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Explore nutrition tips, kids’ meal plans, kids’ activities, recipes and more from pediatric nutritionist, Melissa Halas, MA, RDN, CDE.

Healthy Road Trips and Dining Out

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Healthy Road Trips and Dining Out

It’s possible to eat healthy on the road with kids. Here’s how!

Traveling for vacation or the holidays? A nutritious diet is always in, whether it’s fall, winter, spring, or summer! Spring break can be a time for relaxation, sunshine, and leisurely vacations, but for some, it can be stressful traveling with kids. That does not mean, though, that you have to chuck those healthy eating habits out the window. Keep up the good work and be prepared for any food-related challenge you may encounter during your summer fun! Here are some simple ways to include healthy eating as a part of your holiday.

Challenge: Hungry children in an a la carte restaurant.

Offer cut-up fruit or vegetables to your kids to keep their hunger at bay on the way to the restaurant. Then, once you arrive, swap the breadbasket for a fruit salad. Once you are seated, you might find that there are no healthy items on the kid’s menu. So, skip it! Your kids can split a few appetizers from the adult menu for a balanced meal, instead. Or, even better, share your plate with them. Most restaurants serve oversized portions, typically two to three servings more than what you need. Both you and your kids will benefit: you cut your calories by at least half, save money, and they get to try new foods. Just make sure your dish contains at least one food they will definitely eat! Sides like a baked potato, coleslaw or steamed spinach can also be split.

Challenge: Hungry children in your car.

Adopt a strategic approach when planning your trip. A cooler or insulated bag full of nutritious snacks is your best friend, so keep it by your side, armed and ready at all times. The variety of fruit and vegetables you can bring are limitless. Just be sure to include some protein choices alongside to fuel up right. Some high protein sources include low-fat cheese, hard-boiled eggs, nitrate free turkey jerky, peanut butter, individual mini hummus cups or turkey slices. Back seat passengers continuously requesting greasy chips and sugary candy can be persistent. But if they refuse the healthy snacks you packed then they probably are not truly hungry and can wait until the next meal. Liquids may come in handy at these times, too! Try fruit-infused or flavored with no added sugar water, coconut water, bubbly water or juice or water or seltzer mixes! Try not to let food become the focus, either– play games to keep your kids occupied instead! You could sing songs or play I -Spy, 6 degrees of separation, guess who or the alphabet game together. Get more healthy food ideas for road trips here.

Challenge: hungry children in your hotel room.

If you have a refrigerator, stock it full with fresh fruit, fruit cups packed in 100% juice, cut-up vegetables as well as low-fat milk, yogurt, and cheese. Whole grain cereal with grapes and yogurt or cheese and tuna in tortillas are two quick and easy meals for a dinner emergency. If you have a deli nearby, purchase a loaf of whole grain bread, green salad and lean protein such as grilled chicken or fish to serve to your hungry crowd for lunch or dinner. You’ll save time and money otherwise spent at a restaurant. If you opt for take-out, order at least two sides of veggies and choose fruit for dessert.

Challenge: hungry children on the plane.

Avoid the salty snacks offered on board – they offer little nutritional value and will just add to the excess sodium we already consume on a regular basis. Besides, the bathroom trips will increase exponentially after you and your family drink down liquids to remedy the salt offense. Of course, hydration is important no matter what the situation, so do bring empty reusable water bottles for the kids (and yourself too!). Before boarding, buy 1 large bottle of water to share or fill up your reusable bottles at a water fountain. Airlines do not allow icepacks through security, so bring ziplock bags and fill them with ice at a vendor before boarding to keep your snacks cool. You’ll need to buy something from the vendor first before you ask for ice, so that is the time to purchase a coffee or tea!

Fresh fruits and vegetables will balance out the in-flight meals and nourish your kids with the nutrients they need to grow, even when high up in the sky. The crunchy temptations from the service cart are easier to avoid when your healthy alternatives such as unsalted nuts, baked chips or a healthy brand of wholegrain crackers are easily available, so be sure to pack them, too. Don’t forget the wet wipes and hand sanitizer to keep everyone’s hands clean, either. Lastly, bring activities like games, fun activity sheets, coloring pages and sticker books to keep your kids occupied and shift the focus away from food as much as possible.

Challenge: hungry kids in a buffet restaurant.

Limit the junk food to 1 or 2 options instead of outlawing it all together. Most buffets serve an incredible variety of colorful fruits and vegetables, prepared raw or in unique ways, so seize this opportunity to explore new flavors. Walk around the buffet table together and appreciate the rainbow of choices. Make sure that you scan all of the options before you fill your plate. Encourage your kids to serve themselves what they like in the amount they prefer. Even a “serving” of 3 green peas or a drop of tomato soup will enrich their palates. Be a good role model and pile your plate high with healthy goodness. If your kids are nervous about the green stuff touching their plates, go for the “family style” approach. Fill one dish with colorful fruits and vegetables and invite everyone to share. Be sure to practice the MyPlate model – fill up half of your plate with fruits and veggies! While on the road, you can also research a restaurant online ahead of time. Check out Healthy Dining Finder, a database that searches for healthy restaurant choices by zip code.  On your way to the restaurant download the free gaming app, FoodLeap which teaches your kids about tasty and healthy colorful foods!

Challenge: hungry kids on the beach

Kids can get messy when they eat on the beach (and so can adults!), so pack food in single serving ziplock bags. Use a cooler and ice to keep snacks cool under the sun. Don’t forget to pack plenty of water to remain hydrated! Check our Guide to Packing Healthy at the Beach.

Challenge: hungry kids in a theme park

Corn on the cob, chicken kabobs, and popcorn can be better snacks than fries or hot dogs. Many theme parks also offer salads, baby carrots, hummus, veggie burgers, and frozen fruit bars. These healthy options are typically in the a la carte restaurants, so check there. Research the park ahead of time. Menus are usually available online, so you can make a list of healthy dining options. Plan your theme park route before, so you can easily reach the healthy choices at mealtime. Of course, heading to the restaurant early will save you a long wait in line. You can also bring your own washed fruit and vegetables to supplement your purchased meal or to eat as snacks.

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About the Author

Picture of Melissa Halas, MA, RD, CDE

Melissa Halas, MA, RD, CDE

Melissa is a registered dietitian and certified diabetes educator with a master's in nutrition education. She is the founder of SuperKids Nutrition Inc. Read more about her Super Crew children’s books and her experience as a registered dietitian on the About Melissa and Shop page. Discover how nutrition can help you live your best health potential through her plant-based books and newsletter on Melissa’s Healthy Living.

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