6 tips for street food safety with kids

Parents and kids can enjoy street food safely. Here’s how our full-time traveling family does it

What we’re about to say might jinx us, but we’re going to do it anyway. As we write this, after six months of full-time traveling the world as a family of four, none of us have gotten sick from eating or drinking. (Yup. We’re cringing too, as we wait for the bad luck to hit. Onward.) Still, when it comes to street food safety with kids, we’ve learned some things that help us stay full and healthy every day.

During our travels, we strike a balance. Do we eat from any and every street food stall, trying whatever simply because it’s on offer? Nope. Many would probably consider our street food meals tame. But we aren’t trying to get attention for extreme eating. We’re just feeding ourselves and our kids, trying new foods, and sticking to a family budget—all while staying healthy on the road.

Here are street food safety tips based on our travel experience.

Why you should trust us

We’re going to note that everyone has to strike their own balance when it comes to what to eat, whether that’s at a street stall or a restaurant. None of us have food sensitivities or allergies, so this piece on street food safety won’t speak to those considerations.

From grilled corn in Oaxaca to banana fritters in Vietnam, street food is just about a daily part of our diets. During a week in Bangkok, every breakfast we ate came from vendors along the street in front of our hotel. We regularly visit night markets, or stop by a place that happens to catch our eye.

At the same time, we have no interest in getting sick—and we have even less interest in taking a risk that could get our children sick either. As much as we prioritize food and drink in our travels, we do so in a way that keeps a balance of trying new foods, while being smart about our food safety.

5 reasons why we eat street food with our kids

Yes, we love street food, and yes, we eat street food with our traveling children!

  1. It’s delicious. Tacos, green papaya salad, anything grilled on a skewer—there are so many types of street food, that odds are anyone can find something delicious they’ll love.
  2. It’s freshly made. Good street food is typically cooked from raw, or finished cooking from a par-cooked state, right in front of you.
  3. It puts you out there with other people. The mark of good street food is that it truly is the food of the people. Will we see other tourists there? Of course. But every time we go for street food, we also encounter folks who live there.
  4. It’s affordable. Being careful with our food budget helps us travel more. Eating street food is a delicious way to stretch our family budget!
  5. It can be balanced. It’s easy to think of street food as nothing but fried meat on sticks, but it’s not. We also find plenty of balanced options, such as salads, fruit smoothies, and grilled veggies. Which now has us remembering some incredible grilled okra skewers in Hua Hin, Thailand. Yum.

Are other customers eating there, especially locals and other families with kids?

If you’ve been looking into street food safety tips, there’s a good chance you’ve come across some version of this tip. A sure sign of a safe place to eat is other people eating there. However, we always suggest looking a little closer for two factors:

Are locals eating there?

Granted, you might not always be able to tell by sight whether someone lives in the area or is visiting from somewhere else. But to put it simply, locals don’t like to get food poisoning anymore than visitors do. If folks who live in a place are eating from a street food stall, odds are it’s okay for you to eat there too.

Are families with children eating there?

We actually consider this little tidbit even more important. As Anthony often says, “No mother, anywhere in the world, is going to take her kids somewhere she knows they could get sick.”

When we travel, we always look for signs that other families, and especially other kids, are eating from a place. It’s a sure sign that a street food stall not only has good food and sanitation, but also has food that kids like.

Search for recent online reviews

When Anthony thinks back to one of the biggest differences between his trips to Asia in the early 2000s versus traveling in the 2020s, online reviews are one of the most useful and important. The prevalence of online reviews can extend right down to a street food cart, stall, or market.

If a place has good reviews, we’re far more likely to give it a try. Online reviews also put a big expectation on street food vendors: If people are saying a place’s food made them sick, there’s a good chance that vendor either is going to quickly (and literally) clean up their act, or go out of business. The prevalence of online reviews puts more pressure on vendors to run a clean shop.

We usually look on Google for reviews. At the same time, not every street food stall is going to have a review, so we don’t consider a lack of reviews a dealbreaker.

More importantly? We look for recent reviews. If the most recent reviews were more than six months ago, we consider that a potential red flag. The more recent the reviews are, the more we take them into account as we decide where to eat with our children.

When in doubt, we trust our instincts and go somewhere else

One caveat we’ll put in: We do not go anywhere and everywhere. If anything about an eating establishment—street stall, roadside cafe, or 3-star Michelin restaurant—strikes us as off, we’ll figure out something else.

As parents and travelers, trusting our instincts has never steered us wrong. We don’t go anywhere unless we have a relative sense of assurance that we are making a good choice. If in doubt, we go elsewhere.

Carry (and remember to use) hand sanitizer

One useful benefit of the pandemic is that it is so, so easy to get hand sanitizer in many countries.

Our travel daypack always has a wee squeeze bottle of hand sanitizer. It’s small enough to slip into a pants pocket, and we can fly with it. Before eating, we all know to “clean our hands” before having anything to eat.

Utensils: Use what’s there or bring our own?

Plates of food at a night market in Hua Hin, Thailand

At the street food places we’ve eaten at, we’ve usually used the utensils that are there. We might give them a wipe with a bandana we carry, but otherwise, if we see other diners using the provided utensils, we generally feel okay about using them too.

However, we also carry a mesh zip bag with reusable wooden chopsticks and double-ended spork-like utensils that the kids call “spifes.” These all-in-one BPA-free plastic utensils have a spoon on one end and a fork on the other, with serrations on one of the outer tines for use as a sort of miniature steak knife. Having our own utensils not only comes in handy dining out, but dining in—especially in hotel rooms when we are having a meal in the room and utensils aren’t provided.

Do the prep and eating areas look clean?

If a stall looks gross, odds are the food is gross. Busy isn’t the same thing as unclean, either. A place can be busy and bustling, but the eating and prep areas are being kept up in terms of overall cleanliness and sanitation. A stall doesn’t need to be gleaming white or look like you could do surgery there, but if a place looks dirty, that’s a place we’ll skip.

Your family can have safe street food experiences

@learnersandmakers

This is one of the things we worried about! What would our kids eat if their favorites weren’t available? We’ve learned a lot and our kids have been very adventurous. #travelfamily #kideats #kidfood #digitalnomadfamily

♬ Strawberry – Prod. By Rose

Millions of people safely enjoy street food around the world every day. Is it risk-free? Of course not. Nothing in food, travel, or life in general is risk-free. However, a little street food safety diligence can mitigate most risks. You can be confident that you and your kids can enjoy local street food—and feel nothing afterward but a full belly.

About the author
Learners and Makers
We are the St. Clair Family: Anthony, Jodie, Connor, and Aster. As Learners and Makers, our family of four slows down, connects, and enjoys the world and each other's company. We have been traveling full time since 2022.

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