One of the joys of travelling for me is to eat local. Being on a trip is the only time when I’m looking forward to another mealtime, imagining what I will go for next time (probably because I also don’t have to prepare it). Having a child doesn’t change that. If anything, I would like to include her and get her to know that it’s a fun part of the experience.
Of course, it is easier said than done. Travelling to unfamiliar places tend to make children hike up their cautious level, even if they’re being excited about all the new things altogether. This is especially true when it comes to new food.
When the Kid was a baby, our foreign food strategy was to bring as many pots of ready-made baby food we could bring from home. When she got older and out of the baby food phase, we let her survive on familiar food we could find locally, such as cereal, sandwiches, fruit and eggs, while sneaking in any local food I know she wouldn’t mind eating. As she got older and beginning to have an opinion and assertiveness on what she would or would not put into her mouth, the strategy had to change.
I was a picky eater as a child. I am still picky now, even though I got curiosity to new things which balances things out in the end (e.g. I refuse to eat anything that contains mint, but I happily tried a hundred-year egg – which I ended up liking). In a way, I do sympathise with kids who are picky eaters, and I am always grateful that my parents never forced me to eat things I don’t like out of principle, but instead, giving me and my sisters opportunities to try new food without the demand to finish everything. It’s an approach that worked for me, so I went to do the same with the Kid. I don’t mind if she really doesn’t like something, as long as she’s not too scared to try new things and discover new food she likes along the way.
While some children would eat anything, eyeballs attached and whatnot, and others could only eat three types of food, most children fall somewhere in between; they have food they love, food they hate, and food they can tolerate. Food they tolerate is a good place to start when you want to introduce them to new dishes. If they know that it contains familiar and acceptable ingredients, they’ll more likely to try it without having a high expectation to love it (but it doesn’t mean they won’t).
I’m constantly refining it, but so far here are my strategy at trying to get the Kid to eat new food, whether on the trip or at home:
- Keep an inventory of basic food ingredients she eats, split into starch & grains, meat, vegetables, fruit and dairy products. (I don’t really keep a list, I just keep them in my head, but I only have one child so it’s easier). I never ‘train’ her to like certain food before a trip, but we have found along the way that some food is more versatile than others, and it takes away a lot of our foreign food headache when she learned to enjoy them. The essentials:
- Rice. Rice is used in various forms in dishes around the world, especially the big chunk of the world that is Asia. Eat rice, will travel.
- Meat on the bone. If your children eat meat, it’s better if they’re used to eating them unprocessed, and still resembling the actual animal a bit (depending on the animal, usually chicken, sometimes pig, not so much with a cow). Not only that this is how you’d find meat in a lot of places, the best meat dishes are not usually made with fillet cuts.
- Fish and shellfish. Some might be allergic, but if you prefer your trips along coastlines and beaches like us, there’s nothing better to eat but fresh fish and shellfish. Yes, it sometimes comes with eyeballs attached.
- Fruit. The Kid is not so keen with vegetables, but she loves all kinds of fruits. They are easy to get (at least we haven’t been to a place where we couldn’t find fruit) and can be eaten either fresh, mixed with cereal, pancake or yoghurt, and make great snacks too. In some places, it’s also safer to eat fresh fruit you can peel rather than fresh vegetables.
- Get to know the local food before we go and keep note of those containing mostly ingredients I know she eats (a bit of something new is fine, even better!).
- Explain the food by its ingredients. It’s ‘meatball in a dress’ for dimsum, ‘chicken on a stick’ for Indonesian’s satay, ‘rice with prawns’ for paella. You get the idea. Basically, at this age, she doesn’t really care what the dish is actually called, she just wants to know what it is.
- Encourage her to try something in baby steps, first by sniffing it, then to have a lick, and then to chew it. We have an understanding that she can stop at any stage if something really put her off, and she is also allowed to spit it out (discreetly) if she has it in the mouth and ended up not liking it.
- Share the food. Since neither of us is a big eater, rather than getting two separate dishes for me and the Kid, I often offer her to share mine. She knows that if I also eat it, it’s probably not that bad.
- Let her know that as grown ups, we also keep trying new food, and share our honest opinion about it. The best way to get her to develop curiosity to new food is to be trustworthy example ourselves.
- If all else failed, pizza is fine too. Sometimes we really wanted to try a curry place where we know all the food will be too spicy for the Kid, sometimes we are in a place with no choice but junk food, sometimes she just misses comfort food. We do give in to the occasional kid’s menu of chicken nugget, pizza or jam sandwiches. When you’re travelling, having a well-fed child is better for everyone’s nerves than being stuck with a hungry and crabby child for the day.
I wish I could include pictures of yummy food we’ve had along the way, but unfortunately, we always neglected the chance to take pictures of our food. It’s probably because by the time the food arrived, we couldn’t wait to tuck in to it. Instead, I’m including the picture of a stall with the best laksa that I have tasted in Singapore.