By Gail O’Connor
No matter what kind of parent you are in the kitchen—an exemplary model of good nutrition who makes fresh meals from scratch, or a shortcut-taker who knows her way around a delivery menu—there’s one great equalizer among us all: the road trip.
When faced with miles of interstate and a hungry child in the backseat, we’re all in the same minivan: looking for convenience, and fast. When it comes to nourishment, “the primary challenges for parents on the road are that toddlers are impatient—they want to get there now—and they have a view of all the temptations from their perch in the car,” says Marilyn Swanson, Ph.D., R.D., an adjunct associate professor of pediatric nutrition at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston and USDA National Program Leader for Maternal and Child Health. “They don’t even need to read; they know the golden arches of McDonald’s.”
How can you please the palate of your little one—and keep your nerves from fraying—without immediately braking at the nearest source of French fries (the most consumed “vegetable” by kids)? Try these strategies for feeding your children nutritious fare on the road:
1. Take time to prepare healthy snacks.
Invest 10 minutes in putting together some healthy treats to tide the kids over between meals. “Snacking per se or grazing is not necessarily bad,” says Swanson. “What can be bad is making unwise choices in what you snack on.” One mom of two, an experienced road-tripper, goes for the fresh stuff. “I cut up fruits, put them in Ziploc bags and carry them in a small cooler in the car—pretty much anything for my 5-year-old, and peeled apples for my 21⁄2-year-old,” says Vienna Taylor of Westlake Village, Calif. A bonus: “Having the fruit in the car reduces travel time, since we only need to make potty stops,” she says. As for drinks, Taylor recommends water, which won’t get sticky if it spills.
Next: Map out pit stops…
2. Map out pit stops.
Ask friends who’ve traveled the route before where you can pull off for a snack and give everyone a few minutes of fresh air and exercise. “It’s important not to let food serve as a substitute for boredom,” says Swanson. “When children get squirrelly or jumpy, stop at a rest stop or fi nd a park where they can climb the jungle gym.” You will probably pad your travel time by a few minutes, but the attitude maintenance (theirs and yours) will be worth it.
3. Order wisely at fast-food restaurants.
Make good choices at eateries. “My 5-year-old son loves to go to fast-food restaurants, especially on road trips, and we’ve found a good compromise,” says Jennifer Kim of Northampton, Mass. “He gets to go to McDonald’s and we get a hamburger Happy Meal, but we order milk and apple dippers, without the caramel, instead of fries. Sometimes we either give back the hamburger or, if he’s in the mood, he’ll order a ‘vegetarian cheeseburger’—a slice of cheese in a bun. This way he gets his toy and a relatively healthy snack, and my husband and I get some hot coffee.”
4. Ask for the breakfast menu.
Many dine-in restaurants still serve breakfast at lunchtime, which often affords healthier options than the standard fried lunch fare. “We’d stop at Denny’s, and I wouldn’t even need to press my son to eat one of his favorites—scrambled eggs and fruit—for lunch,” says Ann Struckman, a mother of three in Portsmouth, R.I.
Next: Be a good road model
5. Be a good road (um, role) model!
“If mom and dad are eating Cracker Jack at the gas station, then you can’t expect your children not to want the processed stuff, too,” says Swanson. So, in addition to snack packs for them, pack something healthy to sustain you until you get to your destination. Besides, you’ll need your energy—for the trip back home.
Nutritious, road-friendly refreshments
What foods deserve prime packing space in the car? “Snacks based around whole foods are going to be healthier than processed snack foods,” says Rima Kleiner, M.S., a registered dietitian in Scottsdale, Ariz.
Choose carefully, however, to avoid choking hazards. Pea-sized pieces of food are best. Fruits and vegetables that snap into hard chunks, such as carrots, celery and fi rm apples, should be diced, shredded, or cooked and cut into small pieces. Peel softer produce items, like grapes, cherry tomatoes and soft apples, and cut them into small pieces. Shred meats and cheeses. Layer thick spreads like peanut butter very thinly. Unless a second adult is in the car to observe your tot, don’t drive while he snacks. It’s best to devote your full attention to your toddler when he is eating. “Just like a child can drown in minutes when a parent’s back is turned, so, too, can they choke,” says Marilyn Swanson, Ph.D., R.D. If you’re the driver and lone adult, stop and treat your little one to a healthy snack you’ve brought.
Next: What to bring
In your cooler
»Think peeled and halved grapes, small melon cubes, peeled apple pieces and shredded cheese. Snacks based around fruits and vegetables provide the vitamins and minerals kids need to grow, and the antioxidants that help prevent illness, says Kleiner.
In your goodie bag
»Even without a cooler, you can give your kids wholesome nonperishable snacks. Dry cereals (avoid sugary kinds) with 5 grams of fiber or more are a simple, nutritious solution. For occasional sweets, offer animal crackers, graham crackers or other options with similarly low-fat, low-sugar contents on their nutrition labels. For older toddlers, soft crackers thinly spread with peanut butter can be a good protein-rich option. (Note: If you have a family history of food allergies, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends waiting to introduce nut products until your child is 3 years or older.)
At fast-food restaurants
»Order the rice and bean cups, or a small hamburger. “Neither of these is low-calorie, but they’re better options than fried chicken fingers and fries,” says Kleiner. Skip the soda and order milk, then supplement the meal with snacks you’ve brought, like diced fruit and shredded cheese. Those toys that come with the meal? You can usually buy one, sans fries.
Gail O’Connor likes to pack bottled water and apple slices when she hits the road with her two children, Declan, 5, and Katie, 2.
Going out of town for the holiday? Keep your toddlers satisfied with these nutritious snack options.