Eating in Southeast Asia spans the full gamut of culinary experience, from steaming noodle soup on a backwater roadside in Laos to fine dining at a top French restaurant in Bangkok. Even with kids in tow, you can still enjoy a wide range of experiences, with people in the region generally being welcoming and accommodating when it comes to children. Read on for some tips for ensuring your family holiday is a healthy one.
Talk about what sorts of food you expect to find during your travels before you leave home. Depending on your kids' ages, plan fun projects centred on the unusual ingredients you'll find in dishes in Southeast Asia. You could, for instance, hunt for pictures of tropical fruits in magazines to make collages, and also whip up a few Asian-inspired dishes at home together to help familiarise your kids with some of the new flavours they will experience.
Think wholegrain crackers, dried fruits, nuts (obviously if your kid is old enough for them), and cereals stored in snap-lock bags, for when they really turn their noses up at things. You can restock and reuse the bags along the way. The space they take up can be used for souvenir storage on your way home. Stock up on perishables like bananas and mini-cheeses (if you're staying somewhere with a fridge) at major supermarkets while you are on the road.
The ubiquity of minimarts in many parts of Southeast Asia -- 7-elevens on nearly every street corner in Thailand, say -- might be a blight on the environment but can be a lifesaver if you're about to have a toddler meltdown. They don't have much at all in the way of healthy food, but you should be able to find stuff like juice packs, yoghurt drinks and white bread (ugh) which can help when you're desperate.
We've mentioned the handstick blender trick before, but if your kids are a little older you might find scissors useful to bring along as knives can be a hassle to carry these days. Chopsticks might be offered in Chinese-style restaurants in Southeast Asia, but generally you'll always also be offered forks and spoons as well, so don't panic if your kids aren't adept at them.
This is one less potentially germ-laden thing you'll need to worry about, though of course you'll need to keep them clean yourself. Drinking water is relatively easy to buy on the road, but we are strong supporters of taking a Steripen to be confident you're drinking clean water and to avoid leaving a landfill dump's worth of plastic bottles in your wake. If you're drinking from bottles or cans, you can use a dab of hand gel to sterilise the rims.
It's generally not expensive to eat on the streets or in reasonable restaurants in Southeast Asia, so don't think you'll have to do all your food shopping in supermarkets and eat picnic style, as you'd probably do in Europe. Street vendors are great for picking up unusual snacks to try -- avoid if you're really being careful as their hygiene standards may not be the best, but we'd say just be sure that they are doing a good trade with locals and you'll probably be fine with older kids. Food courts in major malls in cities like Bangkok are cheap and hygiene standards generally better than on the streets.
If you want to take your kids along for a splurge meal, make sure ahead of time that a kids' menu is available as well as high chairs. We are strong believers in giving kids real food from the adults menu, but having a kids' menu signals at least that the restaurant is kid-friendly. Remember, it's generally affordable to hire a babysitter for a night if you want a break, too.
Waiters from stalls to starred restaurants will generally oblige if it means helping a child, from bringing out extra plates and heating up food to even holding your bub for five minutes if you need a short break. You'll likely all-round get a fraction of the frowns you're used to travelling with kids in the West.
By Stuart McDonald
Last updated on 19th July, 2009.
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