To many people, “eating healthy” and “Disney World” are two phrases that just don’t go together. With tempting desserts at every turn and hefty food portions at many restaurants, how can a family expect to maintain healthy eating habits while visiting the happiest place on earth? Little Susie will throw a fit if she can’t have that giant spiral rainbow lollipop, and poor Johnny just needs that chocolate-dipped Rice Krispie treat shaped like Mickey Mouse. Nobody wants to fight with their kids about food while they’re on vacation. Despite these challenges, it is possible to maintain a healthy food regimen while on a vacation like this. I recently enjoyed a week-long trip to Disney World with my husband, our 9-year-old son, and our 7-year-old daughter. Food was actually one of the highlights for us. When deciding what to eat during our vacation, we depended on the same general guidelines we use at home. We came up with a plan, we stuck to our principles, and we splurged a little along the way.
Make a Plan
Fuel for the Workout
Disney World is a workout. Visiting the parks requires lots and lots of walking. After 6 days at the Magic Kingdom, Epcot, and Hollywood Studios, I don’t think my legs could have done it for another day. Muscles in my legs that I didn’t even know I had were aching by the end of each day. My children claimed that their legs didn’t hurt, but they were definitely ready to crash when we got back to our hotel for our daily afternoon respite.
With all this walking and standing in line, your body requires fuel to navigate the parks. There are so many decisions to make regarding food over the course of a Disney day, and the best way to deal with these choices is to come up with a plan ahead of time. This is just like meal planning at home, only this time you don’t have to do the cooking. The more preparations you do ahead of time, the more relaxed you will be when your vacation finally comes.
Set a Restaurant Agenda
Once you decide which parks or resorts you’ll be visiting each day, figure out where you want to eat. For table service meals, it’s important to book reservations ahead of time, and 6-month’s notice is necessary for some places. I also recommend deciding where you’re going to be at lunchtime and choosing counter-service meal locations ahead of time. You can find the menus to all the Disney restaurants on their website. If you have a portable mobile device, you can download the Touring Plans app and this will allow you to look up restaurant menus on your phone or tablet. (Side note: I highly recommend this app for planning the order of rides you’ll go on at each park, for checking the wait times at rides across the park, and for navigating the FastPass system. It was the best $11.95 I spent for this vacation.)
Disney World is a wonderful place to visit if you have a family member with food allergies or sensitivities. When my family traveled here two years ago, I was avoiding dairy and gluten at my doctor’s suggestion. I noted this on my online dining reservations, and at each restaurant a chef came out to talk to me about which options on the menu would be safe for me to eat. Even at the counter service restaurants, a manager would come out and help me select an appropriate meal. There was always something I could eat. Disney is incredibly conscientious and accommodating when it comes to food allergies.
Set a Food Budget
Look at the details of the Disney Dining Plan and decide if the numbers make sense for you. We’ve gone to Disney World both with and without the dining plan, and I’m not sure that it saves you money unless you eat the most expensive things on the menu at the higher-end restaurants. However, it’s nice to have the food budget figured out and paid for so neatly ahead of time. On our recent trip, we did use the dining plan and I appreciated being able to order whatever I wanted on a menu without considering the price. My brain happens to be wired to look for the least expensive item on a menu, so it was liberating to be able to look differently at the menus on this vacation. (The dining plan includes a drink and a dessert with every meal, so I chose water for my drink and fruit for my dessert on several occasions.)
In budgeting for food at Disney World, I recommend bringing at least a few things from home. If you bring a few packages of nuts and dried fruit, homemade snack bars, whole grain bread, peanut butter, granola, and other protein-packed snack items, you’ll save money at the parks. You’ll also have nutritious food available for the times when you can’t find anything but junk.
Stick to Your Principles
Focus on Fruit
Once you know where you’ll be eating, stick to your real food principles when you order at the restaurants and snack kiosks. For snacks, concentrate on fresh fruit. You’ll find apples, oranges, bananas, and grapes everywhere. I even found packets of fruit squeezers in a gift shop in Epcot’s France pavilion.
Ask for Substitutions
While Disney isn’t always explicit about this, it’s very accommodating for substitutions. If your meal comes with fries, ask for grapes instead. Rather than ordering dessert off the menu, choose a fruit cup. Ask for sauces and dressing on the side. Every time I requested a substitution, the servers were happy to oblige.
Look for Short Ingredient Lists
When fruit is unavailable, look for a snack with a short ingredient list. A bag of potato chips often contains only three ingredients: potatoes, oil, and salt. Even though the oil isn’t the type you’d use at home, this may be your healthiest snack option. If you’ve packed nuts, seeds, and dried fruit, this would be a great energy-boosting snack in the midst of a long walk across the park.
Choose Smart Drinks
Remember these two words: drink water. There’s no reason to drink sugary drinks on a vacation like this, unless it’s a special splurge like the homemade organic lemonade with berry foam at Be Our Guest. If you’re on the Disney Dining Plan, each meal comes with a drink. Don’t use that as an excuse to order soda. A bottle of water is a much better choice when you’re trying to stay hydrated and well-fueled for the marathon. Milk is often an option for the children’s meals as well.
Avoid White Flour Carbs
Don’t eat the rolls. I know the waiter will put them on your table. Don’t eat them unless they look like the best rolls you’ve ever seen. And in that case, just have half of one. They’re all white flour and not helpful fuel.
Behave at the Buffet
At “all you care to enjoy” buffets, just fill your plate once with a normal amount of food. Don’t eat two or three plates full in order to get your money’s worth. If you think this will be too challenging for your family, avoid buffet meals when you plan out your schedule.
Make Healthy Menu Selections
Order a hearty salad with dressing on the side instead of a sandwich and fries. When possible, avoid typical kids’ meals like chicken nuggets and macaroni and cheese. Some menus offer special healthier meals for children.
Splurge a Little along the Way
This is still a vacation, so of course you and your family should enjoy a few treats along the way. Choose two or three special desserts or treats to have during your visit. Give yourself space to have one or two unexpected splurge desserts. Be smart about it – don’t indulge in an extra dessert on a day when you’ve already splurged. Talk to your children ahead of time about how you’ll be dealing with treats. You can include this in a conversation about souvenirs, which you’ll find in great abundance throughout the parks and resorts. If you’ve given your children a solid real food foundation, they’ll understand why that rainbow-colored lollipop isn’t the best choice for a special dessert.
You may be tempted to relax your real food principles completely while you’re on vacation. From personal experience, I strongly urge you to resist this temptation. On our first full day at Disney World, we let our kids splurge more than a little and they had several treats and unhealthy meal items. Everything seemed fine when we went to bed, but a couple hours later, I woke up to the sound of one of my children vomiting. There was no fever or illness; this was simply the result of a day full of bad food choices. Trust me, this is not something you want to deal with in the middle of the night on your magical vacation to Disney World. When our bodies are accustomed to real food, they can’t easily shift to junk food without side effects. Maintain your principles on vacation and everyone will be happier.
Eating Healthy at Disney World: The Restaurants
Later this week, I will post my specific restaurant and meal recommendations. I found several real food jewels on my dining journey, as well as a few non-real food treats that you won’t want to miss. There’s one park that has an amazing selection of food, and it’s where we ate dinner almost every night. (Here’s a link to my Eating Healthy at Disney World: The Restaurants post.)
Have you been to Walt Disney World? What food tips would you add to this list? I’d love to hear your suggestions.