My husband and I are not native Minnesotans; we moved here from Philadelphia in the late 1990s. Once we got here, we were happy to discover that there's much more to living here than enduring those long, hard winters. One of the most weird and wonderful discoveries was the Minnesota State Fair. Fair-savvy friends first took us in 1999, and I haven't missed a year since. Even when our first son was a week old. I went; he stayed home.
This year he's seven, and our family of four went on opening day. If you've never gone to the fair on Thrifty Thursday, I highly recommend it, especially for families. Historically one of the least crowded days, admission and rides are discounted. The fairgrounds are clean and the staff is more energetic and friendly than later in the fair, when the heat and crowds have taken a toll. I've learned a lot about the fair over the years, from other fair-savvy parents and by trial and error. Each year is more fun than the last, so here are some ideas to help your family not merely survive the fair, but truly enjoy it!
1. Set a budget.
Perhaps even give yourself permission to break it, as there are ATMs within the fairgrounds. (Probably best not to do that more than once, though!) If your children are old enough, give them each some money to spend on their own. This helps limit the begging at every food stand, ride, and toy outpost. To keep costs down, check for discounts. September 1 is Read and Ride Wednesday: with a valid library card, adults and children get discounted admission. Monday September 6, the last day of the fair, is Kids Day, with discounted admission for children. Both days have all-day discounts on Midway and Kidway rides, games and concessions.
2. Agree on a to-do list.
Jot down your favorite foods, rides and sights before you go. Ask everyone in the family what they most want to do, eat or see. You'll need to mediate between what the grownups and kids want, so manage expectations. They won't be nearly as interested in the Fine Arts or Creative Activities as you are, and you won't want to spend as much time and money at the Kidway as they do. It's unlikely you'll get to do everything everyone wants. You might come back again without the kids, make more than one trip, or try again next year. As for supplies, pack light, but take sunscreen, hats, sunglasses, refillable water bottles, and wet wipes.
3. Make getting there green and easy.
The lots at the fair aren't inexpensive, and traffic can be thick. Go green with these tips from Minnesota Monthly's Dara & Co. blog, and find the nearest park and ride location to you. Shuttle buses run to and from the fair at regular intervals, and you can take a wagon or stroller on with you. If you don't want to schlep your own, you can rent one inside the gate. As soon as they're able, though, I recommend letting the kids walk. It's great exercise, and their fatigue is a good sign of when to go home. Try to leave while you're still having fun!
4. Get oriented.
Stop at an information booth a map and identification bracelets for the kids in case you get separated. The daily schedule of events will help you decide when and where to take breaks.
5. Find the free stuff.
I don't just mean the yardsticks. The fair does a great job of programming, with free, family-friendly shows and concerts throughout each day. These are entertaining, and a great way to get off your feet and take a breather. My boys loved the skateboard and bike exhibitions at the 3rd Lair and the lumberjack show in the Northwoods. Print out a copy of the Fabulous Fair Alphabet game to play. Other popular kid activities are the parade, Little Farmhands, the Miracle of Birth center, and the animal barns.
6. Ride some rides.
The Midway and Kidway require tickets. Others, like the sky rides, cost per person. (Buy a one-way ticket; it costs less and you go through a different area of the fair on the walk back.) Go on the River Ride when it's sunny and warm; you'll dry faster afterward.
This is my favorite fair activity. Check foodie posts at Dara & Co., Hot Dish (Best and Worst new foods), Heavy Table and Star Tribune for reviews of the new foods each year, but don't forget old favorites, which have stood the test of time (unlike chocolate covered bacon, say.) This year my must-eat food list includes: Peterson's pork chop on a stick, Famous French fries, Pronto Pups for the kids, fried cheese curds, something from the Sausage Sisters, Nitro ice cream, corn fritters and fried green tomatoes, lingonberry snow cone, roast corn, 1919 root beer, fried pickles (which have moved), mocha on a stick, cider freezies, honey-sunflower ice cream, Salty Tart Peaches and Cream and macaroons, and a fresh-squeezed lemonade on the way out the gate. The small root beer and cider freezie are just a dollar each!
7b. Limit quantity...
Our motto is "we share at the fair." No matter how tempting the "best value" is, we order a small and share it. This way our family gets to try a little of a lot of things. It's like Minnesota tapas! Sharing the small also limits gorging and subsequent stomach-aches.
7c. But not quality.
Kids don't know the difference between a good tasting (if unhealthful) fair food and an unremarkable one. It's our job to educate them. This year, when my kids begged for food like corn dogs, day-glo snow cones, and random ice cream, I steered them toward better-tasting options. I want whatever I eat to be tasty enough to justify the fat, calories, and cost. Pronto Pups, with their pancake-y batter, have become a MN state fair institution, as opposed to corn dogs, an Iowa tradition you can find pretty much anywhere. For snow cones, I sought out the lingonberry stand by the Food Building. Their tartness makes it a more sophisticated treat the kids still love. For ice cream, we had a sundae from Nitro in the Food Building, with hot fudge and caramel sauces. And instead of stopping by Sweet Martha's, we got a peaches and cream parfait from the Salty Tart at the Produce Exchange booth across from the International Market, with frozen Greek yogurt, coconut milk, sliced peaches and crumbled gluten-free gingersnaps.
In the end I couldn't dissuade my boys from cotton candy. They used their money to buy it. As we walked to the stand, my older son said, "We'll get a cone because it's smaller and cheaper." It was also fresher. When the boys tore into it, the texture was airy, as opposed to the more expensive, stale bags full of dense stuff hanging from the walls. Cotton candy is not real food, but if my kids want to splurge on it once a year, at least they get to see it spun, rip it apart while it's still warm, and feel it melt in their mouth.
8. Have fun!
The state fair is a once-a-year experience. I eat things I normally wouldn't, look at things I don't often see (seed art! butter sculptures!), and ride rides even though I'm scared of heights. The fair, because it's an annual event, has a moderation built into it. As long as I try for some restraint and common sense by making plans like those above, the memories will be lasting, while the impact to my waistline and wallet won't.
Kristin Boldon is a frequent contributor for Simple, Good and Tasty, who also writes for the Eastside Food Cooperative's newsletter on health and wellness, and for her own blog Girl Detective. Her last post for us was "The Fresh Produce in Your August CSA Box: It's All Good!"