Mealtimes are chances for traveling families to sample regional character and flavor. Finding inspired dining spots takes time and effort. But the rewards are often experiences to savor. Just ask Ken Haedrich, a travel and food writer, cookbook author, and father of four from Rumney, New Hampshire.
On a recent drive through Vermont, Haedrich stopped with his family at Curtis’ Barbeque, a font of local color and down-home flavor just off the interstate near Putney. The food was good, and the proprietor works out of two blue buses and keeps a pet pig.
“The kids loved it,” says Haedrich. “They all had their picture taken with the pig. It was the highlight of the trip.”
Haedrich doesn't stumble across such places by accident, though. Rather, he researches promising stops for meals before leaving home. “I try to find places that interest both [parents and kids],” he says.
Margaret Engel seeks out old restaurants, the mom-and-pop places that have been around 20 or 30 years and where the locals go for Sunday dinner. “There’s creativity and imagination in what they serve,” says the Washington, D.C.-area writer and mother.
Menus at such establishments can be relied on for wholesome (even homemade) foods, says Engel. Absent is the unhealthy troika of pizza, chicken fingers, and grilled cheese sandwiches that are common on kids menus at lackluster restaurants, says Engel.
Regional foods are a particular favorite for Engel. To research the Fodor’s guidebook Ballpark Vacations, she spent two summers crisscrossing the States by car with her daughter Emily, 12, and son Hugh, 9, and husband and co-author Bruce Adams. During their travels, they sampled grilled abalone in San Jose, California; fresh corn squirted with lime in Chicago; and loganberry juice in Buffalo, New York.
“Food is a good way to learn geography,” says Engel. “I think kids really remember a sense of place. If they didn’t remember the ballpark or the state capitol, they might remember the unusual cranberries they had in Salem.”
For car trips, Ken Haedrich packs snacks that aren’t messy, like bagels (which don’t crumble), vegetable sticks such as carrots and celery (which aren’t sticky), and water (which won’t stain if spilled). Sugary snacks, which wind kids up, are altogether verboten.
Village parks and college greens make good stops for picnics. “There’s room for kids to run around. You can’t really do that in a fast food restaurant parking lot,” says Ken Haedrich.
Limiting your kids to one drink (other than water) can keep the final bill in check. Ken Haedrich asks his waiter or waitress to bring the drinks when the food is served.
Ethnic restaurants are often happiest to see children, says Candy Sagon, a mother and food writer for the Washington Post. One bonus: “There’s always something that’s fairly bland or simple, noodles or rice that even the pickiest child would like to eat.”
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