As a parent, I feel that providing my kids with a healthy balanced diet is a non-negotiable part of my job. We’re far from perfect, but I work hard to ensure my kids have their 5-10 servings of fruit and veggies every day, lots of whole grains and protein and only a limited amount of junk food. I also have a fairly tight food budget, since we live frugally and try to save as much money as possible for travel. This means that when we’re at home, we very rarely eat out.
From both a financial and a health perspective, restaurant food is almost always a bad deal compared to home cooking. Yes, it is often delicious. Do you know why? Three words: sugar, fat, salt. Anyone who has even a modicum of cooking skills knows that those three ingredients are the key to increasing the yum factor in any dish. Even “healthy” dishes like salads and stir fries are usually terrible for you when ordered in a restaurant. People who would never dream of adding half a stick of butter to the frying pan when they make breakfast will order a breakfast entree at Denny’s with 40 or 50 grams of saturated fat without thinking twice about it. Out of sight, out of mind.
And it’s almost impossible to make any financial sense out of eating out as well. Two adult meals and two kids meals at a fast food restaurant will set you back a minimum of $16-18 here in Canada. If you want to sit down you won’t be able to find much for less than $20 per adult when you factor in tip and tax and that’s without drinks! Don’t get me wrong, I love eating out every now and then. But I view restaurant meals the same way I view gummy bears. Very nice as an occasional treat; not a good long term meal option.
The “time saving” aspect of eating out doesn’t make sense to me either. I’m a working mom and we have a lot of activities, but I don’t find it any easier to go out than to make food myself. I have about a dozen meals that I can make with around 15 minutes of actual prep and cooking time. We live about five minutes from several restaurants, but I can easily get a simple meal on the table in less time than it would take to pack the kids up, drive five minutes to McDonalds, wait in the drive through lane, drive home and get everyone unloaded. And don’t even get me started with the environmental damage done by all the packaging we’d be bringing home!
There are a few exceptions. Some ethnic foods are very challenging to make and reasonably priced. I could make my own sushi or samosas, but it would take me hours. When we do splurge on a restaurant meal we will often go for one of these options. But these foods are the exception and not the rule. For our family, the only way to eat healthy food while sticking to a budget is to eat at home.
So, what does this mean when we’re on the road? How can a travelling mom feed her kids a healthy diet without breaking the bank when relying on restaurant food most of the time? Well, to be honest, I have no clue how to do it. I’m hoping there’s someone out there who can tell me. I have read some long term travelling moms saying that not having to cook is a big plus of life on the road, but I would find the hassle of finding nutritious meals for my kids would far outweigh the convenience.
I love travelling with my kids; I don’t find it stressful at all for the most part, but I just can’t seem to get a handle on the whole food issue. I struggle to stay on budget when we’re on the road and I’m never happy with the quality of their diet. After one or two days of restaurant food I’m thoroughly sick of it. Sitting and waiting to order, then sitting and waiting for food. Everything greasy or salty or drowned in sauce. Veggies limp and sad. Three bucks for a tiny glass of fruit juice or five for a pathetic, tasteless fruit salad. I just want to feed my kids real food from a real kitchen!
If we have access to a grocery store and a fridge in the room it gets a bit better. We can have milk and juice, yogurt and fruit in the room. I fed my kids breakfast for four days in New York with a ziplock bag of Cheerios, a carton of milk and a few pieces of fruit. Just as healthy as your average restaurant meal, a lot quicker and about one dollar per day. And in the evening I’d much rather relax in the hotel room after the kids have gone to sleep with a ten dollar bottle of wine than spend eight bucks a glass for the same wine at a restaurant.
Even better is a self catering apartment or some of the all suite hotel chains with full kitchens. A quick trip to the grocery store for $200 worth of food and I’ve got breakfasts, lunches, snacks and drinks for a week. That amount of money would last us about two days at restaurants in North America or Europe.
Then there are hotel breakfasts, which can be a mixed blessing. Some are quite lovely with fresh fruit, yogurt, made to order omelets, etc. Others are disgusting; greasy sausages, powdered eggs, stale pastries, paper plates and plastic forks and a sticky film of spilled syrup on everything you touch. One day is okay, two days is barely tolerable, by day three I’d rather eat the paper plates than the food.
My challenge isn’t helped by the fact that my kids aren’t particularly adventurous eaters. I wouldn’t call them picky since they eat just fine at home (well, okay, maybe the one could be accurately described as picky), but at home I know what healthy foods they like and work around it. I try to find a balance between respecting their preferences and not catering to their whims. I don’t like every single food in the world, so I don’t expect them to eat everything either. They don’t have to eat every vegetable, but they do have to eat some vegetables. If they’re too full to eat their meal, then they’re too full for a cookie. It usually works just fine for us.
However, when we’re on the road and eating out, it doesn’t go so well. Restaurants seem to have an uncanny knack for adding just the seasoning or accompaniment that my kids can’t stand. “Seasonal vegetables” can mean green beans and carrots (yay!) or zucchini and cauliflower (not a chance!) And don’t even get me started on kids’ menus! Chicken nuggets, hot dogs and grilled cheese are okay for an occasional meal out, but there’s no way I’m going to be happy about feeding my kids those kinds of foods day after day.
So the solution to the challenge of healthy eating on the road is…….well, I was hoping someone could tell me. It’s one aspect of family travel that I really haven’t figured out yet. Until then I’ll just keep pushing the healthy food at home, staying in self catering accommodations as much as possible and trying not to stress out too much when the healthy diet goes out the window on the road. Feel free to leave me suggestions!