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.

Letting the Travel Magic Happen

“Get out the map, get out the map
and lay your finger anywhere down.
We’ll leave the figuring to those we pass
on the way out of town….”
-Indigo Girls, “Get Out the Map”

It may come as a surprise to you that a writer whose work is primarily about travel, often travels without a plan, but such is the case. I was not always this way–-and am not always this way now; when I’m on assignment, for example, preparation and planning are key to maximizing limited time and what is typically a shoestring budget. But more and more frequently, I’m noticing that the Type A personality who has accompanied me (ok, let’s be honest, defined me) for more than 30 years of my life is finally loosening her grip a little. She’s able to get in the car with a map and a destination in mind, but she often hasn’t gotten far beyond that.

Maybe this comes with travel experience (I have lots of it now). Maybe it comes with age (I’m inching ever-closer to 40). Maybe it’s part and parcel of being married and having kids, though I think most people who fall into that category tend to swing in the other direction: those who were never planners suddenly become extremely detail-oriented, thinking (mostly erroneously, I’ll be presumptuous enough to say) that if they just plan well enough, their trips will go off without a hitch. (Heh.)

Me, I’m mostly content to get out the map and go these days. Travel-wise, there’s nothing worse, in my mind, than having a well-researched plan and not being able to execute it to expectation, so I’ve been trying to embrace ambiguity instead, letting what comes, come.

In other words… letting the travel magic happen.

Yesterday, we left the city around 11, headed north for Olana. Once the home of Hudson River School artist Frederic Church, the massive house, whose design was inspired by Church’s travels in the Middle East, is now a state historic site. I’d read about it and fact-checked it while working on the New York State guidebook, but our travels through that area had not coincided with Olana’s schedule, so we had never seen the storied mansion (or, as Mariel prefers to call it, “the castle on the hill”). Still, it remained on our list of good day-trip destinations.

Olana (or, as Mariel says, "the castle on the hill.")
Olana (or, as Mariel says, “the castle on the hill.”)

I’d managed to print out bad driving directions from Mapquest and I’d confirmed that the house was open for guided tours Friday-Sunday only, but that’s about as much planning as I’d done. By the time we reached Olana, there was an hour left before tours ended for the day, except, as one couple informed us, somewhat apologetically, as we hauled a baby stroller, our backpacks, and a lunch bag out of the car, the house was closed for the Easter holiday.

When you’ve traveled a couple hours with kids, even kids who are really, really good travelers, the thought of clambering back into the car and spending two more hours behind the wheel is terribly unappealing, so Francisco set up his tripod to take house and landscape photos while Mariel busied herself making introductions to anyone else in eyesight and earshot who might be interested in playing with her. I plopped Orion down on a patch of grass flooded with sun and let him get to the important eight-month-old business of crawling.

Orion inspecting the grass. and finding it good.
Orion inspecting the grass. and finding it good.

Other visitors arrived, surprised and maybe a little disappointed to learn that no tours were being given. No one, though, was in a huff; the day was just far too beautiful to be annoyed. We met a couple from Long Island–-a photographer and a preservationist–-and enjoyed a long conversation with them. Mariel met a family with four kids and spent nearly three hours blowing bubbles, flying kites, and playing princesses and puppies. Orion made a close inspection of the grass and deemed it good enough for napping.

Here’s the thing: none of this would have happened had the house been open. We’d have hurried in to join the last tour group of the day, and likely would have made tracks back to the car after the tour. Maybe we’d have exchanged pleasantries with the same people we met, but we probably wouldn’t have had quality conversations or hours of unplanned, unhurried play time. As I lay in the grass and watched Francisco chatting with a couple of fellow photographers and enjoyed seeing Mariel run on the hill overlooking the Hudson with her newfound friends, I thought to myself that there couldn’t be a more perfect day (When I said to this to Francisco, he was quiet for a second and then said, “Well, we could win the lottery, too. THAT would make it really perfect.”).

Sure, Francisco and I would have liked seeing the inside of Olana and learning more about it. But I think we ended up enjoying the day we had–the one that was entirely unplanned–even more. It was a valuable lesson to me: sometimes it’s ok to let go and just let the magic happen.

Public Service Announcement: Mexico Copper Canyon Trips

My friend, the writer and fellow Mexi-phile Zora O’Neill, tipped me off to two upcoming iterations of a trip to and through Mexico’s Copper Canyon that sounds spectacular, and she said I could share the information for folks who might be interested:

Copper Canyon

This is an area of Mexico I don’t know at all (yet!) but have long wanted to visit, so if you go, I’d love to hear about your experience.

Why Would Anyone Go to Suriname?: A Video Addendum

My long-form article about tourism development in Suriname was published simultaneously by Roads + Kingdoms and Slate.com recently, provoking anger from Surinamese readers, who felt I portrayed their country in a negative light.

The focus of the article was on Desi Bouterse, the country’s president, who has an extensive history of human rights abuses and criminal violations, and my point was this: anyone who has a history of such disregard for human life and the law will inevitably be a detriment to his country’s efforts to attract tourists.

Surinamese readers wanted to know why I didn’t mention any of the positive qualities of their country– they assumed I hadn’t seen or experienced any, and that I was, in one person’s words, “just another irresponsible North American journalist” hating on a developing country.

There are many reasons why I would go to Suriname again and why I think many travelers should, too. Here are some of them.^

^I shot all of this video when I was in Suriname in April 2012.

How We Do Family Travel on a Budget

Text: Julie Schwietert Collazo
Photos: Francisco Collazo
Since this time last week, we’ve been traveling around Puerto Rico on several work assignments. Covering a lot of ground with two kids during the island’s high season is no small feat, especially on a tight budget.

Mariel on the beach in Vieques, Puerto Rico.
Mariel on the beach in Vieques, Puerto Rico.

Here are some of the ways we’ve been stretching our dollars:

1. We bought one-way tickets.
Given that we were traveling to the Caribbean over a holiday, flights were going to be a big-ticket item for this trip, so we compared round-trip and one-way ticket prices. Though there was a wild-card element about the cost of the return flight, our gamble paid off and our tickets ended up being about $400 cheaper than they would have had we bought round-trip tickets. Remember that flight prices tend to be lower on Tuesdays, so try to book on that day. (And if you have kids and you’re booking through Expedia, use Upromise.com as your launch pad so you can get 6% back on your purchase; the funds are funneled to your child’s 529 savings account. I’ve written a more comprehensive piece about that here.)

2. We packed our own car seats.
The average daily rate a rental car company charges for car seats is $11 each. That’s $22 a day for two kids. Multiply by seven days and you get $154. Yes, they’re cumbersome when you’re getting them to and through the airport, but otherwise, but bringing your own car seats will save you money. They’ll save you time, too; since you already know how to install your own car seats, you won’t have to figure out another system.

3. We brought our own snacks.
Plane snacks and car snacks for road trips; these will help you contain costs and keep you healthier. We like to pack fruit and granola bars, mixed nuts, cheese sticks, crackers, and apple sauce. We also pack instant oatmeal, an inexpensive and fast breakfast. All of these pack well and take up little space in luggage.

4. We do our own laundry.
Well, I shouldn’t say “we”; the truth is, Francisco is the one doing the washing. Each night, he takes about 20 minutes to wash our clothes in the sink or bathtub. He’ll hang them up to dry in the room; if they’re still damp in the morning, we’ll lay them out in the back of the car to sun dry.

5. We eat brunch rather than breakfast and lunch.
Three meals for four people every day can be a big line item on the travel budget, especially if you like eating well. We’re not into deprivation at all, but by the time we’re awake and have both kids dressed and ready to go, it’s usually time for brunch anyway, so we take advantage and eat a larger meal in that period between breakfast and lunch. It usually holds us until dinner.

Family portrait in San Juan, Puerto Rico.
Family portrait in San Juan, Puerto Rico.

6. We don’t order alcohol.
The average price of a cocktail here is $16. If two adults have just one drink, they’ve already exceeded the cost of an entree. If we want to drink, we buy a bottle of wine and uncork it in our hotel room before or after dinner.

7. We don’t pay for WiFi.
We stay at properties where WiFi is included. $12-25 a day for WiFi is an easy way for a hotel to make an extra buck, but not at our expense.

8. We don’t put down a credit or debit card for “incidentals.”
Like being charged for WiFi, being asked for a credit or debit card to cover “incidentals” is a practice that I find really annoying, especially because the hold on your card ties up funds you’d otherwise have at your disposal, and it can take up to a week or longer for the hold to be released. I’ve been refusing to put down a card for incidentals (which we never use anyway) and if I’m met with protest, I’ll put down cash instead and make sure it’s returned upon check-out.

What are ways you save money when traveling? Share your tips in the comments.