Food and the travelling family

September 23, 2010 at 8:24 pm

From the beginning of time – well not really, just from when we had kids but it seems a long time ago – food and travel have been uncomfortable companions. I have to confess that food is not the easiest subject at home either, it’s just more complicated abroad, especially when there’s a language barrier as well.

For the record we have a normal, yet interesting food group. My daughter’s a vegetarian, but eats very few vegetables; my middle son is not, but won’t eat fish and only likes certain meat ( while he doesn’t particularly like chicken, he does love chicken pies); our youngest has his quirks – he eats a good variety of food, but is usually not hungry at mealtimes. As a consolation, my wife, Liora will try anything. I won’t even get onto me except to say that I’ve improved immensely over the years.

We’ve traveled a lot, to many countries on six continents, and there’s always that early nervy meal where you determine if you’ll be eating packets of soup and yogurt from the supermarket each day, or getting excited by the local fare (incidentally, we love foreign supermarkets and finding interesting items and surprises).

One thing I’ve learned in seventeen years of parenting (I like to think I must have learned something by now) is that if your kids are bored or unhappy, eventually you will be too. So you might as well find places to eat that they’re happy with. That doesn’t necessarily mean fast food or junk food places, but it does mean letting them  look carefully at the menu when deciding if you’ll be patronizing a particular place or not. In Antigua, Guatemala, the kids’ favorite place was Bagel Barn – old fashioned cream cheese on bagels was enough foreign food culture for them. (our favorite was Cafe Condesa where we’d sneak off in the break between Spanish lessons for coffee each morning; their cakes were wonderful too.) and then in 2007 when we were going to be in Asia for six weeks, the kids mutinied over noodles after about four days, and celebrated their triumph in Lijiang when they discovered a restaurant serving melted cheese sandwiches…

By Cafe Condesa in Antigua, around the corner from Bagel Barn

Sometimes you’ll be lucky or learn your way around. In Cartagena, Colombia, with our youngest son Benjy last year, we stumbled upon a small neighborhood place just down the road from our Spanish school. The daily lunch special – going for about $3 each – was a bowl of soup, a big main course of meat or chicken, and a delicious fruit drink, one of the city’s specialties. We liked the food so much we ended up eating every lunch that week of school (Monday through Friday) at the same place. Although you could say that’s pretty narrow thinking on our part, sometimes when you have a winning card, you should play it. Especially with children in 95 degree heat. (The big supermarket Exito was the best air-conditioned place of all we found in Cartagena so we stopped in several times a day. Especially after Benjy discovered little yogurt drinks with prizes inside.)

Benjy at dinner in Cartagena - only water this time

In Iceland, where the offerings on the road were quite slim because ‘towns’ are so tiny, we discovered that many places have a soup special – as much soup and bread as you like for a fixed price. As we spent most of our time freezing (it was summer and we probably expected too much of the weather), this was an answer to our prayers. Like when we arrived in Vik and couldn’t get out of the car it was raining so hard, that soup was fantastic. And it fortified us enough to go play on the black sand beach for a while in a howling gale mixed with unrelenting rain. And therein lies a double lesson for the travelling family. First find out what meals are less expensive in your destination (many countries have a fixed price lunch that tends to be very reasonable); then determine what you’re supposed to try wherever you are – in Portugal for example they are reputed to have 365 ways to cook bacalhau.

Miserable, cold day at Vik

Also, sometimes you’re going to have to work a little harder to find out what’s actually in a certain dish – don’t take it for granted. In Oaxaca once with friends, one of the kids ordered a hamburger which came with a piece of ham in the bun. The waiter was astonished we were even surprised. In Cozumel, Benjy ordered a grilled cheese (sandwich) and received a big piece of melted cheese.In Colombia, looking for grilled chicken, we ordered rice and chicken (instead of chicken and rice) and got a plate of rice with tiny pieces of chicken scrambled inside.

Maybe no grilled cheese sandwich in Cozumel, but the water's unbeatable so who cares ?

Like you I’m sure, we’ve had our share of thrills and spills and absolute mystery. In a small village in  Basque country of Spain in 2001, we just could not communicate with anyone, and had no idea of what we were ordering (it was fish, and very good). Later on the same trip, Ilani, then 5, enjoyed the calamari in Santiago de Compostela so much that by the time we started paying careful attention, he’d begun to choke and turn blue. One of those awful parent/child moments that seems to last a lifetime although it is over in 30 seconds. And then there are those unavoidable times, like being in the jungles of Tikal, Guatemala, and having a child who just cannot find anything to eat, with the next restaurant at least one flight away.

Tikal - not a lot of restaurants here for a picky eater

One of our family delights is to find bakeries or local ice cream to indulge ourselves. One of my all time favorites were the pasteis in Portugal; for the kids it has been paletas – frozen fruit popsicles – in Mexico. And the fruit drinks in Cartagena, Colombia were truly amazing. And recently, after our trip to South Africa (the most wonderful food and snacks), we were in Mozambique for a few days. In the beach village of Tofo, we discovered ‘Black and White’ – a hole in the wall shack with 3 menu offerings (chicken and rice, beef and rice, fish and rice). Don’t be put off by first impressions – for less than $2, we got a huge plate of the most delicious grilled chicken and rice, and would eat there every night if we could.

Tofo Beach Mozambique

(Please note, my brother has written a great piece about food in Turkey, having just returned after a great trip there with his family. Read it at

http://travelwithkidz.wordpress.com/2010/09/13/a-small-note-on-turkish-food-and-travel-with-kids/