Traveling with toddlers can be stressful! There are a ton of unknowns, from how transportation will go, to how your kid might respond to jet lag or long periods where they aren’t able to get up and move. Add to that a bunch of uncertainty around food, and it can be a recipe for stress! Since the goal here is reducing stress as much as possible, I’ve rounded up some tips to hopefully help make the food portion of traveling with toddlers go a little easier.
Some of these might work for you and your family, some might not. But thinking through your game plan ahead of time and how you might respond to certain situations can make things a lot easier in and of itself!
So without further ado, my top 9 tips for traveling with toddlers (and really kids of any age!)
Tips for Traveling with Toddlers
Choose your battles before you go.
Eating while traveling is never going to be the same as at home. And you will stress yourself out trying to make everything perfect. So before you leave, think about what the couple of things that really matter to you are.
For us, my hard line is eating with our toddler. When we travel with family and friends without young kids, the need for early dinners is often not understood.
I can’t tell you the number of times someone has suggested we feed our toddler early, and then eat with the grown ups later. For some people this might work, but for us we make it a point to always eat with our daughter, even on vacation. It’s something that is important to us, and something we are willing to go out of our way to make happen. Even if it ruffles some feathers. It's a way for us to keep some normality around traveling, and it helps the trip go smoothly.
Everyone is going to have different priorities and hard lines, so don’t feel that this should be yours! This is just to give you an example of one. But before you leave on a trip, think about the things that are important to you to do around meals and food.
Stay at an Airbnb, or other place with a kitchen.
This is probably one of my top recommendations with traveling! We don't like having to stay in hotels, unless they come equipped with a kitchen. When traveling with kids, it is just so much more convenient to have a kitchen and refrigerator where you can store things, make snacks and meals for the day before leaving, and have a place that you can eat with your child without needing to be in restaurants your entire trip.
They are literally a huge stress reliever! Depending on how many people you are traveling with, they also tend to be the same price as, or cheaper than, hotel rooms.
Try to stick to a general pattern for snacks and meals.
Every kid is going to be different when it comes to how they respond to food, but I always recommend doing your best to stick with a schedule.
It doesn’t need to be super strict when traveling with toddlers, but stick to 2-3 hours between eating opportunities if you can. A bit longer is fine (we often find ourselves so busy we don’t realize it’s snack time on our trips!), and often toddlers will tell you if they are hungry. But do your best not to give them food constantly throughout the day just to keep them entertained.
It’s common advice to bring all sorts of snacks on planes and in cars, and to let your kids have them whenever they want. And for some kids this is really important to help parents keep their sanity.
But especially if this is your first time traveling with toddlers, try to set up some different habits. Teach them to play with toys and come up with fun games on trips, have a bunch of cheap toys to pull out for them. Encourage them to people watch and engage with where you are. But do your best to avoid setting up food as something that is a boredom buster, tantrum queller, or anything else along those lines.
That doesn’t mean you can’t make snacks fun and unique for vacation, or that you can’t randomly stop for a snack on the side of the road. It’s just a mental shift away from introducing mindless eating to our kiddos just in the name of vacation.
Take snack breaks.
It is really tempting to just soldier on through snack times when on vacation and have your child eat on the move. Whether it be on a road trip while you’re in the car, or out in the stroller exploring somewhere new.
By sticking to a general schedule, you will know when snack time is coming. Plan to take a 10-20 minute break at that point, and let them eat their snack while just sitting somewhere.
Is it super convenient to have to stop two times a day for snacks? No. But it is the safest way to handle things when traveling with toddlers. Eating in carseats is DANGEROUS. It is a huge choking hazard. Most kids are somewhat reclined in them, they’re often not being supervised by adults, and if you make a sudden stop or turn, or any type of movement they are at a high-risk for choking. Same goes for eating in strollers. It’s just not worth the risk, I promise.
So do your best to schedule in snacks to your day. When you are planning on stopping, and have it in your head that that needs to happen, it tends to make it easier to follow through.
Make a grocery store run.
When you first get somewhere, find the nearest store with food. Look for things like hummus, bread, cheese, and fruit—or any other staples you enjoy in your family.
If you’re staying somewhere with a kitchen, then think about if you are planning to eat all meals out, or have something like breakfast in. For breakfast, we usually stick with our usual of oatmeal or toast and eggs for breakfast. Those are easy options that are quick in an unfamiliar kitchen, and they give a great nutritional start to the day.
Bring some nourishing snacks with you.
When traveling, it can be incredibly hard to find snacks that aren’t the typical salty, sugar-laden things marketed to kids everywhere.
And while an occasional snack that consists of those is not bad, it can make vacation a whole lot more pleasant for everyone if your kids are getting in some more nourishing snacks.
Think healthy cookies or muffins you might make at home and bring with you. And if you can’t do that, then adding snacks to your grocery store run at your destination will make a world of difference.
For some ideas on snack foods at grocery stores that are nourishing and relatively mess free/easy to pack and take on the go, grab my on-the-go snack ebooklet. It also has a handful of great muffin and cookie recipes for those of you who can make things ahead to bring with you!
Don’t worry about the veggies!
So many parents worry about what veggies their toddler will get on vacation. That’s often why I hear parents resorting to pouches or stressing about what was or wasn’t at a restaurant- they just want to get veggies in however they can when they’re out and about.
Here’s the thing. Veggies are important for overall health throughout life, yes. A lot of people don’t tend to get enough of them, also true. But it’s not at the top of my list when I’m traveling with toddlers!
For kids under 4, a lot of raw veggies are actually choking hazards. Especially ones you’ll usually find marketed towards kids. (Think things like baby carrots and celery here.)
So while yes you could resort to giving pouches, you definitely don’t need to. Keep in mind that vacation is not forever. It’s okay for eating not to be completely balanced while on vacation.
And if you’re ready for some freshness (because I don’t know about you, but we’re always ready for something that feels a little more nutritious after just a few restaurant meals…) I fall back on giving fruits whenever possible for our fresh foods!
Traveling in summer makes this a breeze, but you can also find decently priced fruits throughout the year most places.
Fruits tend to be much softer than veggies, and don’t take any prep other than perhaps cutting. Berries, peaches, plums, bananas. The list can go on and on. Fruit has a ton of nutrients in it, just as many as veggies in fact.
So if you’re looking to break things up and add some freshness to your child’s diet, remember that fruits count just as much as veggies do. They are not nutritionally inferior to veggies, and most kids love them and will eat them without a fuss.
Think about what your child’s biggest nutritional needs are, and focus on those.
For a lot of kids, the newness of food on vacation means that they don’t eat much food. My main focus tends to be just getting them calories!
At restaurants I choose dishes with at least one food that I know they’ll eat. I might purposefully get something new myself that I can share with them, but I’m not super worried about trying new foods or having balanced meals. Eating anything is better than nothing!
So encourage your child to try new things when the opportunity arises, but keep the big picture in mind of what they might need to make it through the days of vacation.
Vacation is only a short amount of time. It’s not the rest of your child’s life, it’s not something that will ruin your child for eating if you don’t get it right.
Give yourself some grace, let go of some of your worries about food (even the ones I’m talking about here if they just stress you out more!), and let yourself enjoy your vacation. You can get back to your regular eating style when you get home. Kids are resilient. They WILL bounce back!