This is not a post on how to get your picky eater to not be picky. When you figure that one out, please let me know! But I’ve had quite a few parents tell me they are reluctant to travel too far from home, and definitely not outside their own country, because they don’t know what their child will eat. So this post is about how to accept your child’s pickiness and to travel in spite of it.
Rely on breakfast
It doesn’t happen often but in an environment with too much unfamiliar food kids can get too hungry, leading to grouchiness, headaches, fatigue, dehydration and more. So Michelle Chan, who runs the travel blog Malaysia Meanders and whose kids have remained picky into their tweens, says she tries to make sure there is one familiar meal a day, even when traveling throughout Asia.
In our family we usually make that meal breakfast. When we don’t know what the day will bring it’s the meal we have the most control over. A lot of breakfast foods are starchy and caloric, maybe not ideal nutritionally but good for filling bellies for the busy day ahead. And it’s often the easiest meal for spotting familiar foods. We’ve found some sort of white bread, croissants, eggs and pancakes in even the most far-flung parts of the world. If we can find a supermarket we can usually spot a familiar cereal. And breakfast is often my best chance all day to get a banana or some other token amount of fruit into my child.
Let them be boring
If a child finds something they like on vacation and they want to eat it every day, let them, especially if it happens to me nominally nutritious.
Lindsay Nieminem, who writes the blog Carpe Diem Our Way and travels a lot in the Middle East writes, “I just let them eat boring foods. If it's hummus on pita bread for breakfast everyday, that's fine with me.”
Our most exotic vacation so far has been to Senegal, in west Africa, and we wondered what our picky eater would find there to eat. It turned out they eat a lot of rice and every restaurant had roast chicken legs on the menu. She ate chicken once a day and white rice for lunch and dinner for 8 days. She ate roast chicken legs every other day in Paris and chicken got her through much of our trip across Arizona last year. My realization that she reliably eats chicken and so does much of the rest of the world has eased my what-will-she-eat anxiety as we travel further afield.
For your child that go-to food might be pita and hummus, baguettes with cheese, rice and beans, bananas or scrambled eggs, and it might vary by destination. But if they hone in on a readily available food that makes them feel comfortable and fills them up in an unfamiliar place, go for it. You can pack a multi-vitamin or balance their diet to make up for what they’ve been lacking when you get back home.
Give them choice whenever you can
I’m not a big fan of buffets, but kids eat with their eyes even more than adults do and like being in the driver’s seat whenever they can. So the freedom to decide what looks good and choose for themselves can sometimes nudge them to try something new. The first time my daughter ate grilled fish she chose it from the buffet at an all-inclusive resort.
If you are taking more adventurous vacations that don’t include buffets, explore food markets where kids can browse open food stalls with a variety of sweet and savory foods and hopefully find something enticing. We often make picnic lunches from our market discoveries.
At the very least, when you walk into a restaurant look around to see what other people are eating and encourage your kids to do the same. Maybe they’ll see something that strikes their fancy. We also like to order several small plates for the family to share instead of individual entrees and we make sure everyone gets to choose a dish.
Even with these tactics they might surprise you by choosing something new to try only about one time out of ten. But that’s a start!
Let them discover new foods on their term
During our two weeks in Paris our daughter made most of her new food discoveries in the patisseries. She tried lemon macarons, chocolate cream puffs, sugar-dotted chouquettes and crepes with lemon and sugar. In Edinburgh it was treacle tart and in Montreal, maple ice cream.
But she made the connection between travel and discovering new foods that are yummy. As she gets older that interest in new foods in new places should start to take a more savory turn…we hope.
Travel expert Lisa Ness Grabler likes to take food tours when she hits a new city with her family. Her girls love having small tastes at different local restaurants; It’s a no-pressure situation and the kids are learning about a new culture through the food, which helps. But she hedges her bets by giving them a snack just before the tour so they won't be complaining they’re hungry if they don’t care for the new food.
If your child is really picky and you want to travel to a place where familiar options might be limited, don’t be afraid to throw a jar of peanut butter in your suitcase (this is how I got through a summer abroad in high school). There was a time when I didn’t travel without a stash of granola bars, cereal, dried fruit, whole grain crackers, and even microwaveable mac & cheese in my suitcase. These were things that travel well and would provide my fussy kid with familiar, somewhat healthy food in a pinch.
Don’t be afraid to fib a bit
In Nieminem’s family, “Any meat we order in a restaurant is steak and my kids eat it.” We passed off rabbit as chicken in Paris and all the fish we ate in Senegal was “cod,” which my daughter knows she eats. As kids get older it’s harder to fool them, of course. But if they are on unfamiliar ground, are hungry enough and the food looks vaguely familiar, a little suspension of disbelief can go a long way. And you can revel – quietly to yourself – in a small food victory.
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