Traveling with Kids: Healthy Food Options While on the Road

July 17, 2013


Every year I find myself struggling to feed my family well while on summer vacations—or even just while on day trips. I used to think it would get easier as my kids got older. Though it has in some ways, I hadn’t anticipated the pressure to give into junk food. Even my big kid, who likes to declare that McDonald’s—which he’s never tried—has “very terrible food,” has a penchant for friend chicken fingers and insatiable appetite for restaurant burgers.

I’ve shared my favorite tips for how to eat well while traveling and even put together a list of the best travel snacks for kids, but today I’ve asked my friends at The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) to weigh in.

CSPI recently released a report on kids meals that every parent should read. (Or at least skim, busy mamas and papas!) Even if you only succumb to fast food the few times a year that you’re on the road, you should know what’s on your kids plate, and have other healthier options in your back pocket.


Every year, thousands of families hit the road for a summer vacation. While these roadtrips are a great way to spend time with family and friends or explore new places, they can also wreak havoc on your family’s eating habits. Travel usually means eating out more, and eating out more can mean nutritional trouble.

Feeding your kids a healthy meal can be a challenge anytime, but it’s even harder on the road. Fried chicken fingers, burgers, French fries, and sugary drinks dominate most kids’ menus at restaurants. According to our new report, the overwhelming majority of children’s meals at the nation’s largest chain restaurants have too many calories, sodium, and heart-damaging (saturated) fat. For moms, finding a healthy kids’ meal can be like finding a needle in a haystack.

Some restaurants are doing right by kids (and moms) and are making it easier to find healthier options. Some now offer apples, grapes, or other fruit and vegetable side dishes, others have added low-fat milk to the kids’ menus, or reformulated entrees and sides to reduce sodium, fat, and sugar. And in 2011, the National Restaurant Association created the Kids LiveWell program to help more restaurant chains make similar changes. This is a good first step that can help parents find healthier options, but much more needs to be done across the industry. In the meantime, here are a few tricks I use when I’m on the road and eating out with my daughter:

* Split an adult entrée with your child.
* Substitute a veggie or fruit side dish for French fries.
* Skip the sugary drink and order seltzer or water.
* Order off the healthy or lite section of the menu.
* Ask for substitutions and changes to make foods healthier—order pizza with less cheese, leave cheese off sandwiches, sauce on the side, etc.
* If the menu is vague, ask your server to explain it.

Safe travels and happy eating!

— Margo Wootan
Director of Nutrition Policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest

4 Responses

  1. Laura says:

    You gave me some great and healthy ideas for when I travel with my boys! Thank you!

  2. bubu says:

    We have often taking to ordering the kids appetizers as their entrée instead — these tend to be tastier and fresher, and challenge them more in terms of flavors and tastes. Worst case if they don’t like it, we will, and then we give them some of our entrees. Especially given restaurant portion sizes, two appetizers and two entrees always feels like plenty for a family of four. Especially things like bruschetta and shellfish go over well with my kids.

  3. One Hungry Mama says:

    I love your suggestion @bubu! So smart. Thanks for sharing!

  4. Yes, healthy eating on travel is definitely a big issue. Sometimes it is just more efficient to grab hamburger and fries 🙂

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