How to Avoid Crappy Food When Flying

UPDATE March 14, 2017 – Delta started it a few weeks back and now American Airlines says it too will begin offering free meals in economy on certain long-haul routes beginning May 1.

A friend once told me, “Food consumed in the air has no calories.” I like the way she thinks but alas, it’s not true. Here’s the question: Can you avoid crappy food and find the healthy stuff while traveling? Sure you can, and here are some ideas.

Disclaimer: We are not doctors, nutritionists or even restaurant reviewers. If food is an issue, consult a health care professional. This is for those who try to avoid crappy food when possible and might want a little guidance.

1. First, Find the Cheapest Flight Possible

Why? You’ll have more left over to spend on anything from great food in wonderful restaurants to fun events at your vacation city. So start by getting the best flight deal possible and that means comparing airfares. Tip: If you’re don’t have to travel on a specific date, you can often find very cheap flights year-round on the Getaway Map.

2. Eat the Free Food on Planes

Yes, free food is making a comeback – on a couple of airlines anyway.

  • Delta: As of March 2017, Delta began offering free meals in coach class on several long-haul routes and more are coming. Healthy stuff: Turkey and vegetarian wraps, plus fruit and cheese plates (and certain overnight flights feature a breakfast bar).

UPDATE #1: One air travel industry insider believes American and United may join Delta in free economy meals, if only to maintain their competitive edge. When this could happen isn’t known.

UPDATE #2: American just announced it too will start free meal service in economy on certain routes beginning May 1.

  • Hawaiian: Flights from the mainland U.S. to Hawaii also offer free meals in economy. Example: Ginger chicken with peas, carrots, corn and steamed white rice.
  • International flights: Most offer free food in economy including a wide range of chicken and pasta dishes; Emirates Airlines, for example, serves a chicken and herb-seasoned dish or sweet and sour fish; both come with vegetables.
  • International flights with no free food: Ultra-discount carriers such as Norwegian and Wow only provide food for purchase but it includes plenty of healthy (and tasty-sounding) options like salmon salad and bags of nuts.
  • Free snacks: Both Southwest and JetBlue have reputations for a wide array of free snacks that include healthy-ish type items like JetBlue’s dried cranberries and popcorn chips.

3. Bring Your Own Food

Make a sandwich the night before you leave; you’ll have something cheap to eat you know you’ll like. It can be healthy – and filling – and maybe you’ll be less tempted by those overpriced bags of candy and chips in the airport news kiosks. More ideas:

  • Hummus or peanut butter-smeared rice cakes
  • Small plastic tub of salad
  • Granola bars, fruits and vegetables

Remember, no liquids in containers larger than 3.4 ounces through security so bring an empty bottle to fill up past the checkpoint or get a free drink on the plane. Note: You have to pay for soft drinks on most of the super-discount airlines including Frontier, Ryanair and Spirit.

4. Avoid the Crappy Food – Fast Food

Many food-conscious travelers already know this stuff; it’s kind of common-sensical, but it may be news to some.

  • Fast food burgers: Tasty? Absolutely! But if you’re looking to cut calories, might want to go with a fast food salad and skip the fries. And the milk shake.
  • Pastries: Yes, sometimes you do deserve a treat and those giant sweet rolls with white icing are delicious. On the other hand, they are not necessarily ideal for dieters. One popular airport-and-mall bakery franchise offers a pecan/caramel treat that sources say is 1,080 calories but these shops also offer donut-hole snacks for 260 calories.
  • Pizza: What would the world be without pizza? But for the health conscious, it’s all about the toppings. One popular airport pizzeria’s site says a slice of its extra-meat pizza has 600 calories but they also offer a tomato & spinach slice with just 370 calories.

5. Avoid Crappy Food – Airport Restaurants

Most airports aren’t foodie destinations but that could be changing thanks to an explosion of good dining options. We’ve got some examples of good food at good airport restaurants around the world but please not that menus can change without notice. Tip: Click the city to find a cheap flight.

  • Hong Kong: This award-winning airport has a wide array of Asian and Western options including Chinese, Greek, Italian, French and numerous establishments serving vegetarian dishes. Try the fish balls or get a taste of home at McDonald’s. See more restaurants here.
  • London Heathrow: So many restaurants but we like the sound of Leon because one reviewer wrote, “Fast food that’s good for you might be a confusing concept, but a quick look at what’s on offer [at Leon] proves it’s not an impossible dream.” Rhubarb  sounds good too; it offers “a welcome alternative to the ‘stodgy’ full-English breakfast.” See more here.
  • Los Angeles: Try Petrossian for caviar; it’s only about 40 calories per tablespoon and heck, how much can you afford to eat? Plus there are lots of salads at Lemonade. See more here.
  • New York (JFK): Deep Blue Sushi has – well, sushi – and Piquillo is recommended for paella and ceviche. See more here.
  • Frankfurt: Okay, so maybe Deustch doesn’t top the list of healthy options thanks to all those wonderful sausages (reviewers say they’re really good) but sauerkraut is kind of light. See more here.
  • San Francisco: Napa Farms Market offers a changing seasonal menu but usually includes a yogurt bar, rotisserie meats and fresh berries, while fans of Cat Cora’s Kitchen love the oysters and artichokes. If you overdo it, you can always visit the airport’s yoga room. See more here.
  • Sydney: The airport’s website lists a bunch of ‘healthy eating’ options including Little Bok Choy and Soul Origin. See more here.

Safe travels – and savor the journey.

VIDEO: Our thanks to Food Babe for some of these ideas.

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Updated: August 21, 2017