Look at the children’s menus of many family restaurants (not even fast-food joints), and you’re likely to find the same few items: chicken nuggets, hamburgers, pizza — probably all with fries.
Granted, most preschoolers enjoy chicken nuggets and fries, and for a special occasion, why not? But if you’re on a family road trip, eating out day after day, it can add up to a deep-fried diet, with hardly a fruit or vegetable in sight. There must be a better way.
There is, but it takes a little planning, says Halifax registered dietitian Jennifer Hamm. That means packing some of your own food and making wise use of your restaurant options.
DIY meals and snacks
• Bring a cooler and book a room with a mini-fridge. Even if you’re frequenting restaurants for your meals, you can supplement with fresh fruit, cut-up veggies, mini-yogurts and whole-grain cereal for snacks or sides. • Prepare kid-friendly, easy-to-eat portions, suggests Hamm. “Pack individual servings of precut veggies. (Check what’s permitted before bringing food across borders.)
• Have lunch at the grocery store. When Sabrina Scrimegour and her family travelled from Ontario to California last summer, they often stopped at a grocery store rather than a restaurant. “We would pick up a salad and rotisserie chicken, or buy buns and sandwich fixings.” Julie Benoit, whose family has travelled to the US, Europe and North Africa, agrees. “We pick up whole fruit or packs of precut fruit, fresh sandwiches and salads made at the deli, plus slices of cheese and a box of crackers,” Benoit says.
• Choose a hotel with breakfast included. Or bring your own cereal and milk, make instant oatmeal with hot water from the coffee maker, or offer the kids peanut butter on mini whole wheat bagels.
• Do some research. If you know where you’ll be stopping, look on the Internet to see what’s available. Source family restaurants and take a look at the menu.
• Get an extra plate. If the kids’ menu doesn’t suit, order something you both like, and share. Add milk and perhaps an extra bun, and you’re set.
• Spoil their appetites! Sometimes fast food is the only option, says Benoit. “If I anticipate the kids’ meals won’t be particularly nutritious, I’ll give them a healthy snack in the car or while we’re waiting for the food to come. If they have a decent drink and some real food first, then they eat less junk.”
Whether you’re picnicking or eating out with young children, try to keep mealtimes regular, Hamm says. “What happens if you wait too long, you go, ‘Oh, forget it, we’ll just go to McDonald’s because we’re all starving,’” she says. Or worse, there won’t be a McDonald’s, only a restaurant with a waiting line an hour long. Yes, this is the voice of experience: It does not make for a relaxing vacation to have an interminable wait for food with two kids having a hunger meltdown and parents right on the brink of following them!
It doesn’t do to overstress about our children’s vacation diet — a couple of weeks, after all, is not going to have a lasting impact on their nutritional health. But with a bit of extra effort, you can get a healthier and tastier variety of food into them, have a happier trip and even save a little money.