Kids can be fussy eaters at the best of times. Add this to the fact that flying at altitude affects our sense of taste and being confined to a seat makes kids moody, and some creativity may be required to get your child to eat and drink on a flight. Here are some ideas.
Understand the impact of air travel on the bodyThe difference in air pressure and humidity and the confined conditions on a flight have effects on the body. Being aware of these can help you to better cope with them for you and your child. For example, changes in air pressure, lower oxygen levels and lack of movement all affect circulation and metabolism, so bodily functions such as digestion slow down inflight. The air in the cabin is also dry, which affects the taste buds and makes food seem flavourless. The lack of humidity also means less saliva is produced, which can affect digestion. So if your child is finicky with food on a flight, there are good reasons – but luckily there are a number of ways you can tackle this, so keep reading!
Enquire in advance about mealsIf your child has any allergies or other special food requirements, it is highly recommended to check what the airline meal options are before your flight. Most airlines provide child’s meals as well as choices for vegetarians and people with certain types of food intolerance, but these must be ordered in advance. You should always bring some back-up food as a precautionary measure in case what is provided is not suitable or appetising for your child. If milk is important, you should also find out if this will be available, as not all airlines carry it on board.
Pack a lot of snacksAs mentioned, there are several challenges that can affect a child’s appetite when flying. Being confined and a restricted choice of what to eat are two you can plan ahead for. Bringing a variety of snacks that your child is sure to like is not only useful if they turn their nose up at the inflight meal, it is also a good distraction tactic. Pulling out an unexpected snack can keep them entertained if they’re getting bored. Good options include snack bars, dried fruit, small boxes of cereal, sandwiches, cheese sticks, raw vegetables, cubes of fresh fruit, mini-muffins or pancakes, or portions of crackers. Put each portion in individual zippered bags. The golden rule is something you know they’ll like, plus a bit of variety – adding a few treats that they’re not usually allowed is likely to make them especially happy!
Be informed about carry-on rulesKeep in mind any regulations that might affect what you bring on board. Any beverages should be purchased after the security checkpoint if you don’t want them confiscated. Alternatively you can bring empty drink containers and fill them up after clearing security. Avoid any liquid or gel-like foods in quantities over 100 ml/g (3.4 fl oz) (this includes honey, syrups, yoghurt, applesauce, dips, nut butters, etc.). If you bring any foods that need to be kept cold, an icepack is usually permitted if it is frozen solid – but if it is partially melted it will not be allowed through security. It’s advisable to check the security restrictions in place at your departure airport before you travel, as well as the airline’s guidelines on what you can carry on. Also be aware that certain countries have strict rules on bringing in food items such as fresh fruit and vegetables (e.g. Latin America), meat, soft or unpasteurised cheese (e.g. USA), and even tea, so if this is the case, these would need to be consumed on the plane (for more details, see the official website of the country of destination). Be aware that you should declare any food products such as these to border agents on landing.
Parcel out the snacksWhile offering your child a snack when they get bored is an effective tactic, use it moderately. Give them small amounts at regular intervals to avoid them getting too full. It’s also preferable to stick mainly to healthy, plain foods – the last thing you want is for them to get a stomach ache during the flight. The lower air pressure at high altitude means that any gas in the digestive system expands, which can lead to abdominal pain. Before the flight avoid fatty or deep-fried foods as well as gassy foods such as cabbage, apples or beans, as these can all cause bloating and discomfort. Carbonated drinks should be kept to a minimum for the same reason. Try not to let them fill up on too many sweet snacks, as this can cause a sugar rush, making them overexcited, followed by crankiness and tiredness. To keep them calm, sugar should be limited to an occasional treat.
Stay hydratedThe low humidity in an airplane cabin means moisture evaporates from the body more quickly, so it is important to make sure your child drinks regularly during the flight. This will also help their appetite, as it prevents the taste buds from drying out. You could bring a plastic (and ideally, spill-proof!) cup and fill it up from the drinks cart as needed on the plane. Juice or milk boxes are also options (purchased after the security check), but avoid lots of sugary drinks. Water is the best choice – nutritionists advise drinking 150–250 ml of water (depending on your child’s age) for every hour you’re flying. You could bring or ask for a straw to make drinking a bit more fun.
Be a clean freakDon’t forget a supply of wet wipes or tissues and hand cleanser – kids and food can be a messy combination, and you don’t want to run short of wipes on the plane. Aside from keeping your child and the seat area clean (and keeping nearby passengers happy), wiping their hands regularly also helps prevent them from catching any bugs that might put a damper on your trip.
Dealing with ear problemsA common problem for children, especially if they are congested, is ear pain on landing. This is due to the rise in air pressure on descent, which pushes the eardrums inwards. The discomfort should go away once the plane is on the ground, but to help ease the pressure until then, frequent yawning, chewing and swallowing helps as this allows air to reach the inner ear. Giving children a small drink to sip or something to chew or suck on as the plane is descending can help. Older children can try inhaling and then breathing out gently while pinching their nose and keeping their mouth closed. This should be done very gently to avoid too much pressure.
Bring an extra change of clothesAccidents happen – not to mention that unfortunately some children suffer from motion sickness. In this eventuality, you will be very happy if you’ve brought on board a clean set of clothes for your child to change into.
Airline information on inflight meals: