A few years ago, my wife and I took our 4-year-old daughter and 18-month-old son on a 6-month adventure across Australia. We did this because I was writing two books about travel Down Under, and because we are insane.
Since our hard-earned experience might be of use to other parents, I thought I'd share some of the practical sections from my bestselling Australian book: 75 Must-See Places to Take the Kids (before they don't want to go). It might save your soul and sanity, and no matter how old your kids are, will likely make you laugh.
Food has always been a vital component of travel. Every meal is an opportunity to saviour new cuisines, sparking conversation and connection. It’s a special time to sit back, relax, and indulge. When you’re travelling with young children, forget all that.
The rule of thumb is that the more expensive the restaurant, the less likely your children will actually eat anything of nutritional value, and the more likely they will throw a full-tilt meltdown because their crayon isn’t the right shade of forest green.
The formula of your typical family travel meal:
Location: A small town restaurant with a fridge buzzing at an almost intolerable volume, but which the owners don’t seem to hear or mind. Air-conditioning a plus.
Enter: Family of four, two kids under five. After walking around looking for somewhere to eat for twenty minutes, if you even suggest finding somewhere else, your partner will call a divorce lawyer, or possibly, a hit man.
High Chair: Available in wood or plastic, with dried brown stains of mysterious culinary origin.
Kids Menu: All major food groups represented, including fried chicken nuggets, fried fish, hamburgers, frozen pizza, grilled cheese sandwiches, and most importantly, chips. Apple juice is from concentrate and somehow contains both sugar and high-fructose corn syrup.
Cost: Exactly one-third more than you’d expect to pay, but the kids’ meal comes with milk or apple juice, and that sounds healthy.
Order: Nuggets for the one kid, grilled cheese sandwich for the other. Order placed immediately to get the kids fed as soon as possible.
The Wait: Interminable. What are they doing, processing the fake cheese, looking for a bird to slaughter? Whines increase in volume and frequency until breaking point.
Length of time used up for washing hands: Twenty minutes convincing your kid to do it, eight seconds when they actually do.
Length of time used up for colouring books: Four minutes and twelve seconds, including one full minute of your two year-old chewing on the crayon before you notice.
Length of time used up for reading books: Forty-five seconds.
Length of time used up with apps on phone or tablet: No, don’t do it yet, wait until it gets really bad, or you need your hands to eat.
The Food Pt 1: As your kids will gladly explain in high-pitched screams to everyone within the zoning district, they now want hamburgers and pizza, not chicken nuggets and grilled cheese sandwiches. No amount of cajoling convinces them otherwise, including threats of starvation, boarding school, or withholding stuffies at night - all of which amounts to more punishment for you than for them. Eventually you order the pizza and hamburger and realize that yet again, your partner and yourself will be dining on chicken nuggets and grilled cheese sandwiches.
Reaction of Restaurant and Other Customers: A coin toss between heaven-sent patience (they have kids or grandkids) and barely contained annoyance (they don’t).
The Food Pt 2: Ignored by both kids since by now they have raided the crackers and fruit you carry in the snack bag, and they are no longer hungry. On the plus side, they had a healthier lunch than the restaurant menu anyway, plus you can always bag their food for later, when it can be enjoyed cold and soggy, just the way no kid on Earth likes it.
The Screen: OK, use it, do it, just get a few minutes to shove that terrible food into your face so you don’t become over-hungry and lose whatever patience you still cling to.
The Bill: Never comes quick enough, always costs more, and always makes you question why restaurants don’t put carrots, crackers and apple on their menus because that’s all kids want to eat anyway – at least until they see that on a menu, in which case carrots, crackers and apples will become instantly toxic.
Length of Ordeal: 30 to 45 minutes, during which time you can count on at least one potty break, one diaper change, one smashed toy, and possibly, a broken marriage.
Remember: sit back, relax, and indulge in the cultural connections of new cuisines.
There, isn’t that better?
During our journey, we ambitiously took our kids to some wonderful restaurants, especially around Melbourne and Sydney’s Darling Harbour. It was our sincere hope we’d be able to expand our kids’ culinary horizons, allowing them to graduate to mild spices and unusual dishes. How proud I was when my daughter sampled crocodile, emu and kangaroo meats at the Adelaide Central Market (she drew her understandable limits at sampling citrus-nutty green ants from the Northern Territory).
“This is dill-lish-shiss!” or a hearty “Mmmmmmm!” were not uncommon words out of her mouth. We definitely had memorable meals, although we often deployed the screen to keep the kids occupied long enough for all of us to enjoy it. Between eating in and eating out, it’s important to treat yourselves every once in a while and budget a little extra for good food. At the end of the day, good food keeps you healthy, if the kids are behaving, meals can indeed be the highlight of the day.
Tip: We found food delivery services to be a family travel revelation, combining the ease of going out with the ease of staying in.
Wherever possible, we preferred preparing our own meals in our holiday park cabins, Air Bnb’s and rental apartments. Even though we had to shop, cook and clean up, dinners are just simpler at home. We can feed the kids meals they’d actually eat, keep ourselves conveniently close to bathtubs, toys, paper towels, toilets, and TV shows on ABC Kids. Always on the move, we travelled with a box of condiments and staples, pickings up fresh produce wherever we went (our kids are constantly snacking on fruit and vegetables, which are abundant and excellent in Australia). Breakfasts are particularly important, and given our schedule, were often rushed. Cereal, smashed avocado toast, Uncle Toby’s porridge, Milo, eggs… and out the door.
Lunches were usually eaten out, hence the overflow of nuggets, sandwiches and chips, with pies coming to the rescue on more than one occasion. Home cooking have given our kids a taste for asparagus, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, mushrooms, and other vegetables I rejected as a child. Butter, lemon, salt and garlic pretty much saves the day with every veggie, along with olive oil and balsamic vinegar. Our kids love butter chicken, schnitzel, warm bread to dip into olive oil, hummus, and absolutely anything to do with cheese. Don’t they all? We didn’t always have time to prepare elaborate meals, but did have some go-to dishes, and pasta or rotisserie chicken available always in a pinch. There’s much to be said for the quality of packaged meats, chicken and salads available from supermarkets these days. In our household, Dad does the cooking, Mom does the baking, and everyone cleans up. There were occasional BBQ’s but unless you’re travelling with your own, they’re often a pain to clean up.
If you need to make omelettes for dinner, do it. If you need to eat leftover chicken for breakfast, do it.
Do whatever you need to, because any food in the belly pays dividends when you avoid hangry meltdowns in an hour or two.
Bon voyage and bon appetit!
Please come in. Mahalo for removing your shoes.
After many years running a behemoth of a blog called Modern Gonzo, I've decided to a: publish a book or eight, and b: make my stories more digestible, relevant, and deserving of your battered attention.
Here you will find some of my adventures to over 100 countries, travel tips and advice, rantings, ravings, commentary, observations and ongoing adventures.