Sunday, February 6, 2011

Trying new foods with traveling kids

Skip the chicken fingers and dare your kids to try the local cuisine.
I read this travel tip headline from this morning and I totally agree with it, at least in theory. In practice this isn't always easy to achieve, but I think it's worth striving for.

I love trying new dishes when I'm traveling, and I try to pass this enthusiasm on to my children on our family trips. However, I know first-hand that getting your children to share that enthusiasm can be a challenge. To paraphrase the old saying: You can lead your kid to a new dish, but it can be really, really hard to make them eat it.

Both my kids have had, and still have, periods when they are very picky eaters. And when we are abroad, for example visiting my family in Sweden, I do run into the usual "I want food xyz that isn't available here and I don't want this new stuff I've never tried before!" at times. I do accommodate this a bit, by buying foods that are similar, or the same, as they get at home, but they are also exposed to new foods.

I think this approach of mixing it up between giving your children the same-old, and and exposing them to new dishes is the one most parents settle on. As parents, we know our own kids best and usually have some tricks that can encourage them to expand their food horizons a bit. Here, I'll share my tips on how to get picky children to try new, local flavors.

My grandmother with a platter full of freshly cooked palt.

Don't assume they won't like it
If you have a picky eater, it can be easy to assume that they won't like new things being offered when you're traveling. However, with my own kids I do try to let them taste everything that's on the table at a meal, even if I pretty much know they won't eat it.

My picky-eater daughter has surprised me in the past by totally loving both olives and feta cheese, and my son will pretty much eat any kind of seafood you offer him. On our last trip to Sweden, he even showed an appreciation for palt: a northern Swedish dish which is something like a baseball sized dumpling. Sometimes, if you just let them try it and figure out for themselves whether they like it or not, without making a big deal about it, they will surprise you and themselves.

Try local dishes that are similar but not the same
A croque monsieur is after all a grilled ham n' cheese sandwich. Asian noodle dishes can work for kids who like noodles at home. Going for pasta dishes with different kinds of sauce (on the side perhaps) or cheese than you get at home can be another way to get children to eat more local when you're traveling. Egg dishes can also be good: if your child likes omelets, a Spanish tortilla might be OK too.

Many countries have versions of pancakes your kids might like to try: French crepes, Dutch pannekoeken, Swedish "pl├Ąttar" or "pannkakor", and so on. Savory pies are big in some countries and can be a hit with kids, as can various types of dumplings and sandwiches.

A good introduction to new foods is if those foods are at least in the same league as food your children usually likes. If your child likes fish, then try local types of fish. If they like soup, then get them to try a local soup. And if your child doesn't like stew at home, they're unlikely to go ga-ga over stews when you're abroad. Could happen though! Kids can always surprise you

Try "clean" foods
What I mean with "clean" is simple, even non-cooked local foods, that are not mixed with something else. One example is fresh local vegetables fruits, especially if you're in a warm country that has a good supply of fresh produce. My kids are not big pineapple eaters at home, but when we were in Maui they loved the local pineapple. And who doesn't? Vine-ripened pineapple is definitely an upgrade compared to any other kind.

Local types of cheese, bread, baked goods, and yogurt can also give them new flavors to try. If you're traveling somewhere with lots of good seafood and you know your child is OK with fish and shellfish, then that will work too.

Sometimes it's unfamiliar spices and sauces that put a child off, so asking for less spice or sauce on the side can be one option.

The snail from our Maui trip. NOT the escargot from the trip to France...
The brag factor
This works for some kids at certain ages, and involves getting your child to try "weird" foods so they can impress (or gross out!) their friends at home. My brother did this when we traveled to France when he was about six years old. To the amazement of everyone, he ate escargot, bouillabaisse, aioli, and octopus. All to be able to tell his buddies at home about the "icky" stuff he had eaten.

This tactic could backfire though, if you exaggerate the weirdness of the new, local foods to the point that your kids become convinced it really is too gross to eat.

Fish dish from Mala Tavern, Maui: soooo good, but a little too much for my kids.
Give them (and yourself) a break
For smaller children, it can be a real chore to try new foods and an even bigger chore for parents to get them to do it. Give them and yourself a break. Offer something new and local at every meal, even if it's just something off your plate or a local dessert after the meal, but also allow them to eat something at every meal that they know they'll like. Hungry kids are just trouble waiting to happen, and after all, family holidays are supposed to be fun and relaxing!

Palt image thanks to Wikipedia.

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