Yes, food travel defines our family

Why our globetrotting family centers our world travels around food

Not long after we brought Connor home from the hospital as a newborn, Anthony stuck a halved clove of raw garlic under our firstborn’s nose. That was only the latest in a long line of experiences and memories that all tie back to or revolve around a meal. Now, as our family has broadened our travels from big US road trips to traveling the world, food travel has become a cornerstone of our globetrotting decision-making.

Different people prioritize food in different ways. For some, food is primarily fuel and calories, and that is one approach. Others solely want to experience the finest of the finest, the fanciest of the fancy, and that is another approach. We go for, well, pretty much anything and everything. We want the kids to know they can be welcome in any food environment. Part of gaining that confidence is being exposed to everything from a street stall to a fine restaurant.

Food travel guides our globetrotting in so many ways. But as we’ve made our way around the US and various countries, we have learned a few things about why this focus on eating and travel matters so much to us.

“You know what they say: When life gives you kaffir lime leaves, make a fragrant curry paste.”

Food is integral to survival, but it also makes life (and travel) more fun

Onboard a small luxury cruise ship in Vietnam’s Halong Bay, the plates just kept coming out. Soups. Pumpkin curry. Fragrant rice. Even our bottomless pit children were getting full. Every time we sat down at the table, complete with floor-to-ceiling window views of the lush green karst limestone rock towers jutting out of the calm jade waters, we knew we were in for something good. The table centered us as we chatted about our travels or marveled at the surrounding view.

At home or abroad, food is so important to us. Food is part of why we travel. A country’s victuals can determine our interest in visiting.

For us, that started at home. Food, shared meals, and new eating experiences have shaped our lives as individuals and as a couple. As parents, food also wove deeply through times with both Aster and Connor. From baking bread in our own kitchen in Oregon to wandering stall after stall of street food in Bangkok, we’ve always prioritized introducing the kids to different foods and food cultures.

When shopping in markets in Mexico, we’ve set challenges to find a new fruit or vegetable for the family to try. At the Sunday Walking Street night market in Chiang Mai, Thailand, we set a family challenge to see if we could each spend no more than 200 baht per person, or around US$5, during the entire evening.

Building experiences and challenges around food has become a way for all of us not only to be nourished in the body, but in the soul. As the kids talk about their perspectives on our travels, they already talk about different foods, or a moment from a restaurant. They understand that food doesn’t just fill a bodily need. It makes the day, and the trip, more fun.

Dining out and cooking in, all over the world

Slices of dragon fruit and mango.
Slices of dragon fruit and mango.

Our plans for where we stay and what we do in a country typically center on food. Whenever we can, we also book accommodation with some sort of kitchen. We love having the option of enjoying affordable restaurants and street stalls. However, we are at our happiest—and most budget friendly—when we can cook ourselves.

Yet in Vietnam, we have not cooked at all. Going for an entire month with cooking anything beyond, say, pouring hot water over a bowl of instant noodles is an unusual experience for us. On the one hand, we’ve found amazing places to eat. With upcoming destinations where our accommodation has a kitchen, though, we can’t wait to fire up some home-cooked meals.

Cooking in doesn’t just give us a chance to have the satisfaction of making something. We enjoy being at home together. Cooking takes time, but so does going out: There’s still getting ready, finding a place to eat, everyone agreeing, making our way there, navigating the menu, and waiting for our food. The time commitment actually isn’t all that different from when we cook.

Still, dining out helps us experience a new place in ways we might not if we were just at home in our accommodation. We can people-watch, and get a feel for the moment-to-moment rhythms of that area. Chatting with servers provides insight into their business or about the neighborhood. Sometimes we’ve even come away not only with pleasantly full bellies, but tips on activities we hadn’t known about.

“Food doesn’t just fill a bodily need. It makes the day, and the trip, more fun.”

Food travel helps us adapt, especially the children

Around our Chiang Mai Thanksgiving table at our Cookventure cooking class in Chiang Mai.
Around our Chiang Mai Thanksgiving table at our Cookventure cooking class in Chiang Mai.

You know what they say: When life gives you kaffir lime leaves, make a fragrant curry paste.

Our love of food helps us get the most out of our travels. We’ve found that focusing on food helps us be adaptive and nimble. For example, in Chiang Mai on Thanksgiving, we knew that day would not have the usual turkey and trimmings, not to mention family and friends, that we normally would experience in the USA.

There is no Thai holiday equivalent conveniently on or around the last Thursday of November. We could have wallowed in missing our usual Turkey Day deliciousness. Instead of worrying about trying to have a “traditional” Thanksgiving in a country that doesn’t observe the occasion, we embraced better options. For Thanksgiving afternoon, we took a Thai cooking class. Together, we cooked 14 different Thai dishes, from stir-fries to soups, deep-fried bananas to curry pastes we pounded with mortars and pestles.

Our love of food helped us adapt, pivot, and come up with something amazing, albeit different from what we normally do on Thanksgiving Day. If you are in a place that doesn’t observe a holiday you observe in your own culture, find a similar experience that still accomplishes the chief goal: being together.

Food encourages us to explore

Right outside the front door of our hotel in Bangkok, deciding what to eat started with whether to turn left or right. Just about anywhere we went in either direction, there were incredible food stalls selling fresh servings of everything from noodle soups and hot pots to grilled chicken skewers and freshly steamed bao.

Going out in the morning to find street food breakfasts in Bangkok became one of Anthony and the children’s favorite things to do. The high quality of the food, combined with serendipity, made for ease of mind and happy, full bellies.

Slow food helps us slow down

At our square beach table in Huatulco, the sun had gone down; the kids splashed in the bay’s calm little waves, and we adults began dining on shrimp and fish served up in a roasted, halved pineapple.

That slow dining on the beach not only let the children play in the water longer, it gave us parents time to bond as partners, parents, and adults.

We try to minimize eating on the go or rushing through a meal. Sure, sometimes we have to hustle while we fuel up. But as much as possible, we treat meals and snacks as an opportunity to sit down, slow down, and spend quality time together.

Meals help us celebrate life and travel’s big and small moments

Drinks by candlelight on the beach during our last night in Huatulco, Mexico.
Drinks by candlelight on the beach during our last night in Huatulco, Mexico.

On a rooftop terrace in Oaxaca, Mexico, we filled plates and bowls with tamales and posole, and raised glasses of mezcal in honor of our host’s birthday. Our host and his wife had invited us to join the celebration. Now dozens of us chatted, dined, drank, and danced under the warm, clear sky.

When you think back to important occasions in your life, there’s a good chance food ties in. But food ties together not only the big moments, but the small occasions.

On our last day in Cambodia, we were able to get on the next-to-last float of a tethered hot-air balloon. A tour group had fully booked out the sunset ride. We had arrived just in time for the last ride before sunset—and we were the only ones there. As the balloon floated over the Cambodian forest, we marveled at the sight of Angkor Wat. Its five lotus-mountain spires rose gray and proud, as if the structure hadn’t been built but had always been part of the landscape.

With such a sight emblazoned on our memories, we capped off our week in Cambodia with a Khmer-style meal. We toasted going to Angkor, one of Anthony’s favorite places, and a big priority for our time in Southeast Asia. We recounted arriving and finding out there was one more chance to take the balloon, just as it was about to go up. Whether a moment small or large, food travel connects us to elation and celebration. It helps us keep those memories woven tightly into ourselves.

Will travel for good food… and good experiences for our children

No matter what role or prominence food plays in your family, shared meals and snacks can become a way for your family to bond while you travel.

Our family travels to eat. We love food, from street stalls in Huatulco to multi-course meals on a Halong Bay cruise ship. We want our kids to feel just as at home, welcomed, and appreciative whether they are on a short red plastic chair in a busy Thai night market, or whether dressing up for a fine dining restaurant.

Either way, a bond connects these experiences: When good food is prepared with care, skill, and a little love, all that matters is that you have a truthful cook, a sanitary cooking and eating setup, and a willingness to let your nose, your soul, and your appetite lead you to where the good stuff is.

Focusing on food travel shows our children about as many slices of life as can be. Cooking, serving, and cleaning up showcase not just food, but endeavor: The creativity of an inventive, innovative, workaday cook and chef; the tenacity it takes in front of the house or back of the house; the courtesy and grace servers put forth, even in difficult circumstances. Our experiences in any eating establishment also show the kids what we consider one of our most important values as a family: All people deserve respect.

Food is integral to our family travels because food is integral to life. We also find it pretty helpful in our parenting: Good food makes good travel, which makes good people.

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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