Travel with kids
by Naomi Duguid; pictures: Arantxa Osnaya
We live in a time when we can hop on a plane, travel across time zones, and drop ourselves into different countries, climates, and cultures. All it takes is money for the ticket, a little time, and some confidence.
But many people assume their travel days are over once they have children. It’s not just the cost of the extra ticket, in fact that’s rarely the essential problem. Instead it’s fear: will the child be at risk in a foreign country? Is it safe? And of course friends and grandparents are likely to chime in with their doubts: “But you’re surely not going to take Maria and Ricky to Morocco/India/Vietnam! They might get sick!” And everyone wonders, “what will they eat?”
For the last thirty-plus years I’ve been writing about food as an aspect of culture. My ex-husband and I worked together for twenty years, until 2008, and produced six books of food and culture, including Flatbreads and Flavors, and Hot Sour Salty Sweet. Our research involved a lot of sustained travel, much of it in Asia. In that time we raised two kids, who are now in their late twenties. Early on, when the elder one was just a baby, we decided we wanted to take him travelling with us. And that became our pattern, to travel as a fmaily once a year for work, and then make other research trips separately.
People often ask me about travelling with kids, how difficult it is, what to do about school, how to feed them in faraway places. They’re always worried.
I’ve concluded that the biggest danger for people who want to travel with children is fear. How to deal with those fears? I think the best way is to practice: Start travelling with your kids when they are very small, before they can tell that you’re worried. The easiest time is before they can crawl, for then you are in complete control of their environment. And having practiced child travel early, you will feel more relaxed as they get older.
On the other hand I admit that we didn’t take that advice with either of our kids. We spent four moths travelling with our older child in Thailand, Laos, and Vietnam when he was two. And we took our younger child Tashi to Morocco when he was still breast-feeding and barely past his first birthday. Tashi weaned himself one day while we were in Tafraoute, in southern Morocco, and the next day he started walking. Even though for first couple of weeks of the trip he was crawling, exploring floors and the dirt in an olive grove, and more, he was never ill, and in fact seemed to thrive on it.
In the next ten years we took the kids with us to India (Bengal and Kerala, Rajasthan, Gujarat, and Goa), briefly to Nepal and Sri Lanka, at length to northern and central Laos and all over Thailand, and also to Yunnan in China. Each trip involved basing ourselves in a few places and settling in to try to understand local food culture and agriculture.
And how did we deal with food for the kids on the road when they were small? Most importantly we tried to not worry about it. We always had a back-up jar of peanut butter, in case we ever got food-stranded, but we never once had to bring it out (and the kids never knew it was there).
We relied entirely on what was available locally and it always worked well for us. Children can sense when you are anxious, and they respond to that. So we tried to be matter of fact and practical. Most places we travelled were rice cultures or bread cultures, or both. We knew that if there was rice or bread or noodles, then the kids would have at least one thing they’d eat. And from there we’d figure it out. For example, when we were in Muang Sing, in Northern Laos, the kids were just turned six and nine. The food was a mix of Lao and Chinese, for the village is right near the Chinese border and there was a lot of cross-border trade. We could find rice noodles, simple soups and broths, stir-fried vegetables…and there was even a little shop that sold candies that became the kids’ after-supper treat. Eating out in Laos had other rituals and treats: We got into the habit, when we were at a little restaurant or café, of giving money to one of the kids, usually the younger one, so that he could go and pay the bill. It gave him a role, and a sense of importance and confidence.
Many foreigners think of India as a place where tourists inevitably get sick. It doesn’t have to be that way. Our rule of thumb was to avoid meat and to search out freshly cooked food from small cafes or on the street. It’s a good strategy. Find the basics of the cuisine, and the simple classic street foods, and you’ll keep your children fed and happy. They will end up eating deep-fried banana fritters, and other fried foods that you might not choose for them at home. But as long as they’re eating, and the food is hot and freshly cooked, they’ll be content, and the food will very likely not make them sick.
If you head out travelling to faraway places with your children, you may also be hoping that it will broaden their palates as well as their world view. Yes it may, but don’t count on it!
Because my children came travelling to Asia a lot, and because I write cookbooks, people sometimes say to me “Your kids must eat everything!” Well, not at all, I’m afraid. I tease them about their food inflexibiltiies, which can be a hassle when they are home for a visit. This one doesn’t like onion, that one doesn’t like sweet vegetables such as squash or cooked carrot. Neither of them likes seafood or fish of any kind, or lamb or eggs. On the other hand, they eat most vegetables, and cooked beans and dals, as well as breads, rice, millet, and polenta. And they can cook for themselves. More importantly still, they’re not paranoid about food. They can laugh about their likes and dislikes.
I think that ease is because we never had food arguments when they were growing up, either at home or on the road. My approach was to encourage them to try things, and to be truthful with them. I’d say "Try this, I think you might like it” or in some cases, “Have a taste if you want, but I’m not sure you’ll like it.” Sometimes they’d surprise me by liking a new food. Other times they’d reject something I thought they’d appreciate.
But it didn’t matter either way. The important thing was that I didn’t try to coerce them to eat things they didn’t like. There were no food wars.
In the end it’s up to you: Both food and travel can be an open-ended adventure, or they can feel full of pitfalls and problems. If you start out optimistically with children, both at the home table and on the road, then you’ll have wonderfully interesting adventures, all of you. Bon voyage!