Eat Well on Vacation with Kids Without Breaking the Bank. Here’s How.

updated May 24, 2019
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(Image credit: Anya Brewley Schultheiss/Stocksy)

Hitting the road with kids in tow? You are in for an adventure! After 20 years of motherhood, I know that vacationing with children is not without its challenges, but I’m equally convinced that it’s worth the effort. We’ve found that getting outside our comfort zone provides us with huge bonding moments. (Even that time the takeout pizza took two hours to arrive at our Le Mans hotel, with hamburger on it instead of pepperoni, has found a treasured place in our collective memory.)

As I type, I’m packing up six kids for a month in Europe. For the second time. No, I’m not crazy. Or rich. In fact, the only way we’re able to swing such a travel endeavor is to do it on a budget. Here are 10 tips that help me and my family eat well and affordably while on the road.

1. Pack snacks and meals for the plane.

This probably goes without saying: Take food for the voyage. There’s no way you want to wrangle hungry and possibly whiny children (or partners?) while you wait for the flight attendants to arrive with their micro bags of peanuts.

Instead come prepared with snacks and perhaps a full meal for your crew to enjoy on the plane. Consider small sandwiches, veggie dippers, fresh or dried fruit, and granola bars. Buy a large bottle of water post-security and pack some instant drink powders if your people really need/want something flavored.

A Note on TSA Regulations

Obviously, you’ll need to abide by TSA regulations, but know that you can bring gel or liquid food items, such as applesauce, hummus, or guacamole. They just have to be packaged according to the TSA liquids rule — containers less than 3.4 ounces (100 milliliters) that can fit in the quart-sized bag with your other “liquids.” For instance, those applesauce pouches kids love are typically 3.2 ounces, which means as long as you pack them in your liquids bag they are allowed.

Another trick? Freeze these items in advance and use them as ice packs in your lunch cooler after you get past security. Which brings me to tip #2.

2. Take a cooler with you.

Soft-sided cooler bags are a boon to travelers. You can fill them with food for your journey, or fold them flat and empty in your carry-on or checked baggage and then use them to cart your own meals while you’re out and about.

My cooler bag serves as my personal item on the plane. There’s a side pocket for my wallet, etc. and a huge insulated compartment to stow our food. Once we arrive at our destination, it makes for a lightweight and incognito picnic basket.

Tip: When you can’t find ice overseas, peruse the frozen food section of the grocery store. You may find some reasonably priced items that can double as ice packs for the day and contribute to dinner in the evening.

3. Scope out the grocery stores in advance.

Scoping out your grocery shopping options in advance is super helpful in gauging your expenses and which essentials you should bring with you. If your travels are within the U.S., most local stores will offer you a peek at their sales. I also love how European grocery store chains post so much of their available items online along with prices and sales alerts.

Plus, if you’re going out of the country, you can figure out how to communicate what you want in the local lingo. We had a good chuckle with our teens about how chocolate milk is called “a milk shake” in England, with a brand called Shaken Udder of all things!

4. Cook your own food when you can.

When you have access to a kitchen during your travels, you know that you can prepare a meal that your kids will enjoy (probably) and that won’t cost you a fortune. If you’re not going too far afield, you can bring some freezer meals along so that you, too, can have a vacation from the kitchen. Bringing a slow cooker or Instant Pot on a domestic road trip can make it easy to cook your meals without having access to a full kitchen.

5. Make some cheap and easy meals even without a kitchen.

Over the years, my husband and I have built a repertoire of cheap and easy meals that work for us on the road. Whenever we can, we make our own meals so that we can offset the cost of eating out on the days when we can’t or don’t want to mess with groceries. Even if we don’t have a kitchen.

Sandwiches and snacky dinners are obvious options, but so are granola-yogurt parfaits and salads. If you find a grocery store with a full-service deli, bakery, etc., you’re more than set to eat well on a budget. Brainstorm a list of the convenience items you regularly pick up at your neighborhood market and consider if those will work on vacation.

(Image credit: Jessica Fisher)

6. Prepare to picnic!

Wherever we go, I always pack the appropriate utensils for picnicking. This includes a knife and cutting board, cleaning wipes, bottle opener, camping flatware, picnic blanket/tablecloth, dish sponge, dish soap, and a tea towel. I’ll also bring or buy plastic (reusable) plates, bowls, and cups.

Filling a small packing cube with our picnic supplies makes it so easy to eat on the go, allowing us to experience more sites at our leisure and save money while still eating nutritious fare.

7. Choose wisely when dining out.

When you have six kids, eating out can get expensive very quickly. I search Trip Advisor judiciously and find affordable options. Stateside, there are loads of deal sites to follow that regularly post restaurant deals. Coupon sites like Groupon can be a great source of restaurant specials, too. Just search for your destination location and see what’s available.

You may even be able to find similar options in other countries. Money Saving Expert shares restaurant deals for the U.K., as does Smart Canucks in Canada.

We’ll also peruse the menu beforehand so that we can choose what we know the kids will like and we can afford. Sometimes we do “kids meals”; sometimes we split plates among two kids. In the UK, we eat a lot of Pret-a-Manger — it’s good and cheap!

8. Don’t be shy about freebies.

Some restaurants will offer complimentary items for young children; don’t be shy about accepting these! They enhance the experience of all the travelers in your party. For instance, Starbucks in London provided our kids with free “babyccinos” – small steamers of milk and told the kids to help themselves to the cinnamon sugar and cocoa toppings. Fancy-pants treatment for free? Sign me up!

9. BYOB.

Bring your own water bottle to sites and attractions for your own convenience as well as savings. Those snack shops charge a pretty penny for just one small bottle! If you have access to a freezer, even if it’s a small dorm-sized one, fill it with water bottles the night before. The water bottles will do double duty as ice packs until they’ve melted enough for drinking.

(Image credit: Jessica Fisher)

10. Allow for one (or two) splurge meals at the end of your trip.

If you play your cards right, your budget will be sitting pretty by the end of your trip. When we ended our last European adventure, we treated ourselves to a splurge dinner out. Actually two. We knew we had economized well throughout our trip, so we thoroughly enjoyed our last two nights abroad. The kids still talk about those two dinners out as well as the fun grocery items we discovered while abroad, so we know we made some great memories.