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Hangry Children on Vacation: How to Deal with Food Aversion on Your Family Vacation

Nicole Thibault

For most, vacations can be a Foodie's dream.  Getting to try new cuisines and tasty treats from other parts of the world. Adults and children alike love to sample new dishes and delight in experimenting with new flavors that are not readily available at your own dining room table.

That is unless you have a child with Food Aversions.

(I know that adults and children with food allergies also face uphill battles when it comes to finding safe foods, but this article addresses something completely different.)

What is a Food Aversion?

Many kids struggle with Food Aversion, but it's very common in children with Special Needs, like Autism and Sensory Processing Disorder. Because of their heightened sense of smell and taste, the child will self-limit their food choices. It's not just being a Picky Eater; having Food Aversion takes picky eating to a whole new level.

And no, this is not a case of "When the child gets hungry enough, he/she will eat it." I speak from experience  when I say that kids with Food Aversions would rather starve themselves than eat something that is not in their familiar repertoire of foods.

I once tried to go gluten-free with my son with Autism. Because the bread smelled different, the chicken nuggets had a different texture, he lost 5 pounds in a week. He was so hangry, his behaviors became unbearable and we had to abandon the gluten-free diet all together.

So how does a parent deal with extreme Food Aversion when on a family vacation? Other than just staying home and never traveling, or packing familiar foods in a cooler for the entirety of the trip, here are a few suggestions for those families with children with Food Aversions:

  1. Do have familiar foods on hand while you're on vacation. Whether you stuff your child's favorite fruit snack in your luggage between your socks and shirts, or whether you have a grocery delivery service bring fresh foods and/or you have Amazon deliver a box full of your child's favorite dry goods to your resort room, be sure to have at least a few "sure thing" foods available.
  2. Find a resort with a kitchen. Many parent struggle with this; they don't want to be a slave to cooking and cleaning while on vacation, but they also don't want behavior meltdowns because their child is literally starving. Perhaps a combination of dining in and eating out is the answer. One meal can be a constant dining-in situation, with your child's favorite waffles or chicken nuggets from the grocery delivery service, but you can attempt other meals out at your destination's many restaurants.
  3. Choose a meal for your restaurant outing where you'll have the most luck. Dinners in a restaurants can bring lots of different smells that may offend the noses of your Food Aversion kid, like garlic, seafood, spices and more. But breakfast often smells like donuts, pancakes and all sorts of yummy foods, and you might have better luck getting your child with Food Aversion to tolerate the restaurant and find something on the menu to try.
  4. Research, research, research. Whether you use a Special Needs Travel Agent, or you do your own research, be sure to check out the menus of possible restaurants ahead of time. You can view most restaurant menus online, and compile a list of acceptable restaurants where you KNOW your child will eat SOMETHING from the menu.

Is this going to solve all of your child's Food Aversion problems while on your family vacation? Probably not all of them, no. There will always be food issues for those children with extreme Food Aversions. On a trip many years ago, I had done all of my research ahead of time, and knew that a restaurant served Grilled Cheese sandwiches, an accepted food choice for my son. But when it came, OH NO, it came on focaccia bread! With spices on top of the bread! This resulted in an hour-long stand-off about eating it, to which I finally decided that this was not the way I wanted to spend my vacation, battling wills over a grilled cheese, and we walked out and continued on our day.

But making sure your child has a full belly while on vacation is one good way to head off the dreaded vacation meltdown. The fun and memories made should take priority, not dealing with a hangry child!


Nicole Thibault is the owner of Magical Storybook Travels, a travel agency that specializes in Family Travel and Travel for Families with Special Needs. She's also the owner of Spectrum Travel Social Story Videos, a production company that creates travel social story videos for children with Autism, anxiety, and other Special Needs.