Everyone knows not to drink the water in Mexico.
Same rule should apply to theme parks and other one-day excursions.
Don’t drink the $5 bottled water.
It’s a rip-off!
But when you’re on vacation, enjoying a special day with your family, you feel trapped.
Like a lion at the zoo eating a piece of meat when he’d really rather have chased down a zebra, you pay through the nose for water, something you get for free at home.
It doesn’t have to be that way.
You’re trapped at something like a baseball game when you’re not permitted to bring your own, but at zoos, museums and theme parks, there’s a better way, both for your pocketbook and your nutrition.
This post is sponsored by Seventh Generation. You’ll see why in a minute…
Just (Don’t) Do It
I’m pretty stubbornly committed to never buying expensive food on a day trip excursion.
We don’t buy zoo food, ever.
We have water bottles in the car for baseball games.
We picnic when we go to the beach.
And we even pack our own lunch when we go to Disney. Last time we were there, we spent less than $40 on food for 5 people for the entire day, including the requisite ice cream bars during a scorching midday parade. It’s possible!
We went to the Toledo Zoo recently (gorgeous zoo, even in a torrential downpour the entire day!! Hence the ugly cell phone photos…) and put our regular “Bring Your Own Lunch” habits to the test.
I know you can’t read the prices on that photo above, but it was $4.75 for a single hamburger, no fries, and well over $7 for a combo meal that did not include a beverage. We could have paid upwards of $50 on food to feed our hungry family, as much as the cost of admission!
Plus, the power went out right at lunchtime, so everyone was looking at our spread with envy.
We were feeling so fortunate that we took the time to pack real lunches, and it didn’t even take that long.
The Secret to Speed
I’ve packed a LOT of school lunches, so I’m actually pretty good at making individual servings, but when we’re going out as a family, I don’t bother.
I pack “family style” and grab paper plates to use while we’re there, and I find it saves a ton of time on the front end when you just want to get out on your excursion and go!
It’s super fast to grab a few dishes of food, bags of veggies and whole fruits from the fridge and toss them into a small cooler with ice packs. I add napkins and Seventh Generation baby wipes for the sticky faces and fingers, and all the utensils are just tossed in a reusable sandwich bag – I typically use real utensils so I’m not throwing away plastic. In just minutes, we’re ready to go.
Note: If we have to eat in the car for whatever reason, I do pack individual lunches that I can hand out while we’re driving, and that up-front investment repays us 100-fold in all the “drive time” that the kids are kept happy with their food.
On this zoo trip since we had to eat inside, I was glad to have the wipes to wash off the table, too, plus hands at the start of the meal (remember the power was off). They’re very thick and up to the task!
And although washing hands with soap and running water is the best, sometimes it just isn’t possible (like those car trips).
I nearly died when I saw parabens listed on a package of Huggies wipes a friend got at a baby shower last year – eek! Putting known endocrine disruptors on baby’s bottom and leaving them there – or on my kids’ hands right before eating?! No, way. Seventh Generation’s wipes are free of fragrances, dyes, parabens and phthalates…now THAT is speaking my love language!
The Bring-Your-Own-Lunch Food List – without a sandwich in sight!
Did I mention that another reason I hate buying food out – beyond the jacked-up cost and the incredibly poor nutrition – is the gluten issue?
We eat “gluten-lite” and try to avoid gluten whenever we can, and that’s rarely possible at kiosks on vacation unless you want to survive on popcorn and cotton candy exclusively.
We don’t do bread.
So no sandwiches.
Here’s what we generally pack for something like a day outing at the zoo (adapted to be more disposable for big trips like Disney), and we’ve done the same at museums and aquariums (just eat in the café area and no one will yell at you):
- egg salad
- guacamole or homemade ranch dressing
- cut veggies: carrots, cucumbers, cherry tomatoes
- Blue Diamond Nut Thins – gluten-free crackers (The ingredients aren’t perfect, but they’re a fun treat when we’re already forgoing all the fun treats we’re surrounded by. If you want to go totally grain-free, just use cucumbers and large pieces of red pepper or a huge lettuce leaf as the delivery system for the egg salad. Also, a fork will do just fine too.)
- sliced cheese or string cheese, depending on how much time I have to pack
- whole or cut fruit
For this particular day, we had some yummy additions:
- leftover potato wedges
- individual cups of organic unsweetened applesauce – they’re an “emergency packing item” we keep on hand, and my kids feel like it’s a big treat when I finally let them have one! We would usually pack homemade yogurt in individual servings.
We might bring any number of other leftovers or make a potato salad. I don’t often bring meat-based dishes unless I know that (1) we won’t need to leave them on ice for long, and (2) we won’t have leftovers.
All of the items here are more stable if the temp goes up a bit (and I am careful to pack the exact amount of egg salad we need and use lacto-fermented homemade mayo to prolong its life).
Doesn’t That Take Too Much Time?
The only thing I make special for the meal is the egg salad, which I have down to a science. Everything else is stuff we have in our fridge that we’d eat for lunch or dinner at home, so it’s no big deal to just grab them and go, maybe prepping a few cut raw veggies, but I do that all day every day anyway.
Just like I wash kids up all day, every day. Getting to just throw away the wipes IS my idea of a vacation!! (And since they’re made of plant-derived ingredients, I don’t feel so badly about filling the landfill with harmful chemicals.)
Other Snacks we Pack
This summer has been a cycle of packing, traveling, unpacking and packing again (sometimes unpacking from one trip at the same time as packing for the next!). We’ve had so many instances during which most families would have been grabbing food on the road, but we’ve largely avoided eating out (and chose Thai or Mexican when we had to, with pretty clean, whole foods components).
I’m kind of a master at packing food for the road. Along with our BYOL, we always grab:
- homemade beef jerky
- crispy nuts and dried fruit
- organic tortilla chips and salsa for the really long trips
- a few Larabars for emergencies
- chocolate chips – for when the kids get whiny in the car. Really helps to block them out!
We’ve had more than once already this summer where we ended up without a meal we expected or heading home later in the day than expected, and we’ve been able to cobble together an entire dinner with the jerky, crackers, cheese, leftover veggies and fruit.
It’s such a feeling of accomplishment to drive BY the fast food places on our route and wave at them instead of feeling trapped and have to drive THROUGH.
And a huge bonus – this is food my kids love.
In fact, the last time we had one of those “oops we are not going to make it home in time for dinner” experiences, it was at the end of a long, fun 4th of July weekend with lots of grilling out and “fun foods” since we were at other people’s houses.
We had just enough of my real food leftovers to make dinner happen while we drove the two hours home – and the opinion from the back seat came in:
“This is the best meal EVER, thank you, Mom!”
And I was just glad they were fed at all.
Real food for the win!
Oh, and if you stay allll day at the zoo in the rain, you might end up with a photo as cool as this:
That simply had to be shared.