9 Tips To Eat Healthy When Holiday Traveling

by | Dec 11, 2013

Photo by jondoeforty1

Tis the season for holiday travel. For the next couple of weeks airports will be the fateful purgatory for all of us venturing home (or away) for the holidays.

Since calorie rich meals are almost certainly in your future, why waste perfectly good indulgences on crappy airport food?

Unhealthy food should be a treat, never a symptom of laziness. Just a little planning can get you through most flights without the need to eat things you’d prefer not to.

Even in suboptimal situations (75% of my flights back to SF are delayed due to weather), there are a few tricks you can use to minimize the damage.

9 Tips To Eat Healthy When Holiday Traveling

1. Eat before you leave

This might seem obvious, but most of the people I know delay packing, commuting and arrival for so long they show up at the airport hungry, a slave to their uber-processed industrial food surroundings. You can avoid this by simply planning time for a meal beforehand.

Make it happen, it’s worth it.

2. Pack snacks

A decent meal before you leave and a few nuts and maybe a piece of fruit inflight should get you through any flight six hours or under. You can find most of these things in the airport in a pinch.

For longer flights I recommend jerky, charcuterie, cheese, boiled eggs and other protein dense food to stave off hunger until you can get a real meal at your destination. If you’d rather not pack animal foods, bean and/or grain salads with diced veggies, herbs and vinaigrette are delicious and keep well for hours without refrigeration.

In most cases eating airplane food is a choice, not a necessity.

3. Stay hydrated

Airplane air just might be the driest air in the world. Also, hunger is amplified when you’re even slightly dehydrated. Combat both these afflictions by drinking plenty of water both before and inflight.

Bonus: this will require you to get up and, errr, stretch your legs at least a couple of times during the ride, which can reduce your sedentary time during the flight.

4. Nourish yourself

Immune systems function best when they are well nourished. To protect yourself from the zillions of germs you’re exposed to in airports be sure to eat a healthy supply of vegetables and fruits for the days surrounding your flights (each way). And don’t forget your multivitamin.

5. Go vegetarian for a few hours

Maybe your flight was delayed so long you were forced to eat in the airport. Maybe your flight is 10+ hours. For whatever reason, sometimes you’re forced to sell your soul and, dare I say it, eat airport/plane food. In these cases I recommend ordering strategically to avoid the worst: refined carbohydrates and industrial meat. Consider going vegetarian for a few hours to avoid CAFO meat. Look for options with extra vegetables—even if they taste bad, it’s not like the worse-for-you food is going to taste much better.

6. Look for Mexican restaurants

If you’re in an airport, Mexican restaurants are a great bet because you can almost always get beans, rice and some kind of vegetable. This is filling and moderately nutritious (plus salsa and guacamole are hard to mess up).

7. Look for high-end salads

Salads with some kind of protein are your second best option, but the taste will be more hit or miss with these compared to Mexican food. If salad is your only choice, I recommend finding the nicest spot in the entire airport to minimize your risk of getting nasty veggies and potential food poisoning.

8. Watch your portions

No matter what you choose, if you’re eating airport food it isn’t going to taste good and is unlikely to be particularly healthy. Eat as little as you need to stop the hunger. Don’t expect to be full or satisfied, in fact it may be better if you aren’t (see tip #9).

9. Don’t fear hunger

Honestly, being hungry for a few hours isn’t going to kill you. There’s even some compelling evidence that caloric restriction (even periodically) can be healthy. I’m not advocating starvation, if you’re landing at 3am in a small town with nothing open, you’ve gotta do what you’ve gotta do. But if a few hours of hunger is all you’re facing, consider embracing it as a zen practice in self-restraint and eat a decent meal when you get to your destination instead of the mystery food they offer inflight.

How do you avoid crappy airplane food?

Originally published November 14, 2012.

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23 Responses to “9 Tips To Eat Healthy When Holiday Traveling”

  1. Monica says:

    These are great tips for avoiding nasty airport junk! Another place to check for quasi-real food is, of all places, Starbucks. I scoured the Denver airport looking for something fresh seeming, and the Starbucks fruit cup was literally the only decent produce I could track down. This fresh fruit plus a pack of nuts from the magazine shop made me feel less craptacular than the greasy pan-pizzas or soggy CAFO burgers would have.

  2. Lin C says:

    For anyone who ends up going through the Minneapolis/St Paul airport, head to French Meadows! No, I don’t work for them or have any stake, but they are a wonderful local restaurant (there’s a main restaurant in Uptown Minneapolis) with amazing soups. They do have a bakery, so lots of that not super healthy food, but they have organic, mostly local, and suuuuuuuuuuuper tasty food. I highly recommend the chicken and wild rice soup.

    And I was actually in the Denver airport not too long ago. There was a snack stand that had a trail mix with pumpkin and sunflower seeds and some dried fruit. I’m sure the fruit had more added sugar than necessary, but I didn’t need very much to make it through the flight back.

  3. bobcat says:

    A lot of times, you can just get a bag of nuts (salted or unsalted) from those bookstores with the magazines, and a banana and an apple from one of the coffee shops. If I carry nuts with me that I buy in one of the shops, there is never a reason to ever go hungry. I disagree with the notion that hunger is okay to deal with while travelling—for me, it isn’t! I get too grumpy, and it seems like the time I think I’ll have to wait until my next meal is always doubled, while travelling. Not worth the risk.

    McDonald’s normally has some kind of healthy salad on their menu. Sure, you’ll get stuff you don’t want in the dressing (which you can just skip or use sparingly), or the lettuce is lousy, but oh well….life goes on and their are bigger problems in the world than mediocre-but-still-edible lettuce.

    Most “to go” walk-by places in airports sell some kind of salad with protein (or 2-3 varieties). I’ll typically get that with a fiber muffin from Starbucks (because I don’t mind carbs/sugar), or nuts.

  4. P Smith says:

    Fail. There is no mention of diabetic meals on airplanes.

    Diabetic meals on flights contain very little salt or fat:
    - steamed fish or chicken (or once pork)
    - rice, potatoes or noodles
    - vegetables
    - fruit and other foods that
    When you’re booking your flight, ask for a diabetic (or diatetic) meal. It costs nothing extra and is always healthier, and you usually get served first.

    I’m not a diabetic, by the way. You don’t have to be one to order it.

    Only twice in all the flights I’ve ever been on (about 30) was a diabetic meal inedible: Korean Air did not provide diabetic meals despite me booking it and being promised one, and Dragon Air served a crappy sandwich that stunk of rotting meat.

    • Darya Pino says:

      Didn’t know about that, thanks for the tip!

      • Jen says:

        I got the fruit meal for my long haul from Qatar to Canada. It was pretty great. I usually feel really bloated and gassy when up in the air, but I didn’t the days I had the fruit plate. I think that was due to the bromelain. I was a teensy bit jealous of my husband’s hot pizza sandwich, especially when my snack was an apple, but I got a lot of nice fruit, like kiwi or papaya and pineapple, too. It wasn’t bland, like the low-calorie meals can be. I’d recommend this for option for vegans, GFs, dieters and foodists.

  5. S Ormbrek says:

    @ P Smith
    I have not seen an option for diabetic (or kosher or any other option) meals on a plane in nearly a decade, even in first class. What airline do you fly??

    • Jane says:

      The special meals are available on international flights; I’ve never run into an airline that doesn’t offer them sometimes you do have to call and wait for a costumer service representative to order them (instead of the airlines website.) I to went Vegan on international flights a long time ago.

  6. Rika says:

    For vegan or vegetarian-friendly airports & flying eating tips, check out my blog at: http://veganmiam.com/category/airport/

    I fly a lot :)

    Thanks for sharing!

  7. Bunny says:

    When I travel to see family overseas, I have to take some pretty long flights (14-16 hours, around 20 if you include layovers). Since that emcompasses about 2-3 meals for the entirety of the trip, I pack a salad or sandwich for the first meal, since that perishes first. Then for the other meal(s) I pack a tupperware full of frozen veggies and cubed cooked chicken. The frozen veggies slowly thaw in my soft cooler bag in-flight, and by the time I’m ready to eat my 2nd meal, they’re defrosted but cool. Extremely refreshing for the dry climate on the plane.

    Don’t forget your water bottle too; refill at each airport’s water fountains, since the water on planes has been found to be quite disgusting once they run out of bottled water.

  8. Kari says:

    “Pack snacks. . . ” and have them stolen from you in security if you evidently look like a drug dealer. I had no idea carrots were a threat to national security but I can’t get through an airport with anything but the most obvious of basics.

    Fortunately I have been through many an airport that had at least one good, if expensive, deli. If you’re willing to pay sixteen dollars for them, you can usually get fresh veggies to your heart’s content.

    In flight the vegetarian option is usually a good bet, I must agree. I’m a veggie and am usually pretty pleased by the fruit salad I am offered, as opposed to the reheated mystery meat.

    • Darya Pino says:

      WOW. I’ve never had food confiscated. That’s crazy! I guess SFO is a little more lenient than some.

      • Kari says:

        I’m glad if there are calm airports. I just haven’t been so lucky for a bit. I mostly just take the bus instead these days, and many of those pass through towns, widening your food options considerably. I load up my backpack with water, good snacks, and good literature. . . it’s much less hectic than flying, to me.

  9. Jane says:

    Cibo Express which started out in the NYC airports has been expanding. They have very good fresh food options IMHO.

  10. d-marie says:

    International flights have meal choices, I’ve flown United and Cathay in the last two years for trips and both offered gluten free, vegan, vegetarian, etc. I always order the special meal because it is often lighter and healthier and the mentioned added bonus, you get your meal first!

  11. Lexie Wolf says:

    I find that most airports are getting better about having kiosks where you can purchase salads, nuts, cheese, etc. The problem is the prices! I try to pack most of the food I’ll need: nuts/trail mix, apples (they travel well), all natural peanut butter and jelly (all fruit, not added sugar) on good whole wheat bread generally does the trick. A big bottle of water when I get there.

  12. Michelle says:

    Great tips for airline travel. My issues are when staying with relatives, especially ones in rural areas. They are in control of the menus and don’t eat a ton of vegetables or fruit. They now try to have some lettuce or spinach on hand, which is thoughtful and wonderful, but pales in comparison to the amounts I normally eat on a daily basis. Does anyone have the same issues and solutions? Bringing food with me seems a bit rude…

  13. Great tips! It seems vegetarian meals have gotten a bit of an upgrade recently. I’ve started ordering them not just because it’s healthier, but because it tastes better. On a recent flight to Turkey, I was served a dish of layered potato slices and eggplant in a rich tomato sauce. It was actually really delicious, something I would have even paid for in a restaurant. Now, the weird chicken breast peices with steamed vegetables and overcooked pasta the guy next to me was eating…not so much.

  14. Virginia Griffey says:

    Great tips! Enjoy the holidays. :-D

    p.s. Love the falling snow on Summer Tomato!

  15. Dee says:

    I lose my appetite in the plane… I think the prep environment is gross right next to the toilet and the wine and food is cheap.- well depends on the airline…

    My travel days are usually sleep deprived which leads to impulse food purchase, so I tend to stick to water/ tea whilst in transit.

  16. Jane says:

    To add to tip #5, and consider ordering a special Vegetarian/Vegan meal on long haul flight (international) flights. The quality of the food is often both better tasting and better for you. (more vegetables fruit instead of desert.)

  17. Jane says:

    I mentioned father down, vegetarian/vegan meals as well. Delta also have a fruit only meal on international flights. All of the meals have to be per-arranged with the airlines 24 hours in advance. Sometimes with code shares you have to call anybody and everybody to try to arrange the meal and it doesn’t always work. I favor veggie over diabetic because I hate airline meat.

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