cuisine at a chic little restaurant in Cedar Falls, Iowa. Another night found us in a quaint German restaurant near Cincinnati, Ohio. Both places served good, mostly authentic food.

restaurant swagbucks fun dinner

We also checked a couple things off the kids’ lists. We ate dinner at a Sonic, and included slushies for dessert. Our first meal in Washington D.C. was at a Chipotle. Not only did they get the food they wanted, but they received a crash course in D.C. driving. We sat at a table that looked out over a busy street. One lunch was enough to teach them what the car horn was for.

To round out our world tour of foods we ate at a BBQ shop, enjoyed an amazingly authentic Chinese lunch, and also ate at probably the best Mexican restaurant we have ever been to. We intended to use a Restaurant.com gift card for the Mexican food, but found out after we had eaten that they no longer accepted them. Even without the discounted tab, the food was well worth the cost.

That leads me to two points of caution when it comes to Restaurant.com gift certificates. First, do not buy them too far in advance. Locations can choose to stop participating whenever they want and are not required to honor certificates that have already been purchased. I did find out that you can “return” them to Restaurant.com and exchange them for a certificate to another restaurant later.

Second, do not take the pictures and descriptions of locations on the Restaurant.com website as completely accurate. They are supplied by the establishment, and are not verified in any way by the website. Do some additional internet research on the restaurants if possible. Or better yet, wait until you get to there to buy the certificate. We bought a certificate for a “family friendly Irish Pub.” When we pulled up it looked more like a biker bar in the corner of a strip mall. Needless to say, we chose something else for dinner that night.

Overall, we used three Restaurant.com gift cards, one free gift card to the Hard Rock Café, two lunches with family, and a picnic lunch with the animals. The rest of the meals we paid full price for. Overall, we spent less that $60 a day on food for our family of five while traveling in the car. It took time to do the research, but it was worth it to have good food at good prices.

How about you? How do you save money on food for car trips? Let us know your tricks!