A few simple precautions will ensure your vegan children get the right food on a trip.
Traveling as vegetarians can be challenging. Traveling with vegan infants or toddlers can be even more of a challenge. Most vegetarians can ruefully tell of the airplane meal that turned out to be a large lettuce-only salad or of an occasional night in a strange town where a burger ("hold the meat, please") was the only veggie option. These situations are not quite so humorous when you have a two-year-old clamoring for food NOW!
A little advance planning can save the day. Generally speaking, young children do best with familiar foods, especially when they're in an unfamiliar setting. If they always eat the crackers that come in a blue box, tuck in a box of the crackers. If you don't, I guarantee you'll only be able to find "yucky" crackers in a red box. Older children, and some young children, may be more adventurous. Decide what compromises you're comfortable with before leaving home. Trips may be a time to relax your standards a little. Your restaurant may have only white bread and canned fruit. While these might not be your first choice, remember that in a few days you'll be home eating whole grains and fresh fruit. Focusing too much on food can make your trip tense and unpleasant.
Pack a food box. This is easiest when traveling by car but possible with plane or train travel. Include plenty of small, non-perishable items. If space is a consideration, pack items that would be difficult to find while traveling, such as soymilk, and plan to purchase items at supermarkets and natural foods stores on your trip.
Snacks help break the monotony of car travel. Popular snacks for the car are those that are not too messy, not likely to cause choking, and do not require refrigeration. Foods that meet these criteria include individual boxes of raisins; a snack mix of bite-size, non-sugary cereals and small pretzels; not-too-juicy fruits like bananas and apple chunks; and bite-size crackers.
Picnics are a great way to eat when traveling by car. Sometimes we've been so desperate to get out of the car that we've picnicked in coats, hats, and mittens. If you are packing a picnic, remember safe food handling practices and keep foods like yogurt, soy hot dogs, and pre-made dips and spreads cold. Be sure to allow children some time to run around and play at rest stops, either before or after meals; they'll travel much better with some sort of a break.
If you're traveling for several days by car and have run out of food, instead of trying to find a restaurant, look for a well-stocked grocery store with a salad bar. You can often find lots of kid-friendly foods like chickpeas, cherry tomatoes, strawberries, and corn at salad bars. If you're lucky, the store will also have bagels or a loaf of whole grain bread. Voila! A picnic! We've also been lucky with farm stands and stores. They often carry local produce in season. Carry a knife, a bottle of water for washing produce, and paper towels and you'll be ready to enjoy just-picked strawberries or apples.
Request a special meal when you make your plane reservations. For many young vegetarians, a fruit plate supplemented with crackers from home is a more appealing choice than a vegetarian plate which often features a "weird looking" mixed dish. Even if you've requested it, assume the vegetarian meal you ordered ahead of time won't be there. It's much better to pack a peanut butter and jelly sandwich you don't need than to try to explain to your hungry five-year-old why she has to wait three more hours for food. Most airlines do have juice available. Bring your own non-spill cup for them to fill.
Hotels and Motels
Ask for a small refrigerator when you make your reservations. Many motels and hotels have these, often for free or for a nominal charge. Some places even have microwave ovens or stoves in a few rooms. It doesn't hurt to ask. Even if you do minimal cooking, it's nice to be able to refrigerate snacks and beverages and heat up food for the child who is hungry before it's time to go to the restaurant.
When traveling with children, room service can be worth the extra cost. If your children have been sitting all day in a plane or a car, they're not likely to want to sit calmly at a restaurant. Finding a restaurant with a take-out menu is another option. Take advantage of the continental breakfast many places offer. Most of the time you can find fresh fruit and juice which you can use to supplement the foods you've brought with you. If you're lucky, you may find acceptable cold cereals (bring your own soymilk) and bagels.
In a strange town it may be hard to find a restaurant that has both vegetarian options and food your young traveller will go for. You can ask at your hotel or try to contact a local vegetarian group for recommendations. Vegetarian Journal's Guide to Natural Foods Restaurants in the U.S. & Canada can be an invaluable help while traveling. When you get to the restaurant, don't be afraid to ask for foods like mashed potatoes, plain pasta, steamed vegetables, and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Although these may not appear on the menu, they may be available and be just right for the young vegetarian. Despite the challenges, traveling with vegan kids can be a wonderful adventure. Just remember, do some planning ahead of time and then relax and enjoy the trip!
Dietitian Reed Mangels completed her PhD in Nutrition at the University of Maryland. She is Nutrition Advisor to The Vegetarian Resource Group. Dr. Mangels is author of numerous publications & peer-reviewed studies including the USDA's Nutri-Topics Bibliography on Vegetarian Diets. She is co-author of "Simply Vegan" and past president of the American Dietetic Association's Vegetarian Nutrition Practice Group. Reed lives in Massachusets with her husband and two daughters.
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