I relax the rules a lot with my kids when we hit the road for vacation. Bedtime creeps later and later. Screen time limits become a distant memory. And eating means more indulgences and less structure. But I've learned the hard way that giving too much leeway means suffering the consequences, namely crabby, over-sugared, over-snacked kids—and that it's better for everyone to aim for a balance between healthy eating and travel splurges. So learn from my mistakes:
Mistake 1: Not bringing anything fresh.
Your instinct may be to load up on shelf-stable snacks that are easy to pack (like pretzels and granola bars), but packaged food often doesn't satisfy like fresh food does. Packaged stuff is also typically missing the fiber that can make travel easier on the digestive system.
Instead: Bring a small, soft-sided cooler that includes pieces of whole fruit and zip-top bags of raw veggies. You can also toss in cheese sticks and small cups of yogurt or hummus. Offer that food first when your child asks for a snack in the car.
Mistake 2: Using food as entertainment.
I'm still guilty of this one when faced with a long car trip. But automatically feeding kids when there's downtime in the car creates a bad pattern and means nobody is hungry when mealtime rolls around.
Instead: Pack enough food to handle hunger but encourage other ways to pass the time, like activity books, travel games, and audiobooks. It's okay to answer a snack request with, "We're stopping for lunch in a half hour; you can eat then."
Mistake 3: Letting kids eat out of big packages.
If my kids were left alone in the third row of the minivan with a family size bag of pretzels, it would be demolished by mile 12. Research shows adults eat more when eating out of big packages—and kids are likely no exception.
Instead: I try to portion snacks into individual baggies or I fill up the bento-style lunchbox containers we have with reasonable amounts of snacks. Bonus: No sibling squabbles over the bag, since each kid has his own stash.
Mistake 4: Allowing too many sweet drinks.
My boys could live on sweet drinks if I let them. But I know that sweet drinks provide a lot of extra sugar and even increase kids' risk for obesity. Caffeine in soda can disrupt sleep. Sweet drinks may also dull the appetite for actual food.
Instead: My kids each get a large bottle of ice water for their respective cup holders, and I try to stick to a "one sweet drink per day" policy when we're on the road, like a lemonade or chocolate milk at a restaurant.
Mistake 5: Only ordering from the kids' menu.
I get it: It's sometimes tough to find healthy options at mealtime pit-stops, and the kids' menu just feels like the easiest choice. But the standbys on the kids' menu—chicken nuggets, hot dogs, and pizza—are typically high-fat, hyper-processed foods.
Instead: When you can, encourage your kids to branch out and choose something from the "grown-up menu", even if it's an appetizer or a meal that you share.
What are YOUR best tips for healthy eating on the road?
Sally Kuzemchak, MS, RD, is a registered dietitian, educator, and mom of two who blogs at Real Mom Nutrition. You can follow her on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram. She is the author of Cooking Light Dinnertime Survival Guide, a cookbook for busy families. In her spare time, she loads and unloads the dishwasher. Then loads it again.
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Image: Boy eating banana in car via Shutterstock