My husband and I have done a lot of travelling with our three children, currently ages 10, eight and five. We live over a thousand kilometers from our childhood homes, and we make the trek by car at least twice a year. We have also been on about a dozen air trips with our gang, and we have learned a few tricks about travel in general, and about eating well when away from home.
Car trips of a day or less are the easiest to handle. If you really want your kids to continue with their healthy eating habits, pack all the food you will need for the day and take it along.
For breakfast, high fibre muffins are easy and popular! Make them ahead and freeze them - no matter how organized you think you will be, things can fall apart at the last minute! Fruit, cheese and milk or juice boxes are also easy to pack.
In good weather, picnics are the ideal break for children of all ages. The chance to escape seatbelts or carseats, run around a bit and get some fresh air, really improves children’s ability to withstand several more hours in the car.
We take fairly traditional picnic fare - sandwiches, fruit, raw veggies and some juice or milk. On a picnic table, everything is a feast. If I am in a hurry, I buy precut veggies. Sandwiches can be made ahead and frozen, as long as they do not include mayonnaise (which doesn’t keep well).
If the weather is poor, we eat in the car, so I bring a stack of plastic containers (with sides) to load up the meal for each child. You can save disposable plastic dishes - they work well, but so do old margarine containers or anything else that’s convenient.
I also have a stash of crackers, fruit, cheese and usually some cookies for snacks. Eating helps to pass time in the car but nibbling all day is not a wise idea for good tooth-health, so why not put all the toothbrushes in a plastic bag and keep it in the picnic basket? That way they are easy to grab when you hit the next washroom, and it’s easy to brush up!
Remember your water bottles. Good plain water is a terrific thirst quencher. Drinking more water may mean a few extra washroom stops along the way, but you will all feel better for it.
We once drove from Edmonton to Phoenix, Arizona with our one, four and six year olds! We started out more or less as I described above, but by the end of the trip, our 14-hour days in the car took their toll.
We deteriorated to driving up to any old drive-through and throwing back food from the front seat of the van. Even I felt we deserved treats, and would be the one buying a round of sweets or chocolate bars at the gas station. We actually had an amazingly smooth trip, although my one and a half year old (who was still breast fed at the time) sucked back an embarrassing number of bottles!
These trips take imagination. You might not have a lot of extra space to carry food, so by the second or third day, you will likely be stopping at restaurants. Fast food is great because the kids do not have to sit still (often there is a playground), but the benefit of choosing a regular restaurant is that there will be a wider choice of foods.
We found buffet restaurants a pretty good solution - at least once a day we would stop at one and know we could eat plenty of fresh fruits, veggies and salads. It was worth the extra time and we got good food value for our money. You can also run into a grocery store along the way and pick up some fruit or bread or milk for snacks or light meals along the way.
I have some good advice about plane travel with kids - take food! I made the mistake once of boarding a plane with my kids at 6 p.m., which meant checking in at 4:30 pm. We were fed a little bun (smaller than a tennis ball) and a tiny chocolate bar. Our connector stop was 20 minutes - not even enough time to find a snack. We arrived at 11 pm and were all very hungry! You can guess how well the children behaved - it was a humbling experience.
Be sure to ask about meals when you book your seats. Most airlines offer kids' meals (ask also about services for infants). Find out what is available and choose accordingly. We give our older two a choice of the children’s meal or a grown-up meal to avoid any whining about wanting the other when it actually arrives.
Kids really do behave better, concentrate better, and are less irritable if they eat on time. Some easy to carry, non-crushable choices are oranges, apples, granola bars, cheese strings or dried fruit. This is a good habit for your entire vacation - do not skip meals! Everyone will enjoy themselves more if they eat regularly.
Also, when you are flying, do not forget about fluids - you and your children need to drink plenty of water or juice to avoid dehydration.
I love staying in motels with refrigerators in the rooms - it makes it easy to keep some fruit, milk and plain cheeses or meats. You can easily construct simple meals or snacks like cereal and milk for breakfast. This helps with your budget, but it also helps you know for sure that your kids are eating some healthier foods, and you can let loose a little the rest of the time. When you need to eat out a lot, you will want to be looking for better balance as much as possible.
The great thing is that kids usually do tire of restaurant fare, and they will often be very open to other choices. Look for fruit cups, fresh vegetables, fruit salads or salads. Buffet restaurants often offer a variety of fresh, plain food children enjoy. If they are tired of hamburgers (it does happen occasionally), but you are still in a fast-food restaurant - look for alternatives. Most places now offer salads, baked potatoes, chili or soup.
The easiest restaurant tip is to order milk as a beverage and omit the french fries for everyone. Even chocolate milk (which is higher in sugar) is nutritionally superior to pop, and will instantly boost the nutritional value of your restaurant meal.
Don’t forget to enjoy yourself! Remember that good nutrition is not just about what you or your children eat at any one meal - it’s the total picture that counts. Food is part of the way we celebrate and enjoy ourselves. Family holidays might mean an ice-cream cone every single day at the beach - memories are made of that too. Keep in mind your family’s overall eating - all foods can be part of a healthy diet. So try to keep that balance and have a great time.
Like grown-ups, kids should follow Canada’s Food Guide to Healthy Eating. Eating this way will provide all the nutrients growing bodies need to stay healthy. Children’s needs will vary depending on their age, size, activity level and growth, but generally:
Every day, children should have:
Preschoolers and toddlers will generally choose child-size servings around the lower end of the range for these food groups. A child-size serving is between one-half and the full-size of those listed in the guide. Serving sizes are found in Canada’s Food Guide to Healthy Eating. If you do not have one, contact your local health unit office for a free copy.
When you are on vacation, restaurant meals and extra treats might mean that your child’s fat intake seems high. Is that a problem? The low-fat diets (containing 30 percent or fewer of total calories from fat) are not even recommended for Canadian children, until they have grown to their full height. Children have more room in their diets for extras - partly because they are growing, and partly because they are usually active.
Some nutritious foods that are loaded with energy for small children are cheese, peanut butter, eggs and whole or 2 per cent milk. On holidays, eating these foods makes it easier to pack some extra nutrition into their diets too!