Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Traveling (and living) with a picky eater

Lots of kids go through a picky-eater stage when new foods are often automatically rejected, some familiar foods get rejected because they don't look or smell exactly right, or just because they (eeek!) touched some other food. When you're the parent of a picky eater, it might seem that this is a very, very drawn-out, and interminable stage.

Both my kids have been, or are still, picky eaters. The 8 year old is almost out of it by now, while the 4 year old is still very much in it. The picky eating does push several of my overreaction buttons, though I usually (not always) try very hard not to let those buttons be pushed. I try to think of the very sensible advice in Dr. Spock's Baby and Child Care: "Don't ask, bribe, or force a child to eat". (This book is a classic for a reason. Its chapter on feeding problems is very sensible.)

It is hard to follow that advice sometimes (partly because I love trying new foods when we're traveling, and I don't want them to miss out), even when I know that the more I push, the more they'll push back.

Traveling with a picky eater can be tricky, especially if you're going to another country where the food will almost certainly be unfamiliar. It is also tricky if you're traveling by plane, since the food served on-board might also be unfamiliar. Here are some "food-strategies" I've found helpful when traveling with my picky eaters: 

1. Bring familiar snacks on your flight
Airline food can be tough on adults, and it can be really tough for kids who are picky eaters. All sorts of unfamiliar foods that don't smell or look "right" and are all touching each other. Familiar, non-messy, and preferably somewhat nutritious snacks can really help: granola bars, muffins, pretzels, carrot sticks, crackers... bring something you know your child likes to eat. Some of my tips for on-board snacks can be found here and here. 

2. Eat before the flight
This can be a really good strategy, especially before a long flight. Eat a big meal at home, or treat your kids to a meal they really like at the airport before departure. That way they can eat in a more comfortable environment than on board, and you can hopefully choose foods that they like. This way they'll be reasonably full for a while, and you'll rest a little easier knowing they had that big meal before they got on board.

3. Order the kids' meal on your flight
Most airlines that serve free meals will have a kids' meal option that you can order ahead of time for your children. It usually includes some more child-friendly foods and snacks, though there's no guarantee it will please a picky eater. On a recent KLM flight, they served macaroni and cheese. My son loved it, but my daughter rejected it since it "didn't taste right". *sigh* You can read more about kids' meals on-board here.

This delicious dish from Mala Ocean Tavern in Maui was definitely NOT kid-approved!
4. Get more of the stuff they will eat on-board
On a recent flight with my family, I grabbed several of the fresh-baked rolls offered with the meal, and gave them to my daughter. She didn't eat much of her meal, but she doesn't mind eating bread, so it worked out. Plain foods like bread, crackers, or fresh veggies and fruit are sometimes part of the meals on board, so grab what you can of that if your child will eat it.

If there is no free meal available, but food is available for purchase, you might have at least a small selection of food and snack items, but it might not always be easy to find something for a picky kid even there.

5. Look for healthy foods & snacks at the airport
There are a lot of chips, candy, french fries, and "grown-up" foods at airports. However, many snack shops also sell stuff like whole fresh fruits, pre-cut veggies or fruits (like a fruit salad), tubs of yogourt, milk, dried fruits, nuts, etc. My daughter once emptied a 500 ml (2 cups) container of milk as her chosen "healthy snack" at an airport, and I thought that was pretty awesome. (Though I confess I worried about how many bathroom visits we'd have on the flight...) 

More non-kid-approved delicious dishes, this time from Gran Canaria.
6. If you find something they like, let them have it
When I visit Sweden with the kids, meal-times can be challenging sometimes. My daughter will complain that the cheese, bread, hot dogs, honey, jam, and whatever else doesn't taste or look exactly like it does at home. However, there are things she really likes over there, and as long as those things aren't terribly unhealthy, I will let her eat those things often, and eat a lot of them. Drinkable yogourts, several kinds of crackers, pancakes, and certain kinds of cereal are all things she enjoys, so I just make sure to have that stuff around.

Finding something the kids like on a restaurant menu in a different country can be another challenge: in Sweden, one of the sure-bets for my kids has been pancakes with jam (a frequently found item on kids' menus over there). Let me just say that they've eaten a lot of Swedish pancakes over the years... 

7. Go for "clean" foods
 My kids often prefer foods that are easy to recognize, and that taste the same whether they are served at home, on board, or abroad. Fruits, vegetables, pasta, plain old meat, bread, crackers, eggs... stuff that isn't in a stew or in a sauce or cooked with spices or garnishes that make it suddenly "inedible".

Pasta has often been a life-saver for me at meal-times abroad since the kids will usually at least eat that if nothing else. I also find the kids are sometimes more inclined to try something new at the table, if there is also a "familiar" food there: almost as though it feels safer to try something new when the old and familiar is available.

All of a sudden fish was the best thing ever!
8. Don't underestimate the power of new surroundings
Every now and then, my picky eaters will astonish me. Like when my kids started eating fish, a lot, after going fishing one summer with their grandfather who would clean and cook the fish they had caught with them. And sometimes this does happen: when the kids are in a new place, with new people, they might all of a sudden just decide that fish, or meatballs, or beef stew, or something else is the latest and greatest. I don't expect this to happen with my kids, but I'm happy when it does happen.

9. Don't panic!
This advice for space travelers from the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy is also good advice for parents. Kids will usually eat enough so that they are not in physical danger. And if they eat a limited variety of foods during your trip, that's not the end of the world. I sometimes bring a kids' multi-vitamin along on our trips for my daughter, just to take the edge off my own mom-anxiety.


  1. Great tips!
    My 3 year old is such a picky eater. I will have to take the dr.spocks advice. I do sometimes resort to bribery out of desperation, and it gets especially bad when we travel. Over the holidays, my daughter had a chocolate chip cookie for dinner on the plane one night. I felt awful at the time, but she survived :)

  2. Oh, I've been there with the bribes too... It is so hard to not bug the kids about it, even when I know it's the best thing. I re-read that chapter in Dr Spock last night, just to reinforce it for myself! It pushes my buttons like few other behaviours! And chocolate chip cookies have a few vitamins, right??? (My daughter lived on chips and crackers on one flight we did last year...)

  3. It was one of those HUGE starbucks cookies, so maybe a couple.
    I'll have to grab the Dr.Spock book at our used bookstore and read up.
    Off topic, but Have you traveled with the kids to Quebec? We are planning a trip in the summer for a couple weeks while my husband works there. Any tips you may have for a mom and kids that dont speak the language would make an awesome blog post :)

  4. Much to my shame, I have not been to Quebec or any Canadian province east of Alberta! I'm hoping to remedy that situation in the near future, but as of right now, I am no good for advice on travel there! Except that it's apparently a fantastic place to visit, especially if you're at all into Canadian/North American history.

  5. I had never been to another province (lots of travel other places) until this year when my husband got a job where he travels a lot and can sometimes let his family tag along :)

  6. Oh this is it, I love to have a vacation with all of this kind of foods.

  7. Unfortunately it's not easy at all to find healthy foods/ snacks at the airport - especially in the US. Most of them all full of sugar, which will make your blood suagr rise and quickly fall again making your kids demanding for more. However, nuts - as long as they are pure, unsalted, are a good, healthy snack.

  8. That's a great tip! Thank you. My kids do like almonds and peanuts. It's too bad that on the plane they often serve smoked or salted nuts... I like that, but the kids definitely do not.


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