Traveling with toddlers can be, well, tricky. But one of the most fun parts, in addition to just being in new places, is getting to eat different food. And since our little people are not always as enthusiastic about a change in their routine, here are my best tips for eating well and enjoying yourselves while away from home.
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How to Eat Well While Traveling With Toddlers
We’re gearing up for a few summer trips in the coming weeks, so I’ve been thinking about my top tips for making the most of it—and eating well as a family. Since we live in a small town, I tend to want to eat all the things when we’re away. But I’m usually quickly put in my place by the reality of our budget! Plus, since traveling with kids involves much more “kid” stuff—children’s museums, breaks for naps, restaurants that have space for antsy kids to roam, packing a bag full of snacks for the plane, etc—I aim for an overall balance to our trips to help us all enjoy ourselves. A big part of this is our approach to food, which includes the food I pack for us and what we choose to eat in restaurants. Here’s a look at my top 10 tips for traveling with toddlers and big kids.
Traveling with Toddlers 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?). And Cheerios remain an all star travel snack in our house…and lollipops for emergencies!
Traveling with Toddlers 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. Or, if in an airport, I like to let the little one choose something special to eat with her lunch. (Jamba Juice usually has a good selection of healthy kids snacks!)
Traveling with Toddlers Tip #3: Pack Breakfast
When a hotel doesn’t include breakfast in the fee, 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. Keep them in the mini fridge overnight as needed—or in the regular fridge if you rent a house.
Traveling with Toddlers Tip #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! And that bowl of apples and bananas sitting in the lobby? Those are for you my friend. (Just be sure to give them a thorough wash before handing them over to the wee one.)
Traveling with Toddlers Tip #5: Always Order an Appetizer
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. Playing with straws, in addition to drinking from them, can also help pass the time, as well as books and crayons. (The first time my husband and I had an overnight away from our girl we wound up sitting next to a family with a toddler watching a loud Elmo video during dinner. I was this close to abandoning my sushi. Which is to say, if you go the iPad route, please bring headphones or turn down the volume to keep the experience enjoyable for everyone!)
Traveling with Toddlers 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 girl 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! Restaurant portions are often big enough that we can comfortably share an entree, though I do usually order an extra side of veggies or an appetizer to make sure we both get enough to eat.
Traveling with Toddlers 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. See also: Pancakes in fun shapes with whipped cream for breakfast!
Traveling with Toddlers 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 or 5:30. This also means that the restaurant is usually less busy, making for a better experience all around—especially if your toddler needs to get up and walk around a bit at some point in the meal. (This is a reason that we often go to brew pubs—they tend to be spacious and have ample room for little legs to roam!)
Traveling with Toddlers 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 or farmer’s market so we can get takeout to bring back to our room. The prepared food section and salad bars make it easy to stock up on small amounts of finger foods you know your kiddo likes, without breaking the budget. We LOVE staying in Air BnBs with this in mind since it’s 100% easier to put the kiddo to bed early when you’re not all in the same hotel room.
Traveling with Toddlers Tip #10: 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.
And P.S.: Be sure to pack extra wipes, always and forever.