Sensible Family Eating at Theme Parks: It’s Possible

peanut butter sandwichLet’s pretend you’ve decided to head on out to your favorite theme park this summer. You plan your day, arrive, and somewhere between the first “I really have to go now!” trek across the hot pavement in search of an elusive restroom and the third “But I want to ride THAT ride!” litany you’ll spend your day listening to, you realize one very important thing: There are children with you. Children who, apparently, need to be fed every single day.

So, do you buy the corn dog, elephant ear, overpriced soggy pizza and sugary soft drink and therefore take out a second mortgage on your house to pay for the food and then finance your dentist’s vacation home, or do you schlep through the heat and crowds back to your car, hoping the ice in the cooler is still keeping things cool enough that you haven’t grown a strain of e.Coli never before seen? The best option for your family likely lies somewhere in the middle.

We have, in our 14+ years of parenting, learned a few tricks about feeding the masses during a day trip to the theme park up the road, an extended weekend trip to theme parks further away, and even a week-long stay at an inclusive and large resort. While everyone’s preferences may vary, there are some tips I’ve picked up that hopefully will keep your kids from achieving that insane sugar rush that’ll make you rethink ever leaving your house again and you from going broke, while also being convenient and easy enough to accomplish without adding an extra three days’ worth of prep time to your schedule.

If you’re planning a day trip:

Pack portable snacks and lunches.

Snack packs of pretzels, chips, granola etc are convenient, easily transportable, and work almost as well as tossing a handful of whatever your pre-approved snack is into a sandwich baggie. That’s my go-to method, but either way, it’ll still be healthier (and cheaper) than buying snacks at the park.

Fruit is magic. It’s sweet, plenty of it comes already portable and ready to eat, and it’s full of the good stuff you won’t find at the cotton candy vendor stall. Apples, bananas, strawberries and grapes are favorites here, and they’re all pretty much ready to eat.

Allergies aside, PB&J is your friend. No worries about it rotting while you ride the swings, it’s economical, and pretty much every kid loves this American staple.

Pack more water than you think you’ll need. It always seems hotter than you thought it was going to be, water is cheap and healthy, and most parks charge three times what you’d pay anywhere else for a bottle. Bring plenty.

We generally plan to eat a late dinner on the road after leaving the park- kids don’t want to take time out of fun to eat, and even a drive thru for our family of seven is cheaper than trying to feed everyone at the park. One crummy meal is a lot more justifiable if I’ve fed them healthier options throughout the day.

If you’re planning a long weekend:

The same rules apply for snacks and lunches. You plan more carefully, pack more, and maybe toss it all in a cooler just to keep it from getting really hot. If you’re staying at an off-site hotel, the cooler might be a handy way to trek a day’s worth of food from your room to the park. Many parks have picnic areas in their parking lots, although these same parks often don’t allow outside food or beverages into the park proper.

Let’s face it: this is not necessarily a bad thing. A short break from all the excitement is often necessary for younger kids, and gives older kids a chance to reconnect with parents they may have wandered off from in search of their own entertainment. The minor inconvenience of getting your hand stamped upon exiting to the parking lot so you can reenter after feeding the horde is well worth the empty calories and day’s worth of wages you’ll save.

For dinners on these days, I recommend scoping out restaurants near enough to the park that you’re not in the car with crabby, hungry, overstimulated and exhausted kids for more than a few minutes. To that same end, this is not the time to expect your kids will appreciate or be able to behave at a five star restaurant with a long, elaborate meal in their Sunday best. Look for family-oriented, casual restaurants geared to getting your food out quickly. Fast food is not out of the picture, either. These are places most kids will recognize, so the over-stimulation from the day won’t be compounded by unfamiliar food at a strange locale.

If you’re staying on-site, don’t be afraid to leave for dinner. Some parks we’ve visited have fairly nice but still casual restaurants built in- often on the edge of the park, away from most rides and nearer to the hotel or campsites. These are fine, and do offer a “real meal”, but still, it’s a part of the park, so be prepared for high prices and rather limited options. If we’re staying more than one night, we tend to plan one night in the park’s eatery and the rest offsite.

Ordering a pizza, and even having it delivered to the hotel, isn’t something we’re afraid to do, either. Staying either at the park or offsite shouldn’t limit your options, and I’m all about scouring the internet for local coupons or deals. Often local restaurants will have some sort of deal going where if you show your admission pass for the park, you’ll get a discount.

Eating, even on a mini-vacation, is necessary, but it doesn’t have to be a chore, and it doesn’t have to completely empty out your wallet or derail the nutrition you spend the rest of the year trying to offer your kids.

For longer trips:

Pretty much all of the rules still apply, except I like to find a local supermarket wherever we’re going. Yes, I might relax slightly my hatred for spun sugar or fried dough and allow a special treat once or twice during the trip, but that’s because I buy fresh produce and make more meals while we’re there.

Even opening a can of tuna on top of a bagged salad is going to be healthier and easier than relying on the park for all of our meals or trying to remember to pack enough food for a week that won’t spoil. I often look for hotels that offer a mini-kitchen at the least, but even basic rooms generally come with a fridge and microwave. This isn’t the time to be a stickler about your diet, but it also doesn’t hurt to remember that good nutrition can make a difference pretty much immediately in your kids’ behavior. Garbage in, garbage out kind of thing.

I keep my eyes peeled for roadside fruit stands or farmer’s markets, and I take advantage of larger supermarkets’ prepared food sections. A rotisserie chicken can be picnic food, and pre-made macaroni salad is going to be cheaper than ordering fries for everyone.

Overall, I’m a planner. When not on vacation, I plan our a week’s menu and shop accordingly, and when I’m planning a vacation, I see no need to change this. Yes, there is some prep added to your trip if you want to rely as little as possible on the food offered by the park, but in the end, slapping together a few sandwiches and chopping carrots ahead of time is well worth it for my family.

 I know what the kids like, I know what they may be allergic to, I know how much food they need, and I know if I have it all with me, there’s no sugar-crash meltdown because the mac and cheese a restaurant offered has something green in it or is a different texture than what they’re used to.

Food on a stick seems fun, but we reserve the park food for one midday meal of a longer trip, and avoid it completely on shorter stays. There are plenty of other options out there, and this is a time for creativity in your meal planning.

Obviously, much like everything else, your mileage may vary, but with just a little planning I’ve found these tricks to be pretty fail-safe. A day (or longer) at a theme park can be a lot of fun- but everyone still needs to get fed.


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About Tea Unsweetened

I'm a 30-something crazy person who finds herself surrounded by too many children, and refers to them not-so-secretly as 'crotchfruit'. I like vodka, cursing, and detailing just how crazy I can be. Also, I'm a closet nerd, which is apparently not cool like being a geek has become. Oh, and I write a blog and try to follow way too many conversations on the Twitter, so that's basically all of my free time.

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  1. Brandon P. Duncan says:

    I like it. Very good advice on feeding the tribe.

    We also like to figure in coffee for our bigger people. Theme park and hotel coffee is usually terrible and Starbucks every day for a week really adds up. We look for who has in-room coffee pots and bring our own fixins with us. Same goes for breakfast foods. After a long day at a park, the next morning rousal is usually tough—people aren’t getting around to quickly, so we get cereal, milk, and throw away bowls/spoons or get some sort of quick breakfast for the hotel room. Tends to be a life saver.

    Good job!

    • Tea says:

      Ah, yes, coffee! I don’t know how I didn’t remember that! When we stay in a hotel, we tend to find one where breakfast is offered. Just makes everything easier.

  2. Karen says:

    great tips and I’m with you on the pb&j and lots of fruits, snakcs, and water. Always better to be prepared than paying an arm and a leg for a small water.

  3. These are tips that I am going to pretend I didn’t just read because I love all the crap food I eat at amusement parks. They probably take a year off my life, but I just can’t resist. Seriously though, this is an excellent collection of practical tips.

  4. David Stanley says:

    Did I miss the part about not eating churros right before riding the SuperCoaster? Nice piece.

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