Healthier Airport Food

Your best food choices when you're stuck at the airport.

By Elaine Magee, MPH, RD
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Feature

Reviewed By Kathleen Zelman MPH, RD/LD

"Hurry up and wait" is the phrase that seems to sum up air travel these days. You hurry to get to your airport two hours before your flight. You wait to get through the security check before hurrying to your gate. You wait to board your plane, then wait again to arrive at your destination. And what about food? If you're not already hungry and thirsty by the time you get on the plane, you're likely to be hungry and thirsty by the time your flight is over.

Many airlines no longer offer meals except on longer flights. And it's not so simple to bring food to the airport these days. You used to be able to bring your own yogurt and fruit juice, and to pack frozen water bottles to keep your food cool. But for security reasons, you can now bring only mostly dry goods. All liquids must be purchased at the gates.

So how does a health-conscious traveler negotiate the food offerings at airports across America?

The good news is that in many airports, the prepared food choices are getting fresher and healthier. It isn't just about French fries and doughnuts anymore! In lots of airports, you can now find everything from salad and sushi bars to smoothie stands and fresh Tex-Mex grill restaurants.

Armed with some key food items from home, and healthier options available for purchase at the airport, you'll be a happier and healthier (or at least less hungry) traveler this summer. Just follow these four healthy traveler rules:

Healthy Traveler Rule No. 1: Bring Your Own Snacks

The only way to know for sure that you'll have snacks that suit your body and appetite is to bring your own. Christine Gerbstadt, MD, RD, spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association, suggests bringing protein-rich snacks and "packable" fruits like apples, oranges, and dried fruit.

"I like soy nuts, and some of the protein bars are good in a pinch," adds Gerbstadt.

She suggests choosing unsalted nuts and snacks to reduce bloating and dehydration while flying. Drinking a full bottle of water, especially when eating protein bars, will help with digestion and hydration, Gerbstadt says.

Lisa Young, PhD, RD, nutrition professor at New York University and author of The Portion Teller Plan, adds cut-up veggies and rice cakes with peanut butter to the list of healthy snacks to pack.

Keep in mind that most airports no longer let you bring anything liquid or gel-like through security, including water bottles and yogurt. But you can purchase these items (usually for an inflated price) on the other side of the security checkpoint on your way to the gate.

Healthy Traveler Rule No. 2: Know the Healthier Airport Options

Whether you're at a magazine and snack stand, a deli, or a fast-food restaurant, there are healthier food choices to be made inside the airport. For starters, trade in that bottle of soda for a bottle of water, and buy a bag of pretzels or mixed nuts instead of chips, Young advises in an email interview.

If you need a meal, don't settle for the first fast-food restaurant you see. Walk around the food area to size up all your options before making your choice. Gerbstadt suggests ordering a side of sushi -- but without the high-sodium soy sauce.

Here are some better choices in typical airport eateries:

Pizza. In the pizza line, grab a slice with veggie toppings, and pair it with fresh fruit or raw veggies, not chips or a cookie. The pizza is rich enough. You'll want to balance it with something high-fiber and low in fat.

Sandwich/Salad. When selecting a premade sandwich, look for whole-wheat or whole-grain bread, choose lean meat or vegetarian fillings, and dress it with no-calorie condiments like mustard. For salads, if light dressing isn't available, use just 1 tablespoon of the regular type. Look for lots of color in your lettuce and veggies when selecting your salad. If there is meat added, make it a lean choice, like roasted skinless chicken breast. Also, make sure the sandwich or salad you buy is well chilled.

Mexican Food. Stay away from the fried choices. Go for entrees like bean or grilled chicken burritos and soft tacos (chicken or fish). Beans are generally a good, filling option, especially if they are whole beans rather than refried. Pass up the sour cream and processed cheese sauce in favor of fresh salsa.

Coffee Shop/Bakery. A certain coffee chain seems to be at every corner of most American cities, and the airport is no exception. Starbucks offers a couple of lower-fat bakery options, both with 3 grams of fat and from 3 to 5 grams of fiber: the low-fat Cranberry Apple Muffin (290 calories) and the low-fat Oat Fruit Scone (320 calories).

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