We just got back from a long weekend in Minneapolis and wow, the change of scenery did us all good. The weather was beautiful—warm and sunny—and Miss L was SO happy, what with the Children’s Museum, waterpark, and the phone in the hotel. (Seriously, she was totally obsessed with the phone!)
One of the ways that we balance the “kid” stuff that is now part of traveling with a toddler is to make sure that we eat well. This includes both the food that I pack for us to take with us and how we eat out while away. I thought I’d share some tips for eating well while traveling with a toddler because, well, sometimes it’s tricky. Here’s how we do it:
1. Stock up on 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 snacks that we don’t often have at home to make things feel more special and fun. We like Bunny Fruit Snacks, apple chips, fruit leather, freeze-dried fruit, raisins, crackers, and bars like Larabars. 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.
2. Plan a fun lunch break 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.
3. Pack breakfast.
When a hotel doesn’t include breakfast in the fee, I try to pack us something yummy rather than spending $12 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.
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 skipping the sad pre-cooked omelets and soggy sausage. 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.)
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 an 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…)
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. 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.
7. Consider the kid’s menu.
I know, I know, everyone is always saying to skip the kid’s menu at all costs. 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 is a rare treat that would make your kiddo really happy, I say do it. See also: Pancakes shaped like bears!
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.
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 or Whole Foods 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 foods you know your kiddo likes, without breaking the budget.
10. Splurge a little!
Traveling is restorative, refreshing, and the perfect opportunity to indulge a little. So try foods you don’t normally have (dessert included!) and show the kids that there’s more to life than green smoothies and kale chips. (And be sure to pack extra wipes, always and forever.)