Travelling with fussy eaters can be a challenge but, as parent Kristin Reinhard explains, visiting places with an unfamiliar cuisine can also be part of the answer.
I have a love-hate relationship with the chicken nugget. On one hand, as a parent to a bunch of picky eaters, the chicken nugget is a lifesaver. A plate of golden nuggets – ideally served with crispy French fries – not only refuels my kids on the ski slopes of Switzerland, but has also helped to avoid meltdowns in transit at Singapore's Changi Airport, and satisfied a case of the afternoon munchies beachside in France.
However, as much as chicken nuggets have helped me in tricky situations, they have also become a crutch for everyone in my family, especially when we travel.
Our default mealtime option appears on kids' menus all over the world. Both restaurateurs and parents alike know that if chicken nuggets are available, there will be no mealtime meltdowns – a win-win for us all. I am embarrassed to admit that this foodie has all too often sacrificed a good meal in favour of playing it safe; choosing peace over potential drama with a restaurant that serves these golden parcels, instead of somewhere that would appeal to my more developed palate.
The battle of the chicken nugget is real. Or it was, until we visited Portugal.
The lure of warm weather and lazy beach days had us spending 10 days under the bright blue Portuguese sky. We travelled with friends who are well acquainted with the stretch of sand from Faro to Quarteira, so we left most of the holiday decisions up to them. Our daily routine involved going to the beach in the morning, then the pool in the afternoon, and eating plenty of delicious local food in between. Their kids, however, are not under the spell of the chicken nugget, so we ended up in restaurants we would never have risked on our own.
Portugal seems to do things a little differently. I rarely saw a chicken nugget let alone a separate kids' menu. If there's even a hint of a chicken nugget in a restaurant, you can be sure that it doesn't cater to locals. It seems that Portuguese parents expect their kids to eat just as they do: fresh seafood, charcoal-grilled chicken and simple green salads graced the tables of our fellow diners.
There really is a world out there where the chicken nugget doesn’t exist!
At first, the absence of my version of kid-friendly meals caused me to break into a sweat. What on earth would my children eat? I braced for tantrums at each restaurant but, as the days stretched on, we all let go of the 'chicken nugget crutch' and the kids – to my great surprise –started to try new foods. No matter where we were, we always found a solution. Sure, sometimes it was simply spaghetti, or just fries, but at other times it included amêijoas (clams), frango assado (Portuguese BBQ chicken) and bifanas (traditional pork sandwiches). Insert parental high-fives under the table here.
And do you know what? Our picky eaters not only survived – they thrived! Almost daily, they had to push out of their comfort zone and try something new in the name of hunger – something that never would have happened if chicken nuggets were on the menu. I am pleased to announce that they left Portugal a whole lot less picky than when they arrived.
Chicken nuggets are no longer the filter through which we choose our restaurants. Instead we dare search for authentic local cuisine. Back at home, I've proudly added bifanas onto our family meal plan, and the general attitude has changed to being more willing to try something new. Although it has taken a while to get out of the habit of selecting a restaurant based on whether it has a kids' menu, we are now more likely to choose something we as parents will enjoy, and trust we will find something for our (less) pickier kids.
While travel hasn't solved our problem with fussy eating entirely, it has taught us all a big lesson: when chicken nuggets aren't an option, we are all going to be a lot more adventurous.
Visiting Portugal soon with your own picky eaters? Give these dishes a try.
Frango assado: Portuguese BBQ chicken is famous the world over for a reason: it's delicious! Our favourite? Marufo 1 close to Quarteira.
Bifana: The Portuguese answer to a steak sandwich. This is my pickiest eater’s favourite and has become a much loved addition to our family meal plan: thin pork steaks, marinated in paprika, bay leaves, white wine, salt and plenty of garlic, pan-fried and served between two slices of bread.
Amêijoas à Bulhão Pato: If clams were available, we had them to start every single meal. Clams became the main meal for our more adventurous picky eater and has resulted in her trying other seafood including lobster and mussels.
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