Traveling with toddlers can be, well, tricky. But one of the most fun parts is getting to eat different food while you’re exploring a new place. Here are my best tips for eating well and enjoying yourselves while away from home…even when you might be out of your routine.
How to Eat Well While Traveling With Toddlers
Whatever the time of the year, gearing up to travel with kids can feel daunting. There’s packing, figuring out how to keep the kids busy while you get to where you’re going, what you’ll do when you get there, what kind of food to pack for traveling, and where to eat while you’re away.
I prefer to keep our food costs to a minimum while we travel so we have money for other things (like children’s museums!), so I do my best to pack some food and then strategize when it comes to eating out. Here are my best tips.
Tip #1: Overpack Snacks
This one might be obvious but it’s worth mentioning anyway—pack more snacks than you think you will need because you just never know. I always buy a few low-mess snacks that we don’t often have at home to make things feel more special and fun. We like cheese crackers, fruit leather, freeze-dried fruit, raisins, and mini Larabars or granola bars.
All of these are easy to stick into a diaper bag to pull out whenever you need them—for snack time or to help quell tantrums and redirect less than ideal behavior when in public. (Sometimes you have to pull out all the stops, right?).
TIP: Find my Ultimate Guide to Travel Food here.
Tip #2: Plan Lunch Breaks on Travel Days
This sometimes isn’t possible, but when it is, I try to plan ahead for an interesting lunch break. If on a road trip, this is usually a park with a playground so we can eat outside (weather permitting) and run around for a bit. It could also be a stop at a grocery store with a good prepared foods section or a classic diner.
TIP: If we’ll be having lunch in an airport, I like to let the kids choose something special to eat with their lunch—which costs less than buying a whole meal.
Tip #3: Pack Breakfast
When a hotel doesn’t include breakfast, I try to pack us something yummy rather than spending $12 per person on a restaurant meal that may or may not get eaten. Some favorite foods to pack include a batch of muffins or bars, shelf-stable milk from Horizon or Organic Valley, packets of nut butter from Justin’s, hard boiled eggs, and fresh fruit. All of these also make good snacks or lunch options so they get eaten in my family no matter what.
TIP: Store any perishables in the mini fridge overnight. Find my favorite Make-Ahead Breakfasts here.
#4: Make the Most of Free Food
If you are staying at a hotel with an included breakfast buffet (like you get at a Hampton Inn), graze the buffet for the best offerings. To me this means grabbing fresh fruit, yogurt, milk, peanut butter packets, and maybe oatmeal—and not being afraid to take any leftovers with you, especially if your kiddo tends to be distracted at breakfast and super hungry come morning snack!
TIP: Many hotels have fruit in the lobby, so grab one or two for snack time. (Just be sure to give them a thorough wash before handing them over to the wee one.)
Tip #5: Always Order an Appetizer (and Activities)
When eating in a restaurant, entrees can vary widely in how long they take to arrive at your table. Appetizers—hummus and pita, edamame, chicken satay, sweet potato fries—can help keep the little one occupied and happy. And often they make great meals for the kids too. Playing with straws, in addition to drinking from them, can also help pass the time, as well as books, crayons, and washi tape.
TIP: Devices are fine in restaurants, but for the sake of other diners, use headphones or turn off the volume!
Tip #6: Order an Entree with Multiple Components
When the kid’s menu looks lackluster or there are things on the regular menu that I think my kids would prefer, I often order something for us to share. Some of the most successful meals that we’ve shared include jambalaya, stir-fry, seafood pasta, and burgers with sweet potato fries.
These dishes include many different ingredients for the little ones to choose from, which helps ensure that there is something they like on the plate—it’s okay if that winds up being half of a roll and some cheese!
TIP: Restaurant portions are often big enough that I can comfortably share an entree with a toddler, though I do usually order a side salad, an extra side of veggies, or an appetizer to make sure we both get enough to eat.
Tip #7: Consider the Kid’s Menu
I know, I know, everyone is always saying that kids meals are the worst. But in my experience, the quality of the kid’s menu totally depends on the restaurant and it’s unfair to say that they are all terrible because, in fact, there are some good ones. So I evaluate each one on its own. Also, you know what? A really good grilled cheese is completely delicious. So if that would make your kiddo really happy, I say do it.
TIP: If there’s something on the regular menu you think your child would prefer, ask if they can have a half portion.
Tip #8: Eat Dinner Early
Since you never know how long a restaurant meal can take (this goes for a meal at a friend’s house too), start early to allow for plenty of time to eat and get back to the hotel for bedtime. We usually go around 5, which has the added benefit of the restaurant being less busy. This helps for so many reasons, including if your toddler needs to get up and walk around a bit at some point in the meal.
TIP: We often go to brew pubs, which tend to be spacious and have ample room for little legs to roam! And no one cares if the kids are noisy.
Tip #9: Stay in Sometimes
Being in a new place and being out and about all day can be exhausting, especially for toddlers who thrive on routine. And while we love to eat out when we’re away, we also aren’t afraid to admit it when we’re all a little tired. I often find the local natural foods co-op, local grocery store, farmer’s market, or Thai restaurant so we can get takeout to bring back to our room or airbnb—or have a slower paced breakfast in the morning.
TIP: The prepared food section and salad bars at grocery stores and farmer’s markets make it easy to stock up on small amounts of finger foods you know your kiddo likes, without breaking the budget.
Tip #10: Don’t Stress about Picky Eating
Try not to stress if the kids don’t seem to eat like they do at home—there’s a lot going on! Expect appetite fluctuations, random food jags, being off schedule, and the like. They may eat new things or they may refuse. They may have more snacks than usual. This is all temporary, so keep that in mind and try to enjoy loosening up the rules.
Tip #11: Pack All the Wipes
Be sure to pack extra wipes, always and forever. Add some hand sanitizer too. And extra clothes and a bib!
Tip #12: Bring the Gear They Need
This may mean a set of kid-size utensils or their water bottle or favorite reusable pouch. Or a travel placemat and a bib. If there’s something that’s really helpful for your child at mealtimes, they may benefit from having it along.
Tip #13: Have fun!
Traveling is often so invigorating with all of the seeing of new things and is often the perfect opportunity to indulge and loosen up around meals. So try foods you don’t normally have (dessert included!) and show the kids that there’s more to life than the food you always eat at home. Have ice cream in the morning or try a dish you never have before to model your own eating adventure to the kids.