Last week, we took a little mini-trip down to Carlsbad to experience the craziness that is Legoland. We also made it to the San Diego Zoo because we just had to see the Koalafornia Dreamin’ exhibit of cuteness. We had intended to go to SeaWorld, but after two long park days, the kids just wanted to hang out in the hotel pool. That’s just the way it is: the highlight of the trip is almost always the hotel pool.
Taking a road trip with kids—even a short one—requires an insane amount of planning, especially if you want to attempt to eat healthy as you make your way through desolate Fast Foodville. Over the past few years, I’ve developed some strategies for somewhat healthy eating on the road. Luckily, we don’t have any food allergies are major issues in our family; I just have to find a way to keep two constantly starving kiddos reasonably content.
Sanity-Preserving Road Trip Items and Helpful Tips for Traveling with Kids:
1) Leak-proof Water Bottles
It’s amazing how difficult it is to find truly leak-proof water bottles that kids can easily open and close themselves. Before our Legoland trip, I found these Nalgene water bottles at Target. They are perfect for kids 4 years old and up. They snap shut and have a little metal latch that holds the lids securely closed. Do not enter an amusement park, large zoo, major kid venue without water bottles. There are very few water fountains, if any, at big parks and your kid will inevitably get thirsty while waiting in a 45 minute line to ride some ride that will definitely not be worth the wait. You can refill the water bottles at soda fountains (with water, not soda, of course) and load them up with ice to keep the water nice and cool.
2) Fruit, Lots of It
If you eat a lot of fruit, you will feel fruit-deprived while on the road. My kiddos consume an insane amount of fruit, so I packed a gallon bag of plums and pluots. I got them at the farmers market, where I looked for things that needed a few days to ripen (the farmers helped me with this). I also packed a bag of grapes for eating in the car. Because I had juicy fruit, I was sure to keep a roll of paper towels with me in the car. When packing fruit for a road trip, think about what travels well (bananas always seem to get bruised and squished) and what your kids can handle eating without making a total mess. I packed a smaller quart size freezer bag to take fruit with us on day trips.
3) Protein/Energy Bars
During the school year, I always have homemade bars in the fridge or freezer. I would definitely recommend making your own energy bars, unless, of course, you are in a frenzy of trip preparation and just can’t get it together. I don’t think Clif bars are super healthy, but they sure beat what’s for sale as you walk around Amusement Park Giganto (Dippin’ Dots! Cheetos! Churros!).
4) Fruit Crusher/Applesauce Packs
Are these little applesauce pouches ridiculously expensive and over-packaged? Of course, but sometimes you just need convenience. I like to keep a couple in my purse on long outings. They will also help get you through your trip if you run out of fresh fruit.
5) Trail Mix
I made the mistake of buying Peanut Butter Cups Trax Mix for a road trip to San Francisco a few years ago. Now my kids demand it on every road trip. It is delicious and highly addictive. At least there are more nuts than peanut butter cups in the bag. And, I’m happy to report, we didn’t even finish the bag (our leftover trail mix is in the photo above). You don’t have to travel with such a decadent trail mix, but some sort of nuts/dried fruit mix is de rigueur when traveling with kids. A little handful of trail mix has prevented many a meltdown in our car.
6) Goldfish, Pretzels, Crackers
I don’t have a particular loyalty to Pepperidge Farm Goldfish and I don’t think of Goldfish as a healthy snack, but it is a great car food: small, bite-size, not too much residue on the fingers, and marginally better than chips. The Goldfish package, on the other hand, is a work of genius: small, portable, and that foil lining keeps the little crackers nice and crunchy. I always make sure to travel with a bunch of small binder clips, so I can easily throw a bag of Goldfish or pretzels in my purse.
7) Healthy Breakfast Food
In the event that your hotel does not serve some sort of free “continental” (what, exactly, qualifies a breakfast as “continental”?) breakfast, or, if the complimentary breakfast is particularly terrible, it is very important to have some sort of healthy option readily available in your room. I always travel with some instant oats and a shelf-stable carton of soy or almond milk. I found this bag of unsweetened instant oats at Target and it was the perfect breakfast food. I could microwave small, kid-sized portions, which I sweetened with a little honey and sugar in the raw (from the coffee/tea service in the lobby). Don’t forget to pack a few bowls and spoons (I’ve made that mistake before), but in a pinch, you can make instant oats in a coffee cup. You can also make cold, overnight oats if your room has a mini-fridge.
8) Small plastic cups
The last thing you want to deal with on a car trip is having two or more kids fighting over a single bag of trail mix. Pack a small cup that each kiddo can fill with snacks and keep in their cup holder. Plastic cups are also good to have in hotel bathrooms if you have little ones who don’t like getting their faces wet during hair washes.
9) Chic, yet practical mommy or daddy bag in which to carry all this junk
Every mom dreams of the day she can ditch the enormous diaper bag, only to realize that you may not need to carry diapers and spitty cloths any more, but you still need a bag that can accommodate water bottles, snacks, tissues, wipes, sunscreen, hats, etc. Personally, I love LeSportsac bags, because they are made of really light, indestructible fabric and they come in every imaginable size. The TokiDoki bag in the background is my big satchel for carrying lots of snacks and gear. The cutie blue bag is a smaller purse that can still carry two kid water bottles and a few energy bars.
And one last bit of advice:
10) Avoid kid’s meals at all costs
Kid’s meals are almost universally horrible. They are usually completely devoid of veggies (unless you count fries/chips as veggies), they often come with a sugary drink, they tend to be devoid of all flavor/seasoning, and they are usually a rip-off.
Traveling with kids is both harrowing and fabulous. Everyone will get tired and grumpy. No one will sleep well. There may be vomit. There will be tears. But, in the end, the kids will only remember the awesome parts. Parents will survive and learn from the experience and will do better next time. Just remember this mantra while traveling: there is no control. Say it over and over in your head and inexplicably, you’ll feel better.