We recently returned home from four weeks in the US. For those of you that don't know, home at the moment is exciting and pulsating Hong Kong where we are on an expat assignment for a few years. This means quite a bit of travel, especially across time zones, where jet lag battles reign supreme, in addition to all the other challenges that go hand in hand with toddler vacations.
Don't get me wrong. Traveling with a toddler is fun and even magical - exploring new cultures, visiting family and friends are all beautiful things. But traveling with a tot in tow can also be exhausting. The sleep disruption issue is the frequently referenced joy-buster but I must confess, the most challenging part for me as a nutrition-obsessed mom is the eating (or lack thereof).
Now that we've done a few trips with kiddo, I thought I'd share my tips for navigating nutrition when traveling with a toddler. I'm assuming older kids are easier but maybe that's just wishful thinking - regardless, some of these tips are relevant for children of all ages. Babies, in my experience, are definitely more compliant in the food department.
11 tips to manage toddler nutrition when traveling:
1) REALITY CHECK
Accept the fact that for many toddlers, nutrition is going to be sub-optimal on holiday. The new environment, unfamiliar foods and flavours, excitement and tiredness make for the perfect anti-nutrition storm. Accept this and relax. Healthy eating habits are rarely built overnight and similarly, your toddler's nutrition won't be destroyed in a day (or a few weeks). In fact, experts agree, that especially for kids, it's important to look at their nutrition over an entire week rather than each day because eating patterns and finicky behaviour can vary substantially from day to day.
2) FRUIT IS A FRIEND
If your kid is showing poor interest in vegetables, load up on fruit. Ideally, we want to aim for a good balance of fruit AND veg but the vitamins, minerals, phytochemicals and fibre from fruit can make up for some of what's missing from a veg-boycott holiday. I always keep an apple, orange or banana (versus crackers or cookies) in my bag for flights and car rides.
3) MANAGE THE SUGAR MONSTER
Accept that sugary treats might be more frequent than normal, especially when visiting relatives / grandparents but do use strategies to control the sugar monster:
-Insist on the treat as dessert, a legitimate, neutral part of the meal. Neutralizing the sugary treat and seeing it as just another food group to be enjoyed at the end of the meal in small amounts is the best strategy for navigating a sugar-laden world in general, and especially on vacation.
-Firmly but calmly control portions - 5 gummy bears not the whole bag. "After all, we need to save some for tomorrow!" always works well with my sugar-lover. Reassure them that they can have more later.
-Combine the treat with something nutritious such as plain yoghurt with chocolate chips, chocolate with strawberries, gummy bears with oranges etc. This helps with controlling portion size mentioned above and prevents the treat from being sheer empty calories.
-On returning home, go back to your normal, balanced routine. The first few days, your toddler may pester you for treats but once you've calmly yet firmly re-established the norm, such as treats on weekends and birthday parties, or whatever approach your family takes, your kids will accept it and go back to the pre-holiday pattern.
4) ENSURE DIGESTIVE REGULARITY
Digestive regularity can be a challenge when traveling thanks to less veg/fruit/fibre and dehydration. After all, it doesn't help build a healthy appetite for good, nutritious food if toddler isn't able 'to go'. 1-2 dried prunes can save the day. Dates and apricots are fibre-rich and popular with kids too. One of the most common reasons for lack of a bowel movement is dehydration so find ways to get your toddler to drink water. My son is not a natural water-guzzler so I present him with a bottle or cup for a sip every 30 minutes or so. Yes, it's slightly annoying but it helps bowel regularity hugely.
5) EGGS EVERYDAY
Eggs are a nutrient dense food easily available when traveling (either in a home kitchen or hotel) that most kids, even finicky ones, like in some shape or form. With protein, iron, vitamins, minerals and beneficial compounds called carotenoids, not to mention choline, important for brain development, I rely on eggs when traveling big time. Boiled, scrambled, sunny-side up, in a frittata or egg salad sandwich, the options are endless.
6) SNEAKY SMOOTHIES
Either in the home kitchens of relatives or at juice bars, smoothies are a fantastic way to pack some nutritional punch when traveling with tot. Our travel staples are yoghurt, frozen berries, banana, almond butter and cinnamon or yoghurt, mango, banana, almond butter and cardamom. You can throw in a handful of spinach or kale for an added green veg boost.
7) DEAR DAIRY
While too much dairy (over 24 oz / 3 glasses of milk per day) can crowd out other nutrient-dense foods in a toddler's diet and even result in iron-deficiency, dairy is a genuinely nutritious food with protein, calcium and vitamin D in one easy cup. Encourage milk, yoghurt and cheese on vacation for picky eaters to ensure these macro and micronutrient needs are being met. And yes, ice-cream counts as calcium-rich too (it's vacation people ;)).
8) RUN TODDLER RUN
Get your kid moving! Nothing works up an appetite like a good run through the park or a strenuous, fun session at the playground. Swimming, running, playing catch, playground action, even walking - these will all help build an appetite. Interestingly, research shows that cardiovascular exercise like running actually suppresses appetite for a little while before kicking it back into high gear. So be strategic about timing! Appetite suppression lasts for about 2 hrs, including the time of the activity. So it might backfire to run your kid right before dinner. Keep a gap of about an hour between the end of the activity and mealtimes for a miraculous gobbling up of whatever is on the plate. Hello healthy appetite!
9) MOVE MEALTIMES
Kids can feast on distraction (instead of actual food) and holidays provide loads of it. I find it useful to alter mealtimes just a bit (6:30pm instead of 6pm, for example) to make sure kiddo is genuinely hungry. Combined with strategy 7 above, this will make mealtime battles less of an issue. Serving something toddler likes helps, of course, but generally, a voracious appetite is your best friend when coaxing a distracted kid to eat on holiday. In the same vein, control snacking to help maintain a healthy appetite for the three main meals of the day.
10) VEGGIES SIDEWAYS
I'm not going to lie. In theory, I hate kid's menus. There have got to be more exciting things we can offer our kids than pizza, pasta and chicken nuggets, right?! But hey, I said "in theory". On vacations, the kid's menu is my friend because in an unfamiliar environment, sometimes a kid just needs a familiar food. That said, I always request the restaurant to send out a side of steamed or sauteed veggies that I know tot will like - broccoli, carrots, green beans, corn, whatever to make the meal more nutritious. A simple yet solid approach to boosting nutrition when eating out in general.
11) FARMER'S MARKET FUN
Hit up the local farmer's market and encourage your kid to try the seasonal fruit, cheeses, smoothies, artisanal foods and whatever else that's healthy and tasty on display. My son ate more while sauntering through Costco (fish cake, guacamole, cheese and crackers, carrot sticks) than at a single sitting at home (why sit and eat when I can play and explore things?!). This is also a great way to explore a new culture and its culinary delights.
Finally, don't forget to relax and have fun. Nourishment doesn't just come from what's on the plate, but also from life experiences, and travel is one of the most wonderful ways to enjoy new ones. So Bon Voyage and Happy Eating!
What are some strategies you use to optimise your toddler's nutrition on travel? I'd love to hear in the comments section below.
With Love & Spice,