You've barely passed the city limits when it starts: "Mommmm. I'm hungry.
"Mommmm. I'm thirsty.
"Mommmm. I'm bored. Are we there yet?"
Welcome to summer, the days of whine and road trips.
A visit to the grandparents or a state park is a treasured vacation experience. But if you've organized car excursions in the past, you know that boredom and hunger are part of the package.
By stocking healthy snacks, predetermining which restaurants to dine at and finding nonedible ways to alleviate boredom, you'll keep your children well-nourished and in good spirits, say nutrition experts.
Just as you pack clothing for every contingency, give some thought to the food for the back seat.
"Get your kids involved in packing food so they can prepare and choose healthy snacks," says Megan Sebanc, a registered dietitian at St. Francis Hospital in Evanston. "Your children may ask for the apple they helped cut up."
Use an insulated container so you can include perishable foods. Fresh fruits, vegetables, dairy, meat, eggs, poultry and fish items should all be packed with ice and will remain safe to eat for several hours.
If you have wholesome foods in the car you won't be tempted to stop for high-fat snacks, says Jeff Novick, a registered dietitian. "I always keep a cooler filled with fruit, such as apples, oranges and grapes in the car, so I don't have to stop at a convenience store," says Novick, director of nutrition at the Pritikin Longevity Center & Spa at the Yacht Club at Turnberry Isle in Aventura, Fla.
Your children are more likely to eat fruits and vegetables that are cut into bite-size pieces. Appealing options include baby carrots, grape tomatoes, red bell pepper strips, raw broccoli, cauliflower florets and cucumber spears.
Freeze grapes or blueberries for the cooler. A package of frozen fruit is not only a thirst-quenching snack, but keeps other items cold. Frozen grapes are one of Novick's favorite road treats. "They literally become like a candy," says Novick.
Sebanc recommends dried fruit, string cheese and trail mix.
To avoid messy, dripping sandwiches, substitute pita bread for sliced bread. Spread a pita bread cavity with reduced-fat cheese spread or peanut butter and jelly. You can even use pita bread as a salad container, filling the pocket with tomatoes and dressing.
No matter how many snacks you pack, though, you'll eventually want to stop for food.
"Be as prepared as you can and be involved, so you're not in a situation in which you don't have a plan," says Sebanc.
Parents, not children, should decide where to eat. And parents get to make the rules about what foods children can order and how much.
Your best bets for low-fat meals include Asian or Japanese restaurants or restaurants that feature salad bars, according to Novick.
However, you can have a nourishing meal anywhere.
"You can go to almost any fast-food restaurant and get corn-on-the-cob or a salad, and either is much healthier than an order of fries," Novick says.
He recommends eating the vegetable course first before moving on to the hamburger.
"By the time you eat the salad you may not be hungry for a large-size burger," he says.
Eating, however, shouldn't be a pacifier, says Sebanc who recalls working on Mad Libs during childhood car trips. Use games, a deck of cards or crayons and coloring books to take the place of mindless snacking. For example, your children may want to read about the city they're visiting.
Take frequent breaks to get out of the car and play as a family. A game of tag at a picnic rest stop can do a lot to restore flagging spirits.
Here's a recipe for a delicious and nonperishable snack adapted from the American Heart Association Kids' Cookbook (Times Books, 1993).
Pop snack 2 cups plain popped popcorn 1/4 cup chopped dried fruit, such as peaches, apricots or nectarines 1/2 cup small pretzel pieces 1/4 cup dry-roasted, unsalted peanuts (see note) 1/4 cup raisins
Combine ingredients in a bowl and toss gently. Measure 1 rounded cup into each of 3 resealable bags. Makes 3 servings. Note: if your child is allergic to peanuts substitute 1/4 cup dry-roasted soy nuts or increase the pretzels by 1/4 cup.