Family vacations are about forgetting the every day worries, but that doesn’t mean your kids should be eating chicken nuggets and ice cream at every meal, says nutritionist and owner of Eat Good Nutrition, Helen Piper. But how can you know which items on a standard kids’ menu are acceptable and which ones to avoid? Are fish and chips better than a pizza? Helen tells suitcases&strollers her travel tips and tricks for maintaining healthy eating for kids when on family vacation.

How can parents get their children to eat vegetables when you are on family vacation and you can't (for instance) "hide" them in the sauce?

Always order some sort of side salad or vegetables from the menu for the family to share, encouraging your child to try something new while on holidays.

When it comes to pizzas and chicken nuggets, try to order margherita or vegetarian pizzas, avoiding processed meats, as these are often really high in salt.

I’d avoid the fried foods where possible, establishing the idea that it’s not an “every day” food but more so something that’s OK every now and then.

A typical restaurant kids menu consists of homemade chicken nuggets, pizza, spaghetti bolognaise, fish and chips and hot dogs. Most of these are served with fries. Which of these is the healthiest? 

The idea is to choose foods/meals that are the least processed where possible. The further away a food gets from it’s natural state, the more salt, sugar, fat and additives it has to preserve it and make it taste so good.

Pizza and spaghetti bolognaise are your best choices as they at least have some nutritional qualities. As mentioned earlier, try to choose pizzas with cheese, vegetable and tomato sauce toppings and hope that the bolognaise sauce is made with a few chopped up vegetables!

Avoid the fish and chips, hot dogs and chicken nuggets where possible, as they’re generally high in saturated fat and salt.

If however, you get a chance to speak to a waiter or the chef and you know that the fish is grilled or the chicken nuggets are baked, these are OK on the odd occasion.

[For more travel tips on identifying healthy foods on kids’ menus, see the suitcases&strollers interview with food guru Annabel Karmel.]

Vegetables in restaurants can also often be limited to mashed potatoes and steamed vegetables covered in salt and butter. Is it worth ordering these so that the kids at least get some veg?

Yes, it’s always worth getting vegetables, even in such a state! You can always ask for steamed vegetables to be served without butter and salt, instead adding your own olive oil and salt and pepper at the table. Ordering salads with the dressing on the side is also a good idea. In some countries where portion sizes are super-sized, order main meals to share with some salad/vegetable sides and you will find you and your children will be more than satisfied.

[For travel tips on how to eat in expensive restaurants with kids, see the suitcases&strollers story here.] 

Will stocking up and getting the kids to eat more fruit on holidays make up for a lack of vegetables for a few days? 

The reason it’s recommended we eat more vegetables than fruit is because that whilst the vitamin and mineral contents are similar, fruit has a higher sugar content. That said, however, if a child is happy to eat fruit and it is more available than veg on holidays, by all means, choose the fruit over the chocolate or potato chips!

Fruit juice is something nutritionists often don't recommend for kids because of the high sugar content. Is it a good idea to give juice to kids on holidays so they are at least getting some vitamins?

Yes, that’s right, we don’t generally recommend fruit juice. Fruit juice does contain vitamins and minerals however the fibre is mostly lost. It’s easy to have, say, four oranges in a glass of juice where you’d normally just have one. I’d still only recommend drinking water throughout the day and no more than one cup of fruit juice.

Is having an ice cream every day on a family beach holiday really problematic? How much ice cream is too much?

For you or for your children?! So long as your family is eating a fairly healthy and balanced diet whilst on holidays and ice cream isn’t replacing your vegetable intake, one scoop – in a cup, without toppings – a day isn’t going to be too bad for you. It’s important to establish the idea of “real” foods, like ice cream, by having just one scoop and explaining that it is a special treat whilst on holidays and it’s not going to become a habit when you return home.
As an adult, if you’re conscious of not gaining holiday weight, you could limit your ice-cream intake to every second or third day, remembering that they do have ice-cream at your local supermarket at home and it’s not your last chance to ever try it again!

When traveling with kids to developing countries sometimes it is more convenient to pack UHT milk. Does UHT milk have the same nutritional qualities as fresh milk?

UHT or long-life milk is a perfectly fine substitute to fresh milk when travelling or when at home. It contains all the nutritional qualities of fresh milk and contains no additives or preservatives. The difference between fresh and long-life milk is the method of processing. Fresh (pasteurised) milk is heated to 74°C for 15 seconds and long-life (UHT) milk is heated to 140°C for two seconds and then packaged aseptically. The increased temperature at which long-life milk is treated means there’s a greater reduction in bacteria and heat-resistant enzymes in comparison to milk that undergoes pasteurisation – this is what gives it an extended shelf life. 

Are there any products or foods you recommend parents take on holidays to ensure the kids are getting a balanced diet or should they just go with the flow? 

The idea of a holiday is to enjoy some free time without the stresses of every day home life. If you have the opportunity to stock up on pre-cut vegetable sticks, packets of mixed raw nuts and pieces of fresh fruit from a supermarket close to your accommodation, that’s great.

Otherwise, as I’ve mentioned, just be conscious of your main meals and try to order things that are the least processed as possible and come with vegetables or a salad.

Consider how much you want your holiday to affect you when you return home – do you want to have holiday weight that you’ll need to shed or do you want your children in a habit of having nuggets and chips for dinner each night? Probably not.

What are some travel-friendly snacks parents should pack when traveling with kids? 

Pick up raw nuts, tubs of yoghurt, grainy crisp breads and slices of cheese and fresh pieces of fruit or vegetables like carrots, celery and cucumbers from supermarkets or grocers when you can. Having these healthy snacks on hand is great for your health and can save you money for more activities or souvenir shopping!

[For more travel tips on travel-friendly foods, see the suitcases&strollers story here.] 

What are your top 3 recommendations for ways to ensure kids are getting a balanced diet while on vacation? 

1. Make sure children eat a good breakfast that includes a mixture of wholegrain cereals, dairy and fruit and vegetables where possible. 

2. Drink mostly water throughout the day. Even if you need to buy bottled water, this saves you and your children consuming extra kilojoules from sugar-sweetened beverages like soft drinks, fruit juice and iced tea. 

3. Always order a side of vegetables at meal times and remember: to encourage your children to eat vegetables, lead by example. 

For more travel tips on introducing kids to foreign foods, see the suitcases&strollers interview with celebrity chef Emmanuel Stroobant.