Learn 9 easy tricks to travel and go on vacation stress free with a picky eater for your next trip. And, take advantage of a couple of simple ways to get your kid trying new foods while on vacation!
Vacation is supposed to be relaxing, but with a major picky eater in tow, it could be just the opposite. You’re in a different town with different grocery stores and different restaurants. You can’t find your kid’s favorite chicken nuggets and everything else you’ve tried was a big fail.
After they’ve gone without eating, the whining and bad behavior starts because they’re hungry. Your worry is through the roof because they haven’t had much more than milk and some crackers.
Your picky eater’s irritability and your worry has spread to the rest of the family and now vacation seems like it would’ve been better off being skipped.
It’s so easy to get into this situation with a picky eater, but there’s another way!
Whether you’re packing up the car for a big round-trip, a quick weekend getaway, or an epic 2 week vacation, follow these tips so you not only survive traveling with your picky eater, but that you enjoy your time away.
Why is Traveling/Vacationing So Hard for a Picky Eater?
Picky eaters depend on eating the same foods on a regular basis. They like predictability and rely on it.
For extreme picky eaters, trying or having to eat new foods is terrifying. They aren’t refusing new foods because they’re trying to be difficulty, but usually because of a sensitivity to textures/tastes, difficulty chewing (oral motor skills), or physical challenges like silent reflux.
While the popular advice of “they’ll eventually eat when they get hungry” is often dolled out to parents, it’s not true. As many as 15% of kids would actually end up in the ER with an IV in their arm before they actually ate a different food.
If you have an extreme picky eater, you already know this, and may be living a life of short order cooking at home as a result.
Should You Jump Through Never Ending Hoops for Your Picky Eater?
My philosophy as an occupational therapist and what I teach in Mealtime Works, my picky eating program, is to let Ellyn Satter’s evidence based on the Division of Responsibility be the guide:
As the parent, you decide WHAT, WHEN, and WHERE your child is eating. But, your child decides IF and HOW MUCH food they eat.
There’s a balance to this system as it draws clear lines around what your responsible for worrying about and what your child is worrying about.
Now, I know full well that starting to follow the DOR can be stressful. You may need to take small steps implementing it. Vacation likely isn’t the time to start a new approach, but at the same time, you don’t want your picky eater to be controlling the entire vacation because of what they need to eat.
If you’re reading this, and your vacation is a few weeks or months away, then you have time to start making changes now, that will totally pay off by the time vacation rolls around.
But, if vacation is in 3 days, try to keep the status quo and in either case, the following steps will help you roll stress free, even with that picky eater in tow.
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9 Tips for Traveling Stress Free with Your Picky Eater
#1. Do your research for restaurants/places to stop before you leave
You know what your picky eater likes to eat. Before you even get in the car or board the plane, take some time and do research about what’s around first. If you usually eat at Chick-fil-A a couple of times a week, then see if there’s one nearby. Or, check to make sure the grocery store chain carries your kid’s favorite kind of hotdogs.
Call the store if you need to.
Even if there is no Chick-fil-A or favorite hot dogs where you’re going, knowing in advance allows you to plan ahead so you aren’t caught off guard and frazzled.
#2. Go over what meals are going to be like with your child (if they’re old enough to understand)
Do you eat out a lot on vacation? Are grandma and other family members cooking each night? Chances are it’s different than your normal routine at home. If your child is old enough to understand, talk to them about what it will be like.
Ask family members what they’re planning on making for big family meals and tell your child the week before you leave what they can expect. Or, show them pictures of the restaurants you might go to while your away.
You also may need to discuss that their favorite restaurant or hotdogs won’t be available. Having this conversation BEFORE you leave will help them adjust much more smoothly. This is a great time to ask them what ideas they have for handling these challenges.
You’ll also want to tell them that you know it will be different, but that you’ll plan to have something at every meal that they typically eat or that is really similar to something they typically eat.
#3. Have a stash of food in the car/your bag
If you’re driving, pack a cooler and keep hard to find or specific food items with you. If you’re flying, pack the essentials of non-perishables with you in case they aren’t available.
You’ll also want to have some of these foods in your car or carry on luggage for the actual travel to your vacation. You may not find a restaurant in the airport or on the side of the road that has something your child will eat at. Of course, do your research (step 1) for this travel leg of your vacation too!
Also remember that preparing foods like chicken nuggets or sandwiches in the morning or night before you leave can cause them to have a different texture over that many hours. However, foods like yogurt, granola bars, and nuts will still taste the same even as you travel.
#4. Maintain the no excessive snacking rule
It’s nice to loosen the grip on rules and let everyone relax while on vacation, and it’s common for kids to have access to a lot more snacks than usual. But, for a picky eater, that can make their eating even worse.
Definitely allow snacks, but try to keep them scheduled and space out meals as much as possible so that they’re actually hungry when they sit down at the dinner table.
#5. Seek out fresh fruits and veggies and get them on their plate
You may have traveled with a lot of non-perishables and don’t have a lot of fresh fruits or veggies on hand. Try to stop by a local market and pick some up for your hotel room to incorporate these into any meals your eating on the go, from your hotel room, or as part of a snack.
Bananas, apples, and oranges can also be transported easily. And, you can also do mixed fruit cups and applesauce pouches to make sure they aren’t filling up all week on carbs only.
Even if your picky eater doesn’t typically eat these foods, it’s good to have them being exposed to them, even on vacation.
#6. Seat them by friends and family that could inspire them to eat something new
If you’re vacationing with friends or family members, try having them sit at a distance from you. They may surprise you with all the pressure off and the motivation of a cousin gulping down a food your kid typically refuses. They may decide to give that new food a try too!
Look for opportunities for them to reap the benefits of positive peer role modeling.
#7. Spoil their dinner on purpose
If you have plans to go to a restaurant that you know has nothing your child will eat, go ahead and spoil dinner on purpose. Give them a large late snack before you leave. Order them something small, that somebody else in the family could eat as leftovers and enjoy your meal in peace instead of begging your picky eater to try a bite of a totally new food.
Or, being miserable because they’re starving and there’s nothing for them to eat.
Try to only plan a couple of these meals during the week and not make it a nightly habit. Eating at some restaurants that your picky eater is interested in is a good balance and keeps you from jumping through hoops just for their food preferences.
#8. Try something new on the spur of the moment
The relaxed and care free nature of vacation can be leveraged to entice your child to try a new food. Maybe you’re out at a local festival or on the boardwalk and you see a fun food you can walk around and eat. Get some, even if it’s breaking from your schedule and casually share with the family as you walk around.
Picky eaters will again be caught off guard and just might give a new food a try because the power of the fun shared experience. Be careful NOT to comment on any new food your kid tries though, even if you’re praising them for trying something new.
That praise can backfire and make your picky eater self conscious about what they’re eating and what they’re not.
#9. Use convenient travel containers for eating on the road
If you’re packing up a bunch of food for your road trip or even on the plane, using a box with a lid that has multiple compartments can make life so much easier. If you’re packing lunches for school, you might already have one.
But, these Bento Boxes are also perfect for taking to the beach.
Picky eaters love individual compartments so that their food doesn’t touch!
Get Inspired With Some New Picky Eater Food Ideas (Free Printable)!
Need some inspiration for new foods to try before you hit the road on vacation. Grab this free List of Picky Eater Foods and Meal Ideas right here!
Have any other tips that have helped you travel with your picky eater? Share them in the comments below to help other parents.
More Help for Picky Eaters
Alisha Grogan is a licensed occupational therapist and founder of Your Kid’s Table. She has over 17 years experience with expertise in sensory processing and feeding development in babies, toddlers, and children. Alisha also has 3 boys of her own at home. Learn more about her here.