Your Mile-High Guide to Eating Well

Which flights have the best airplane food? How can you eat healthy through flight delays and tight connections? We’ve got answers.

Nuts coming out of jar onto table

by NEA Member Benefits

Key takeaways

  • Packing your own snacks is the best way to prepare for airport delays, short connections and/or lack of airport dining options.
  • Airlines that serve meals offer the opportunity to make a special meal request in advance.
  • Bring any favorite culinary accoutrements that will make your food taste better.
  • Be wary of seafood on planes, as undercooked meats, poultry, seafood, shellfish or eggs may increase your risk of foodborne illness.

Airplane food can be drab at best and downright unappetizing at worst. On a long travel day, eating well can be the first thing to fall by the wayside, especially when things don’t go as planned. Here are a few easy tips to navigate the trials and tribulations of eating right while in the air, so you won’t stress-eat the entire bag of jelly beans you grabbed at a kiosk on a mad dash to catch your connection.

What to pack in your carry-on

The best way to prepare for airport delays, close connections and lack of airport dining options is to pack your own snacks. Just remember not to bring any containers of liquids more than 3.4 oz. (100 ml), or they won’t make it through Transportation Security Administration (TSA) screening. Unfortunately, yogurt, salsa and creamy dips count as liquids. So, instead, make a mix of your favorite fruit at home and pack it in a reusable container. Dark chocolate is another healthy way to satisfy a sweet craving. Look for labels with 70% cacao content and up for maximum antioxidants and minimal sugar. Mixed nuts, jerky, popcorn and whole-grain crackers are good nonperishable savory options.

Airplane cabins are notorious for dry, recycled air, and a study in the International Journal of Environmental Health Research found that colds may be more than 100 times more likely to be transmitted on a plane than on the ground. A great way to stay healthy on the road is to sip apple cider vinegar in lieu of soda or juice. While the scientific community has yet to verify the health benefits of apple cider vinegar, many health food companies purport that is can help kill certain types of bacteria. Vermont Village offers organic apple cider vinegar shots sweetened with honey that taste great mixed with sparkling water. And, they come in small enough packets to take aboard.

What to expect on board 

This past year, several domestic carriers revived complimentary meals in the main cabin on select transcontinental flights. American offers continental breakfast or boxed lunch on flights from New York to Los Angeles and San Francisco. Hawaiian Airlines is known for offering tasty island-inspired meals for coach passengers. For shorter flights, pretzels, cookies and nonalcoholic beverages are standard freebies on American and United.

JetBlue has a wider-than-most variety of complimentary snacks for all passengers. Coach offerings that are available to purchase on many domestic flights are limited to a small selection of overpriced snacks such as trail mix, chips, cookies and candy. Flights longer than three hours will usually offer simple sandwiches, wraps and cheese plates to purchase as well, although some airlines only accept credit or debit cards for payment. Most international flights continue to offer complimentary meals in coach, with the exception of shorter flights (e.g., Miami to the Caribbean).

Order a special meal

Prior to your flight, airlines that serve a meal allow you the opportunity to make a special meal request, either online or by calling customer service. There are more than a dozen options available to accommodate dietary restrictions, allergies and preferences. Most of these requests must be made at least 24 to 48 hours in advance, depending on the carrier. Special meals often include fresher ingredients, because they are prepared in smaller batches. Even for those without allergies, it might be worth it to order a special meal. These include healthier alternatives like gluten-free, low-sodium or low-sugar options for diabetics. Best of all, these meals are always served first, even if your seat is at the back of the plane.

Seasoning tips 

If you have any favorite culinary accoutrements that will make your food taste better, bring them on board yourself. A little pink Himalayan or sea salt for the bland omelet will certainly taste better than the kosher salt from the miniature shaker. The butter served with bread is often hard as a rock, coming straight from the refrigerator. Simply warm it up by putting it on the hot tinfoil of the entrée for a couple of minutes. Or, perhaps bring a nut butter to spread on the bread. Justin’s makes handy single-serve packets; the ratio of healthy fats to protein will keep you full but not bloated. Or, perhaps you need your favorite herbal tea to help you sleep? Packing these small items in your carry-on can make a big difference.

What to avoid

Tuna tartare or shrimp linguine might sound tempting, but be wary of seafood on planes. Anything that’s raw or undercooked when it comes to meats, poultry, seafood, shellfish or eggs may increase your risk of foodborne illness. Spicy dishes could upset sensitive stomachs. If you do indulge, consider carrying mouthwash to swig after consuming garlicky and heavily spiced items to help freshen up. Over-the-counter remedies like Pepto-Bismol can also help sooth upset stomachs. Street food might be worth taking a chance on, but airplane food not so much.

Stay awake for extra treats

Even in coach, on long-haul flights flight attendants often come by between meal services with unannounced surprise treats like ice cream or chocolates. Consider bringing a small present for the flight attendant and they may sneak you back some food from the premium cabin. On international flights, the business class galley has sweet and savory snacks available for the duration of the flight once the first meal service has concluded.

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