How to avoid fighting about food when traveling with kids
If you’re like me, you spend a lot of time thinking about food when you travel. And if you have kids, they spend even more time thinking – and arguing – about food.
Culinary travel is a huge trend. About 22 million Americans will take a culinary-focused vacation in the next year, according to a recent AAA study. Three out of four travelers tell pollsters that food and dining are an important part of their travel experiences, and chances are you’re among them. I know I am.
But culinary travel with kids is a special kind of challenge. You have to balance the adult need to eat something healthy with the junk-food impulses of your offspring. And you have to weigh those against the requirements of your trip. Which is to say, you can’t always pull over for a restaurant-quality lunch because you have places to be.
Well, I have good news and bad news for you. The bad news: No article will end the struggle. The good: I can help you minimize the conflict. I’ve been on the road with my kids for years, and I have a few ideas. A little planning, creativity and curiosity can bridge the divide between adults and parents – not to mention avoid a food fight.
Iden Elliott on the last stop of our burger tour of Santa Fe, New Mexico. (Photo: Christopher Elliott)
Plan your food when you travel – or it could turn into a fight
Some travelers like to experience their food spontaneously. Others plan. If you’re traveling with your family, you’ll definitely want to prepare. Why? Because, as I’ve told my kids on numerous occasions, if you don’t make plans, then plans will be made for you. Put differently, resolve any disagreements before you get to the restaurant or grocery store. No fighting about food in public.
Many travelers don’t like to cook while they’re on vacation, and that’s fine. A five-minute session with Yelp, Google and the kids can usually result in a meal plan everyone can agree on. One of our favorite concepts involves the food tour. That’s where we make multiple stops at restaurants or coffee shops, trying the same dish.
In Seattle, we stopped in a dozen coffee shops one afternoon. The kids tried a pastry, and I went for the espresso. In Santa Fe, we sampled six different chili burgers one afternoon. That was fun. In Chicago, it was hot dogs. Turning food into a theme – and an adventure – makes the vacation more memorable. You can do this in Philadelphia (cheesesteak), Memphis (barbecue), Austin (tacos) or New Orleans (gumbo).
A word of warning from someone who is willing to try almost anything: When it comes to definitions of “hot” and “spicy,” palates vary. I can almost still feel the burn of the chili I tasted in Santa Fe. It was nuclear-hot, even though the server assured me it was only “hot.” I’d hate to taste very hot.
To avoid fighting about food when you travel with kids, get creative – and stay creative
If you’re on the road almost nonstop like I am, you learn that routines are not your friend when it comes to food. If you feed your companions the same thing every day, they’ll eventually stop cooperating. Fighting about food is inevitable.
For my 13-year-old son, being uncooperative means declaring that everything I make is “disgusting!” And for my 11-year-old daughter, that means refusing to eat. Nothing is more exasperating than having unhappy kids at the dinner table.
Well, you know that saying – variety is the spice of life? The secret ingredient is creativity. Here’s where ours landed us:
• For breakfast, we loved our recent stop at Ellen’s Danish Pancake House in Buellton, California. The smiley-face pancakes are tasty. And fun.
Iden Elliott adjusts a smiley face on pancakes at Ellen’s Danish Pancake House in Buellton, California. (Photo: Christopher Elliott)
• For lunch, we adored the Low Country fare at Red Bone Alley in Florence, South Carolina. For some reason, that always seemed to be our halfway point between Washington and Orlando, where we used to live. Maybe that one was more opportunistic than creative.
• And there nothing quite like Remy’s on a Disney cruise, a multi-course meal with a wine pairing. Chef Arnaud Lallement of l’Assiette Champenoise, a Michelin three-star restaurant just outside Reims, France, and Chef Scott Hunnel from Victoria & Albert’s at Walt Disney World Resort, created the menu. Remarkable.
The ultimate in creativity is finding a grocery store or farmers market and creating your own food. It’s also a terrific way to save money. After several years, we started stepping out of our comfort zone by looking up local recipes and trying ingredients you can only find nearby. Of course, you can only do that if you can cook, so go for the vacation rental if you feel like putting your chef’s hat on.
Christopher Elliott’s latest book is “How To Be The World’s Smartest Traveler” (National Geographic). He edits the family adventure travel blog Away is Home. You can follow his adventures on Twitter or Facebook.
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