Recently I was traveling in China and stopped at a local restaurant to have dinner on my own. I wanted something quick and casual, and I saw they had a Croque Monsieur – one of my favorite sandwiches — on the menu. Having already been satiated with local specialties, I was so happy and excited to have a bit of familiar comfort food. But what the server brought out was two pieces of bread with some ham and cheese, not toasted, not melted, with the crust cut off. It was a huge disappointment. Sometimes restaurants try to mirror western iconic foods, but often they don't get it right.
Food is one of those universal topics that we consider every day, several times a day. It's sustenance, after all! And it's on everyone's mind when families are planning to travel to an unfamiliar country or region. The questions linger: What will my children eat? Why do they have to be so picky? Will they starve? Here's how to address those questions (and I can assure you, they won't starve).
1. Begin Your Journey With Smart Snacks. I like to travel with snacks that have staying power, and kids tend to be happy with some of those choices like nuts, raisins and power bars. One of my favorite snacks is turkey or bison jerky — it's low calorie and packs a protein punch. That's a lifesaver for me, and the taste is one that kids tend to appreciate. When you're discovering a new place, encourage children to try things like hazelnut cookies or biscotti in Italy or Ostrich biltong (jerky) in South Africa. For persnickety little ones, parents should be sure to bring a few "security blanket" snacks like Goldfish crackers and pretzels. Just be sure to check your airline or travel organizer to be sure that what you pack will make it safely through Customs and Immigration.
2. Embrace Your Destination's Culture. Don't miss the chance to introduce children to a country's traditional flavors. Your trip won't be as exciting if you don't take a few steps outside your comfort zone. Do homework ahead of time to get the family excited about the kinds of foods served in your destination country. Check out the customary grains, herbs and spices (quinoa, red rice, dill, coriander, lemongrass, nutmeg) prominent in foods of your destination. Then try cooking with them at home before you leave so the flavors are familiar. What Greece has to offer is this unbelievable tapestry of fresh herbs, and in Peru and Ecuador, there are hundreds of dishes that highlight quinoa and corn.
3. Beware the Cheeseburger and Other Comfort Food Lures. Just as I jumped at the chance for that disappointing Croque Monsieur, parents and kids might do a tap dance on the table when they see a cheeseburger on the menu. But beware! Cheeseburgers in other countries sometimes look like a Sloppy Joe or a veal cutlet on a slice of bread. Glance at a table next to you or ask pointed questions about that cheeseburger to avoid being really disappointed. Or skip the cheeseburger and order the moussaka. You wanted to try something new and exotic anyway, right?
4. Eat Safely. Who doesn't want their kids to try new fruits and veggies? But there's one rule I stick to when traveling in "exotic" countries: If you can't peel it, you probably shouldn't eat it unless you're at a four- or five-star hotel restaurant that caters to a western clientele with sanitation standards that are in line with our own U.S. regulations. Keep a stash of dried fruits handy for a nutritional boost if you're not sure of the local produce. Be careful with salads, too I usually only eat them in high-end restaurants or those that cater to Westerners.
5. Prepare Ahead for Allergy Issues. So many children these days have nut, dairy and other allergies. Don't worry. Just plan ahead. Many countries outside the United States don't have the laws and regulations for labeling trace amounts of food products that could cause reactions. If you're traveling with a group tour operator, tell them you expect full disclosure in advance of any foods that might be risky and, conversely, be sure that you fully disclose all allergies — not even the most expensive tour operators can be expected to read minds. Ask specific questions when dining in restaurants. If you can't be certain that the plantains aren't fried in the same oil as the shellfish, choose a safer food for your allergic son or daughter.
6. Don't Panic if Traveler's Tummy Strikes. Believe it or not, even drinking bottled water in some countries might result in a mild tummy ache — not necessarily because it's contaminated but because it's different than what your system is accustomed to. The water source may contain impurities or contaminants, but that doesn't mean you'll come down with full-fledged food poisoning. I have a stomach of steel and it takes a lot to give me traveler's tummy so I can push the envelope a lot. On the other hand, some people may sniff an exotic fruit and their stomach turns somersaults. Try to be familiar with your food and beverage source. But if you or your kids feel unsettled, stick with bland crackers and well-branded sports drinks for 24 hours, and all should be well. Of course, if you know that you're prone to traveler's tummy, talk to your doctor before you go to see if medication makes sense for you and your family.
When families plan their first international vacation, they often worry about what their children will eat and whether the kids will go hungry. The answer is simple. If all else fails, there's not a country on the planet that doesn't have French fries, pizza and chicken nuggets.
Heather Killingbeck is director of trip and program development for Adventures by Disney, a global leader in guided family travel, and has been helping families live their travel dreams for more than 25 years. She has traveled to 53 countries on six continents (some of her favorite destinations include South Africa, the Galapagos Islands, Italy, Alaska and Greece).