What We Feed Our Kids When We Travel

Text & Photos:
Julie Schwietert Collazo
One of the fastest ways travel can wear our family down is in the area of food. We eat well at home, by which I mean fresh and homemade, and while we always want to try the local specialties, the fact of the matter is, in America, there’s a lot of garbage on the menu.

This is especially true if you’re on a budget.

For adults, there’s no shortage of fried food, pathetic iceberg salads, and overcooked or undercooked veggies, typically of the frozen or canned variety. For kids, the menu is even more limited, rarely ranging beyond a stock rotation of PB&J, hamburgers, chicken fingers, hot dogs, grilled cheese, and spaghetti. And let’s not even talk at length about flights, where options include overpriced boxes of poorly curated snacks and tiny foil packets of peanuts and pretzels and packages of cookies (though Delta’s Biscoff cookies do get our family’s seal of approval).

Ooh... a corn dog and breaded ravioli!
Ooh… a corn dog and breaded ravioli!

All of this is to say that we take an unusual amount of care planning what we’re going to eat on our trips, especially for long flights and the first full day of travel. That planning can be stressful–especially because it often involves increasing the amount of stuff we’re carrying (and you know how I feel about that), but the rewards of eating well offset the hour or two of annoyance endured while hauling everything through TSA and into overhead bins or under seats in front of us on the plane.

Here’s our strategy for the first two days of travel:

1. The day before departure, review what we have on hand at home– especially in the fridge.
If you follow my work on The Latin Kitchen, then you know that I really hate food waste. There’s little reason for it, other than poor planning, and there’s really nothing I find more depressing in the kitchen than coming home after a fantastic trip, only to open the fridge and find half a dozen science experiments in progress.

My pre-trip job, then, is to assess what ingredients we have on hand and make suggestions to Francisco about what we can do with them. I typically help prep and store items we won’t use on the trip and that won’t keep until we come home, turning greens, herbs, and vegetables into the fixings for stock or pesto. He takes the rest–cheeses, meats, fruits, and other vegetables–into snacks and small meals. Veggies, meats, and cheeses may get turned into pasta or grain salads (couscous, quinoa, barley, and orzo are all delicious and filling, and they pack and hold up well). Vegetables also get turned into raw finger-food munchables, and if there are only small bits of certain items, such as peppers and onion, they’ll likely get mixed up with some tuna for a salad, which will either be served on bread that will be hard by the time we get home or lettuce or greens that will be wilted and brown if left to fend for themselves until vacation’s end.

Lunch our first full travel day in Utah: tuna fish, corn for Orion, bananas, and a salad-- everything was prepped at home during our pre-trip fridge cull. We also had  ears of corn we'd roasted at home. Grounds courtesy of the Utah State Capitol. :)
Lunch our first full travel day in Utah– everything was prepped at home during our pre-trip fridge cull. We also had ears of corn we’d roasted at home. Grounds courtesy of the Utah State Capitol. :)

2. The day before departure, we assess what kids’ snacks we need to replenish.
We have a 4.5 year old and a 10 month old, and each has particular snacks that are always in our backpacks, even for daily outdoor jaunts around our NYC home-base. The older one can always be sated and placated with 365 brand cereal bars from Whole Foods, while the younger one is calmed down with Mum-Mums, quick-dissolving rice rusks. Cups of applesauce are packable (we always have a fork-knife-spoon in our packs), as are Choopoons labneh, which come in some novel flavors (sour cherry, sweet carrot) and are so thick and creamy that they serve as a full meal for the 10 month old and a snack that fills the 4.5 year old enough to ward off a full-scale meltdown when we know it will be at least another hour until dinner.

Choopoons labneh is a filling, easily packed go-to snack for families on the go.
Choopoons labneh is a filling, easily packed go-to snack for families on the go.

3. Once we’ve assessed everything we have, we pack cold items in an insulated bag and non-perishables in our carry-ons.
If two parents are traveling with their kids, then divide and conquer is the operative rule; if you’re a single parent or you’re just traveling solo with one or more of your kids (I do this a lot), you can still give the kids some of the responsibility of shouldering the load. While you may resist the idea of carrying an insulated bag, it can really come in handy throughout the trip as you replenish your snack supply. Having snacks like cheese, yogurt, and other items that need to be kept cool breaks the monotony of not-so-healthy vending machine or gas station snacks. If our accommodations have a fridge with a freezer, we put the ice packs and the bag itself in the freezer overnight; if there’s no freezer, then we get a hotel garbage bag, fill it with ice, and put it in the insulated bag before we leave for the day.

4. Eat in order of perishability.
True, tuna fish salad is probably not the best lunch to pack for a trip… unless you keep track of your food inventory and eat in order of perishability. The tuna fish salad we packed for this trip (the obvious choice for using up a few small pieces of onion and pepper and celery) had to be kept cold and it had to be eaten within 24 hours; otherwise, to the garbage it would go… and then, the whole point of avoiding food waste, eating well, and saving money would be lost.

5. Refill strategically.
When you’ve brought plastic containers from home, you can refill them strategically throughout your trip. Dry cereals, fresh fruit, and instant oatmeal from the hotel breakfast bar are all fair game.

How–and what–do you feed your kids when you travel? Share your tips in the comments.

5 Things to Do with Kids in New York City in Winter

Text: Julie Schwietert Collazo
Photos: Francisco Collazo & Julie Schwietert Collazo
No one is more aware than I that spring begins tomorrow; after all, I’ve been quietly counting down the days to the season of daffodils and sunshine all.winter.long. But it is still chilly right now and despite a brief blip in the forecast that will taunt us with the promise of spring, next week’s weather looks like more of the same dreary, damp, windy fare we’ve been served up for the past few months, which basically looks exactly like this:

View from the kitchen window during one of this winter's numerous snow dumps.
View from the kitchen window during one of this winter’s numerous snow dumps.

Earlier today, someone on twitter asked for my recommendations about how–and where–to keep kids entertained during the New York City winter. It’s a topic I’ve developed a bit of expertise in, that’s for sure. When you live in a tiny apartment with your partner and two kids under the age of five, cabin fever comes on faster than it might if you lived in a sprawling house. And since I’ve actually had this post in my draft folder since December 1 and since we are in the midst of New York City’s two-week long Spring Break, I figured maybe it wasn’t too late to share my family’s go-to spots and activities for days that make outdoor play impossible.

1. MoMA’s Art Lab
Francisco and I are art lovers, to be sure, but the real reason we’ve held a MoMA family membership for the past two years is because of the museum’s Art Lab. Admission to the Lab is included in the price of a regular museum ticket, but we go so often that membership becomes more affordable than individual admission tickets (plus, we can bring friends for just $5 a pop).

The lab is organized around a particular theme, which changes once or twice a year; the current theme is movement. This isn’t the tired, predictable crayons-markers-paper art table set-up that’s typical of so many museums. As you enter the lab, you’ll see a high-tech station where kids can make their own stop-motion films using iPhones and iPads and a variety of objects intended to serve as props. Just behind this station is a section where they can make Alexander Calder-esque mobiles, testing concepts such as weight and balance as they add, take away, and move elements. There’s a large, lovely bookshelf full of kid-friendly art books, and several other areas where knee-high visitors can explore other aspects of motion using blocks, wheels, spinning tops, and motion-based optical illusions.

If you want to visit without paying for the price of a MoMA ticket, come on Friday evenings, when museum admission (including access to the Lab) is free.

2. Heimbold Family Children’s Playing and Learning Center at Scandinavia House
I’ve written elsewhere that New York’s many cultural centers are among the city’s true underutilized treasures; organizations like Instituto Cervantes, The Mexican Cultural Institute of New York, Goethe House, and Japan Society are just a few of the dozens of institutes and organizations that offer rich cultural programming open to the public; many of the cultural institutes also have specific programming for families and children.

Scandinavia House (double bonus points for being a very short walk from Grand Central) may trump them all when it comes to offering families relief from winter chill, thanks to its Heimbold Family Children’s Playing and Learning Center. The play and education space is focused on sensory experiences that promote learning about Scandinavian culture, and the Center does an exceptional job of blending opportunities for physical activity (such as a “climbing corner”) with those for quiet or solitary activities, such as reading books or building with Legos.

Entrance isn’t cheap, and if you’re not a member of Scandinavia House, you can’t just show up any day of the week and hope to let your kid burn some energy. But what I like about the Center and the way in which it differs from the city’s many indoor play spaces is that parents can take turns watching and playing with their kids and seeing some of the exhibits or other features and programs of Scandinavia House. For us, that makes the price of admission worthwhile.

3. Swedish Cottage Marionette Theater

Swedish Cottage Marionette Theater in Central Park.
Swedish Cottage Marionette Theater in Central Park.

I’d been living in New York for nearly 15 years before I heard anything about the Swedish Cottage Marionette Theater, but earlier this winter, I learned about the theater via Mommy Poppins, and we took our daughter to see its holiday show. The experience could not have been more wonderful; the venue, which looks spacious from the outside, is actually pretty intimate inside, with a maximum capacity of around 100 audience members. We happened to snag seats right near the front and Mariel was enchanted by the marionettes. We were fascinated to learn more about the building’s history, which is detailed on the theater’s website:

“The cottage was originally constructed as a model pre-fabricated schoolhouse, and became Sweden’s entry in the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia. After the exhibit, Park co-designer Frederick Law Olmsted chose the rustic building for Central Park. After a string of diverse uses, the nature study center for children and an entomological lab… the cottage became headquarters in 1939 for the Parks Department’s Marionette Theater. The marionette company has long been known for its whimsical productions of classics like Peter Pan and Cinderella.”

The cottage is home to one of the last public marionette companies in the country, and after the holiday show run, other productions continue throughout the year. At least one show per day is offered daily, except Mondays.

4. New Victory Theater
Leave it to New York to have a theater where all the programming is devoted to kids. Yes, there are other children’s theaters throughout the country, but I doubt there are any that offer the variety of shows that New Victory has. Performances span the spectrum, from kiddie raves and breakdancing performances, to more “serious” shows that pair music and theater. Culturally, the shows are equally diverse. All in all, the New Vic treats kids as the niche audience they are.

As a parent, I love how much thought theater staff has put into both programming and planning logistics. First, it is the only performing arts place I know about that has shows for babies. At most other venues, creative life–at least as a spectator–doesn’t seem to start until at least two, but New Victory has shows for children as young as four months. Every show has a clear “by age” categorization so you can determine if the show is topically and developmentally appropriate for your kids. And though neither of my kids has special needs, I appreciate that New Victory has shows that are “autism-friendly,” and that they try to keep ticket prices “ridiculously affordable” (their words) compared to neighboring venues.

And finally, while my daughter (to my occasional dismay) loves ballerinas and princesses and Pinkalicious-type protagonists, I’m rather relieved that the New Vic manages to stay away from gender stereotypes and commercially popular characters that get plenty of air and stage-time elsewhere.

5. Bookstores
I realize that all of the preceding suggestions come at considerable cost, and with the winter we’ve had, it would be all too easy to go into hock (especially on the budget of a writer and photographer) if you wanted to keep your kids active outside the home with these activities. We alternate the “special” (read: more expensive) events with free ones and with plenty of less expensive, creative activities enjoyed at home.

Around the city, our go-to free spots are bookstores. A few we find especially kid-friendly are McNally Jackson, with its play house in a designated kids’ section (in addition to baby storytime, the store also has Saturday Storytime for 3-10 year olds and a Spanish Storytime for kids 2-6 each Thursday afternoon; it even has a Tumblr for kids!); the Barnes and Noble stores on Union Square and 86th and Lexington (their children’s and play sections are particularly large); and Scholastic, which has a life-sized version of The Magic Schoolbus where kids can play, read, or watch an episode of the TV show by the same name.

One of Posman's reading nooks.
One of Posman’s reading nooks.

Posman Books inside Chelsea Market also has a nice kids’ section, with a couple of comfy spots where kids can cozy up for a bit and read. Head directly across from Posman for a delicious hot chocolate at Sarabeth’s once they’re done reading; then, walk toward the east entrance of the market and let them throw as many pennies as you can spare into the well across from The Green Table.

We’d love to know what your go-to spots are around the city. Have you seen a show with your kids at Cry Baby Theater or do you have a favorite indoor kid-friendly gym? What museums excel with family-friendly programming? Share your favorites in the comments.

Welcome, Guardian readers

Text: Julie Schwietert Collazo
Photo: Francisco Collazo

Welcome to those of you who are finding your way here after participating in or reading the transcript of the recent Northeast US travel chat on The Guardian’s website.

As the author of the sixth edition of the travel guidebook Moon New York State (forthcoming in 2014), I was asked to be on the panel to talk about New York City and the enormous, diverse “Upstate”– everything north, east, and west of the city.

And oh, the city…. It really is as crazy and wonderful as you’ve heard….

The Naked Cowboy and Elmo in Times Square.
The Naked Cowboy and Elmo in Times Square.

I hope the chat provided valuable information that will help you plan your own travels. In case you missed them, here are links to some previous posts I’ve published here on the blog about my favorite places and activities in the city:

30 Free Things to Do in NYC

8 Ways to Stretch Your Travel Dollar in NYC

How to Travel to NYC with Kids

And a series of posts about overlooked places in NYC

Have questions? Feel free to email me at collazoprojects[at]gmail[dot]com.

How to Help Kids Become Experiential Travelers

Text: Julie Schwietert Collazo
Photos: Francisco Collazo

My daughter's Skymiles balance makes it easy to forget that for many kids, traveling is an entirely new--and foreign--experience.
My daughter’s Skymiles balance makes it easy to forget that for many kids, traveling is an entirely new–and foreign–experience.
It’s easy for me to take my adventurous globetrotting daughter for granted. Since experiential travel is her default travel style–she’s never known anything else– we don’t have to go out of our way to help her acclimate in a new environment by easing her into local culture via some familiar touchstone… like McDonald’s.

I forget, then, that most kids need some sort of bridge between their daily lives and all that’s familiar to them and a new place and new people, which, however exciting, can be incredibly disconcerting and anxiety-provoking.

A college friend who lives in Georgia recently had dinner with me here in New York. It was the end of a long, hot summer day touring her 11-year old niece and an 8-year old family friend around Manhattan. The girls’ whining had started early in the day. Couldn’t they just go back to the hotel to watch TV and jump on the bed? Couldn’t they go eat “Mexican food” at Moe’s? (Hey, at least they didn’t say Taco Bell!) (Answers: No, no, and no). My friend wanted the girls to really experience New York, but the girls’ dream itinerary involved a whole lot of activities that were already familiar to them from home.

Since she’s not their mother, she decided, smartly, that it was their trip; apart from dragging them to a few sites she felt they really couldn’t miss–the Statue of Liberty and the 9/11 Memorial–she’d suck it up and let them spend a day at the American Girl Store and Dylan’s Candy Bar, followed by Serendipity 3.

One more tip: Start early!
One more tip: Start early!
What can you do, though, if you are the parent and you want to help your children become experiential travelers? How can you create opportunities that will help them establish a tendency to be curious? How can you help them experience the new, not just reluctantly, but to seek it out?

Here are a few tips:

1. Foster curiosity at home.
Your child isn’t likely to feel comfortable enough to be curious away from home if he or she doesn’t feel safe or familiar with the concept of following his or her curiosity at home, where doing so is likely to be less threatening. Practicing at home, then, is the best way to prepare your child. There are hundreds of ways–really–to stimulate your child’s curiosity about the world, whether it’s the part of the world right outside their door, across the country, or on the other side of the globe.

Making and trying new foods (and, especially, involving them in the process of researching, planning, and cooking a meal with unfamiliar ingredients or dishes) is one way. Listening to unfamiliar music is another (if you don’t want to commit to buying a whole album, borrow a CD from your local library or just look for new music on YouTube or an online music service like Pandora or Spotify). Looking at maps and creating family travel wish lists (where does everyone want to go, and why?) are other ways to start getting your child to think beyond his or her own home turf.

2. Brief and debrief.
When traveling, it’s even more important than usual to help frame a day for your kids by helping them know what to expect at the beginning and to process what happened with them at the end. What was most memorable about the day? What did they see that was new? What did they enjoy the most? What did they like least?

3. Make memories.
Taking memories and turning them into tangible mementos of your experiences together helps whet a child’s appetite for more adventure, and you can make this part of the debriefing process of each day. Keeping a journal or scrapbook where your kids can paste tickets, menus, and stickers or where he or she can write and draw about favorite experiences helps cement the memory and keeps a visual track record of experiences. When kids look back on these tangible records at home, they are often reminded of the good feelings they experienced when they tried something new and they become eager to have a similar experience again.

4. Remember: Bargaining is not beneath you.
If your child truly seems reluctant to try a new activity when traveling–or to even leave cushy comfort of the hotel room– don’t be afraid to make a deal. You’ll take them, as my friend did, to the toy store or the restaurant that they’re dying to see if they first agree to see that historic site you wanted them to visit first. Keep your end of the deal, though, or your bargaining power will be considerably limited on your next trip.

What are your ideas for helping kids become experiential travelers? Let us know in the comments.

How to Travel to New York City with Kids

Text: Julie Schwietert Collazo
Photos: Francisco Collazo

When I was pregnant, dozens of people–most of them not seasoned travelers–took it upon themselves to inform me that I’d need to scale back my travel once our daughter was born. “It’s so hard to travel with kids,” they’d say, “especially a baby.” They cited a baby’s feeding and sleeping needs and the amount of gear “required” to support a child as the reasons why it made no sense to pack up a kid and hit the road.

Because I generally don’t follow unsolicited advice and because I know plenty of people who travel with kids without any problem, I ignored their warnings. I had a passport application filled out for her even before I went into labor, and by the time Mariel was two months old, we’d done a road trip to Boston and a flight to visit family in South Carolina. By the time she was three months, we were flying to St. Thomas. She was a study traveler and we experienced no problems.

If you’re worried that you can’t travel with kids, set the fear aside and just do it. Start small by taking a short domestic trip, or choose a city like New York, which makes traveling with kids easy. If you’re taking a flight to New York City, here are five tips for traveling with kids:

1. Don’t fear public transportation.
The cost of taxi rides can add up quickly, making a major dent in your travel budget. Buy an unlimited MetroCard to get the best transportation value in New York City. The unlimited MetroCard (sold in daily, weekly, or monthly increments) gives you access to the city’s subway trains and buses.

If you’re unsure how to travel from one station to another, the MTA has an online door-to-door trip planner that can help you. Plug in your departure and destination addresses and the system generates printable directions.

You can also use the MTA’s website to see which stations have elevators and/or escalators… important if you plan to take your baby or toddler underground in a stroller.

2. Get a good guide book.
Even if you’ve been to New York City before, visiting with a child presents new challenges and new opportunities. Pick up one of the many guide books that have been written especially with you and your kid in mind. There’s Fodor’s Around New York City with Kids, 4th Edition, Frommer’s New York City with Kids, and The Kid’s Guide to New York City, and many more.

Supplement your guide book finds with current information about events and activities on local websites and blogs. Mommy Poppins is a good one especially for kids and their parents; Newyorkology is more general, but also has lots of valuable event information.

3. Stretch your dollar with free activities.
It’s true that New York City is expensive, so stretch your dollar by sharing many of the city’s free activities with your child. Start with our list of 30 Free Things to Do in New York City.

4. Make a travel memory book.
Whether your child is an infant or an older toddler, making a travel memory book is a fun and special way to collect reminders of your trip. You can make your own memory book or purchase one from a local bookshop.

5. Meet local kids.
Take your child to a local playground (Union Square’s playground is brand new and spacious) or to an indoor recreational facility like Chelsea Piers’ Toddler Gym to get in some socialization with local kids.

Do you have a favorite tip for traveling with kids? Please share it in the comments below.