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Surviving your Thanksgiving road trip

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For most Americans, Thanksgiving means sharing a decadent feast and quality time with close family and friends. But for many, in order to get to that gathering, it also means braving a family road trip.

This year AAA projects nearly 51 million Americans will hit the road for Thanksgiving journeys of 50 miles or more.

Holiday traffic, icy weather, and cranky kids can make an already hectic time of year even more stressful, but there are steps you can take to help make your car ride go smoothly.

Read on for some expert tips for a safe and healthy road trip.

Prep the car and check the weather

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Many travel snafus can be avoided with a little preparation. Make sure your car is in good working condition for a road trip and keep your gas tank full in cold weather to keep the fuel line from freezing. Check the oil and tire pressure.

The Red Cross recommends packing an emergency preparedness kit and supplies -- including water, nonperishable food, a flashlight, batteries, cellphone chargers, and a first aid kit -- in the trunk.

Check the weather and road conditions along your route before you hit the road, and plan your travel accordingly.

Get a good night's sleep

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Getting a good night's rest before a road trip is essential for safety.

In fact, research suggests that not getting enough sleep may affect the brain as much as driving drunk.

A recent study published online in Nature Medicine found that sleep deprivation robs neurons of the ability to function properly, leading to cognitive lapses in how we perceive and react to the world around us. Thus a drowsy driver could be slower to respond and hit the brakes to avoid another car or a pedestrian.

"The very act of seeing the pedestrian slows down in the driver's overtired brain," the study's senior author, Dr. Itzhak Fried, a professor of neurosurgery at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA and Tel Aviv University, said in a statement.

"It takes longer for his brain to register what he's perceiving."

Don't skip breakfast

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Take a few minutes to eat a balanced meal before hitting the road.

"Sometimes people are grumpier when they are hungry," Nancy Z. Farrell, a registered dietitian nutritionist and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, told CBS News. "So, be sure to eat a meal prior to the trip that includes a good source of protein and whole grains, such as eggs, yogurt, oatmeal, milk, or nut butter toast."

Buckle up

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Always buckle up and make sure other passengers do the same. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety estimates seat belts saved more than 13,900 lives in 2015. Unfortunately, traffic deaths have been rising in the U.S., but wearing a seat belt (even in the back seat) can help you survive in the event of a crash.

When buckling children into car seats, Safe Kids International recommends removing their bulky winter clothing like coats first, as they can interfere with the car seat from doing its job.

"Instead, cover your child with a thick blanket to stay warm after you've securely strapped him or her into the car seat," the organization said in a statement.

Snack smartly

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If you have a long ride ahead of you, plan ahead and pack healthy snacks to keep you alert and energized on the road.

"Choose portable options that will fit simply into an insulated bag, like fresh produce such as grapes, whole apples or pears, sliced apples, peeled citrus like clementines, tangerines, and oranges," Farrell said.

Kelly Hogan, a registered dietitian and clinical nutrition and wellness manager at the Mount Sinai Dubin Breast Center, notes it's especially important to pack snacks if you know you're not going to have a chance to stop for something or the options are limited to fast food joints on the road.

"Quick ideas could be a peanut butter and banana sandwich, turkey sandwich with veggies, nuts, fresh portable fruit, nut butters, sliced veggies like carrots, celery, bell peppers with hummus snack packs, string cheese and yogurts," Hogan told CBS News.

Transport cooked foods safely

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If you're bringing a cooked dish to your holiday gathering, make sure it's packed properly to prevent food from spoiling and causing foodborne illness.

"If you cook the food right before you leave, wrap the food (in a sealed container) in towels, foil or an insulated container," Hogan said. "Once you arrive at your destination, reheat as soon as possible. Cooked dishes should be OK at room temperature for no more than two hours."

Another option is to cook the food the day before and store in the refrigerator overnight. "Then, you can transport it to your destination in a cooler and just reheat once you arrive," Hogan said.

Take breaks

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Too much time in cooped up the car can take a toll on anyone.

"On lengthy trips, be sure to pull over to get out of the car to get some fresh air, stretch your legs, rehydrate, go to the restroom, and run around a bit," Farrell said. "This break provides benefits for the total person and improves your physical and mental well-being."

Keep kids entertained

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Tired, cranky children can pose a distraction to drivers and stress out the entire family, so plan ahead and make sure there are ways to keep kids entertained on a long trip.

That could mean bringing along electronic devices and headphones for video viewing and gaming. But some old-fashioned ideas can also save the day.

Farrell suggests, "There are sightseeing car games the family can play aloud together. There are miniature board games and activity books. Simple crafts can work, too."

Avoid digital distractions

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When the roads are crowded with other holiday travelers, it's more important than ever to be vigilant while driving.

Stay alert and avoid distractions like cellphones, high-tech dashboard screens and in-car entertainment systems while driving. If you have an iPhone, CNET explains how to use the new "Do Not Disturb While Driving" feature in iOS 11.

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