12 tips to cope with picky eaters when you travel

Child refusing a plate of food

Just when we thought our travelling days were getting easier…

No more boobs and baby bottles, sterilisers – in fact, no more strollers, no more baby carriers  – we could actually become one of those travelling light families. But we still have one problem left. And it’s a bigger one than you’d imagine…… a picky eater.

Cringe….. urgh life could hand us worse cards, I admit.  We have the means and ways to travel – and I am biased but on the whole, we have pretty awesome kids who behave well in public and love to experience new places. However, one thing that still drags us down when we travel is food. The dinner table battle played out in public for all to see.

I’m quite fond of food.  I’m not a massive foodie but trying new things is one of the awesome parts of travelling to new countries and experiencing new cultures. So what do you do when there’s a picky eater in your group?

Now we’re not talking JUST about kids who don’t like their green to touch their orange (OK, seriously, that’s a pain too, I do feel for you!). I am talking about when your child would rather starve than try something unfamiliar. 

We’re beyond the toddler years here; we’re talking preschool-aged kids through to tweens who still won’t experiment and literally freeze up at the thought of something unfamiliar passing through their lips. In fact, the idea can make them dry wretch, vomit and even burst into hysterics at the thought.

We’re here to help if you have a genuine, unstoppable picky eater.

This post is part of our family travel advice series – we cover everything from helping kids sleep on planes through to the best ways to recover from jet lag – come and check out the complete series

Top tips to help you travel with a picky eater

Now please, don’t let your friends and family placate you with “they’ll just have to learn”, or “once you’re there they’ll just get used to the food”. Nope, picky eater parents know that their child has more will-power than that.

We also don’t want our child to starve themselves to the point that they make themselves physically sick. After 9 years travelling with a VERY fussy little boy, we’re here to help with 12 tips you could try on your next family vacation to cope with your child’s behaviour (NB leaving them behind is probably a no-no – but it can get to that point, believe me!)

#1 Know your fussy eater’s pinch points

As much as I hate having to bend over backwards to appease just one member of the family… forewarned is forearmed. Understand if it’s the smells that trigger your little one’s tummy or is it foods touching, textures, colours?

Do your due diligence and research what foods will most likely be available before you go, and start introducing these to your own table at home. Your fussy eater may not take them then and there, but you can familiarise them with the food and experiment, make sure at least your not-so-fussy ones can stomach the foods you’re likely to come across.

What we’ve tried: We know our Mr Fussy is capable of eating rice, so before a trip to South East Asia we’ll introduce this for dinner more often. Would he eat it just on its own, with another vegetable on the plate, or maybe with a vegetable IN the rice?! (No..) But at least he knew what he could confidently order without tears in advance.

Toddler eating street food in Hanoi Vietnam
We naively thought Master L’s early interest in street food in Vietnam would last….

#2 Stay in a serviced apartment 

This has honestly been the best way for us to cope on so many occasions. When we are not reliant on resort food or take out three meals a day, a self-catering apartment gives us waaaay more flexibility when it comes to mealtimes (not to mention sleeping arrangements).

We are yet to find a country where we cannot grab plain pasta or noodles from a convenience store and boil some water in our room. It’s our go-to meal to deal with the fussy one – and frankly, the others are happy to join in too!

But don’t think this means you’re stuck with three meals a day at ‘home’; Tupperware or a collection of plastic food containers are your friend.

What we do: Lunches, in particular, we like to have out while we’re exploring new places so we will boil up a big batch of pasta the night before (or if chicken nuggets are your little one’s thing they’ll work too), refrigerate overnight and their next emergency meal is ready if they won’t eat what’s on offer.

It may not be as nice as a fresh-cooked meal but means I know if our Mr Fussy is crying over a menu, there’s something I can slip him before or after our meal. Inconvenient to the rest of us as we need an additional meal stop, yes, but gets us through with full tummies and enough energy to enjoy a full day out.

#3 Befriend the Chef!

If you do find yourself in a resort or hotel setting where the same kitchen will be preparing your meals, don’t be afraid to talk to staff about your meal requirements.

What we found: Our first day into a 4-day Nile Cruise it became apparent the only thing on the buffet Mr Fussy would eat was the green melon (honeydew melon – ironically the only green food item he’ll eat). This worked for 2 meals until it vanished. However, a kind word in the ear with one of the wait staff and the chef appeared chatted through with us what seemed like some reasonable options which were all firmly rejected until we got back to green melon. Then magically at every mealtime the plate of melon appeared, problem solved (yes he survived 4 days on just that and some snacks in our room).

NB – filling in food allergy requests is another way of dealing with this, but I made the mistake once of saying he was vegetarian. His meals came out way after the rest of us then entailed a lot of veggies, which yep, are rejected.

Unfortunately, until more places add a tick box “just exceptionally fussy” you’ve got to work around picking and choosing from an available menu or buffet offering when on group tours or all-inclusive style packages.

#4 Make good the breakfast buffet

Most – though certainly not all – picky eaters are more inclined to eat from the breakfast buffet than any other meal of the day. With a good selection of dry cereals, plain toasts, and the daring may even try croissants, fruits or even cheeses and yogurts!

You can stock up little bellies to their heart’s content with a pick and choose buffet and maybe grab their next snack for the day too, discreetly of course!

A breakfast buffet spread perfect for fussy eaters to make their own choices

#5 Let them pick where you eat

I know, I know, we’d end up at McD’s every day if we gave total free reign. It might sound counterintuitive to let the fussiest one in your group chose, but you need to empower them.

Our method: We let everyone in the family take turns where we’re going to eat. If this happens to be McDonald’s or another generic western fast-food chain one night, so be it. At least ALL your kids know they get a say. If your picky eater is displeased or can’t make a menu choice, so be it; it’s just one night, they can choose tomorrow.

NB – it certainly does pay though if you can make some helpful suggestions and know the lay of the land in advance. See if you can access a menu online, or if you’re staying in the area a while, walk around and collect menus so you can narrow down the choices before you head out and make well-informed choices that may suit everyone.

It pays not to give too many choices too; best say they have three and the chosen one for that meal must decide between them – and yes parents get a vote too!

#6 Sharing and bartering

A lot of the time it just takes one item on a plate or mention of something on a menu to put your picky eater into a spin. It’s actually a little amusing to now see my kids trading meals so that Mr Fussy will get what he needs on his plate, while the other two will take what they want and put it on there’s – it can be a win-win!

Be it between kids, or parent and child. If you can’t find a dish they’ll love – and language barriers make trying to explain exclusions and changes to the menu impossible – simply order a few share dishes so that everyone gets the bits they want across the plates. And always order an extra plate of fries.

Young caucasian boy eating a plate of rice and chips drinking water
You can be pretty sure this wasn’t on the menu but with a little bartering our carboholic got what he wanted

#7 Make new foods fun!

Help them associate new foods with having fun. We’re not just talking about ice cream creations, can you make them part of the food creation process?

Participating in a cooking class, watching a pizza being made, going fruit picking, observing a sushi chef in action, walking through a market place (if their stomach can handle it!) Each of these new experiences will bring them a little closer to appreciating food, even if they’re not quite ready to put it in their tummy.

Give it a try: Mr Fussy swore he didn’t eat pancakes – or Nutella – until he saw them being made live at a beautiful breakfast buffet; now it’s literally his favourite hotel breakfast! Skip the strawberries and cream but a giant leap forward in food groups! Well, an expansion of the carb group….

Just because they may not like or eat the end product doesn’t mean they can’t have fun in the process. Even Mr Fussy loves to make a pizza and help chop and sprinkle ingredients but I can assure you he’s never eaten a slice!

#8 Bribery

When things get totally desperate we are absolutely not against a bribe. Just to get something past his lips we have put a lot on the line!

Try not to make it competitive with siblings and more competent eaters at the table. Set individual eating goals with an appropriately balanced reward (ie, if they’re going to get a bonus dessert so should your competent eaters too!) Just have some wipes and water ready if the tasting goes horribly wrong.

#9 Condiment the heck out of it

Only eat with ketchup or nothing goes in their mouth without Nutella? Yeah, yeah too much of a good thing and all that. But when you are battling against starvation, I can tell what side of the fence I fall on.

Always keep a handbag-sized bottle of their favourite condiment with you to tempt the taste buds if you’re really struggling to get anything in.

#10 Snacks, snacks and more snacks

Do snacks count as a meal? Well, not always. However, when you’re travelling, a day with five or six smaller snacks may be enough to get a fussy one through. Just do some quick mental jotting up at the end of the day on their total calorie count.

You can see, for example, NHS advice on how many calories a child 7 to 10 years old needs

Cruising convenience stores for small bites can also feel slightly less confrontational than making menu choices at a table. Choosing a variety of low costs items – some of which may still get rejected – might be cheaper than a meal they simply refuse to touch.

We have a bumper guide to healthy travel snack ideas here if you’re seeking out some new inspiration.

#11 Take supplements

It’s a good idea – regardless if your child is exceptionally fussy – to give your whole family probiotics to help strengthen your gut for travel. Depending on your child’s particular weak point, iron tablets and multivitamins may also be required.

For longer-term travel with a fussy eater, it can be well worthwhile consulting a nutritionist before you go who will help you with the right blend of supplements they need in their diet.

#12 Don’t make it into a huge deal

This is probably the most important tip of all.

Chances are, especially by the time your picky eater has hit school age, they know themselves they have an issue. Just as you wouldn’t constantly ask your dyslexic child, “why can’t you read that?” and forcing words in their face, don’t constantly be nagging on your fussy one to be eating something you know they simply can’t.

Acknowledge their issue exists; pre-empt issues coming up thrice daily if you can with the strategies we’ve outlined above, and don’t let it ruin everyone’s trip. This may include informing any friends and relatives you’re travelling with too to lay off on the ‘helpful’ advice or criticisms (we know how others like to suggest how we can ‘fix’ their issue or suggest things you’ve tried a thousand times already).

Mealtime anxiety is real for your picky eater and can lead to greater problems. Pressure as far as you need to to get some calories in, but don’t let it ruin your holiday, or there’s.

As for when you have a picky eating grown-up in your group?  One step at a time!  We’re still getting over the toddler years….

As you can see, none of these are magic fix solutions. However, they have meant our worldwide travels haven’t had to stop because of one child’s needs and habits. We have done it for so long now, we simply work around it. If the opportunity does come up to try something new, of course, we take it whenever we can as a stepping stone to rebuilding his confidence around food.

Barely ate more than melon for a week and a stop at McDonald’s Cairo – but he survived his favourite trip to Egypt

Over to you – do you have any more tips you would like to add to help your fellow travelling parents in dinner time despair?

Before you go – you may want to check out some more of our helpful family travel guides:

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A younf child crying beinf fed food he does not like: guide to travelling with a fussy eater

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