Let Your Kids Eat Treats on Vacation

Illustration: Hannah Buckman

I get a lot of emails from people asking me to write about the crowded world of kid-food influencers and their power over the stressed parents of picky eaters. I will never write about kid-food influencers. To do so would be to rob myself of the joy of writing this column. I don’t care about that shit. I don’t care about feeding children the rainbow. I did my time in that life stage, and I didn’t like it. Now my kids are older, and I don’t rent my clothes over their diets.

What I care about now is sharing the pleasure of eating, and this is one of the best parts of vacationing with kids.

Like sex and creativity, vacationing with kids is best if preceded by a state of growing arousal. You can’t just launch into a vacation with kids and expect to enjoy yourself. You have to prepare your mind (and possibly your body) ahead of time. You have to build anticipation, “set intentions,” make little promises to yourself about things you will and won’t do. One of the ways to do this is to think about the food you will all enjoy together.

What can you truly vacate when you’re traveling with young children? You stop doing your job for a bit, which is nice. You leave your disgusting home, which contains all your useful things, so it’s a mixed bag. You are still waking up early and caring all day. You are still middle-aged, and the creeping feeling of humiliation that trails middle-aged parents will follow you on vacation, too. But there is something you can truly leave behind: the usual foods you eat. Now is your chance to take a vacation from your try-hard commitment to feeding your kids healthy food. Now is the time for treats.

Treats are lawless. They don’t even have to be unhealthy to be fun; it’s just nice to do something different. Sometimes a vacation treat is simply a matter of realizing you like something you’d never tried: I ate mussels for the first time on a trip to Point Reyes, California, when I was 12, and it felt like awakening to young adulthood. My husband’s stepmother makes amazing granola, huge quantities of it that she stores in appealing glass jars in her cupboard. My kids love it and serve themselves large portions every morning before I even wake up. At home, they would never eat this granola, lightly sweetened as it is, but they have become attached to this part of the ritual of the visit.

Useful for summer travel, everything tastes better when it’s sold from a gas station. Almost everything in a gas station is a treat. The bigger the gas station, obviously the better. As a Canadian, I am, of course, partial to the Irving Big Stop, which serves not only as a culinary destination but a common for many benighted eastern-Canadian towns. Our mid-Atlantic friends have Sheetz, which I’ve been to a couple of times and enjoyed, and the Midwest has Casey’s, which I learned about from the writer Lyz Lenz. Unlike tricks for feeding vegetables to toddlers, regional gas-station chains with robust food offerings is a topic that never bores me. There’s this one place in Barre, Vermont, right off Interstate 89 — I believe it belongs to the Maplefields chain — that has a coffee-bar area that’s easily 400 square feet. Just an overwhelming array of ways to adulterate your coffee. Stopping at this place puts me in an awesome mood. It makes me feel simultaneously infantilized and spoiled — a precious vacation feeling.

In Rumaan Alam’s 2020 novel, Leave the World Behind, a family of four arrives at an Airbnb in the Hamptons, and all kinds of things transpire. But before anything unexpected happens, the mom character, Amanda, goes to the store to stock the house with groceries. If you’ve ever done the vacation-rental shopping, you know the trancelike frenzy of stocking up. Alam renders the state so well: “She bought a bottle of olive oil and a box of Entenmann’s crumb-topped doughnuts, a bunch of bananas and a bag of white nectarines and two plastic packages of strawberries, a dozen brown eggs, a plastic box of prewashed spinach, a plastic container of olives …” Alam describes each item Amanda buys, which felt like a personal gift to me and my interests. The scene also contains this detail, which I found really inspirational:

“She bought packages of cookies from Pepperidge Farm and three pints of Ben and Jerry’s politically virtuous ice cream and a Duncan Hines boxed mix for yellow cake and a Duncan Hines tub of chocolate frosting with a red plastic lid, because parenthood had taught her that on a vacation’s inevitable rainy day you could while away an hour by baking a boxed cake.”

Boxed cake! What a concept. I chatted with Rumaan a bit over Twitter DM, and he confirmed that this is indeed something his family enjoys on summer vacation.

“Don’t you feel like every family has its holiday rites and there’s a certain permissiveness around food?” he wrote. (Yes, I do feel like this!) “Lemonade at dinner … potato chips for no reason … one of the reasons I was so gung ho about food in the kids’ babyhood was to cultivate this sense that food could offer pleasure!”

“Anyway,” he wrote, “it brings me real joy to see them eating something with relish, even if that thing is garbage chemically designed to appeal to them.”

The setting and maintaining of limits takes up outsize space in how we talk about parenting. What about shared pleasure? No need to frame treats as rewards, as things to be met out and obsessed over. Treats are essential! Everyone has their own version of a treat — what is more fascinating than treating individuality? Over the past few weeks, many Brooding readers have written in with their summer-vacation treats, and here are some of my favorites:

“We love potato chips on vacation and give ourselves free rein to eat a lot of them. Our baby, almost 1, hasn’t had them yet, but I look forward to that moment. I drink a lot of cans of seltzer. Big jars of cold pickles. Dark, hard, salty big pretzels. My partner loves ice cream, so wherever we are, she looks for the ‘best ice cream’ of a town.” -Nico

“My family and I eat COPIOUS amounts of ice cream (preferably Nutella gelato) on every vacation. Like, twice a day sometimes.” —Laura

“I have vivid memories of what my parents would let us eat on vacation as kids. Both my brother and I were allowed to choose our own box of cereal for the trip, whatever we wanted — it was the only time I was allowed to have Reese’s peanut-butter puffs, and I’d always go for it. Other than that, my dad always insisted that we eat a TON of seafood. If we were at the beach for vacation, we were going to act like it and eat as much fresh seafood as possible. I took that to heart, and I’m the same way as an adult now — I’ve had friends in adulthood gently tell me that it’s okay to order pizza while at the beach.” -Maggie

“My husband’s family is from Chile, where, instead of having a heavy meal at dinnertime, they have what they call ‘one time‘ (not translatable, but it’s like teatime). It’s sandwiches and black tea. Maybe coffee, maybe cake. Maaaaaybe some scrambled eggs. It’s light. And the bread is amazing. Sometimes just toasted fresh bread with smashed avocado on top. It sounds like nothing special, but it’s so freaking good. That’s what I think of when I think of vacation food.” — Caitlin

“Vacation food = Triscuits + a block of cheddar. For camping. For the beach. Really, year-round. No fancy olive-oil rosemary ones — just the normal ones. In the ’80s, it was Cape Cod chips + that Lipton French-onion-soup dip + Newman’s lemonade, care of my parents’ yuppie friends whom I adored. I love the combo still!” – Sophie

I’m on vacation this week. First, we drive to Prince Edward Island to visit my mother-in-law and her husband. My favorite PEI treat is to buy Tancook sauerkraut, which comes in a cute little red-and-white milk carton, and eat it on the beach with a fork. It needs to be very cold, so I store it in the cooler with the beers, one of which I am also drinking, in this ideal scenario. I’ve just learned that Tancook went out of business during the pandemic, so I’ll be on the hunt for a new beach treat — by the time you read this, I’ll have found one.

After PEI, we go to Maine to visit family members who live on the coast, not far from the Canadian border. There’s a Mexican American community up there, and the town of Milbridge is home to one of my favorite Mexican restaurants, Vazquez, so we’ll have at least one meal there, sitting outside on the bright-green picnic tables. This meal will be part of how I remember this entire year.

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