The phrase "healthy airport food" can seem like a contradiction in terms. Once you've entered the airport, your stomach is at the mercy of faceless fast food corporations and busy cafes that serve processed "convenience" foods loaded with sodium and empty calories.
In a perfect world, you'd pack your own lunch. But with airline baggage restrictions getting tighter and tighter, throwing some apples in your bag often means sacrificing a valuable portion of luggage real estate.
If you decide to brave the airport food court, it can be nearly impossible to determine which menu options are your healthiest bet. While some chains display ingredients and nutrition data, not all do. If you don't see that info displayed right on the menu, consider checking the restaurant's app or website; often you'll find it there.
As a rule it's better to buy whole foods like bananas, apples, nuts, yogurt and dried fruit for snacking instead of fast food menu items. Unfortunately, these are not always available -- and in the airport, they're not always fresh.
To get an idea of which foods to choose when faced with a three-hour layover on an empty stomach, I took a look at the menus of a number of popular airport restaurants, including McDonald's, Starbucks, Au Bon Pain and Cinnabon, and picked healthy (and not-so-healthy) options based on calorie count and levels of sodium, fat, fiber and protein. All of the healthy choices have fewer than 350 calories per serving, but some of these options are not low in sodium, and travelers watching salt intake or those with special dietary restrictions should try to pack food from home.
One cautionary note: Restaurant chains often have limited airport menus, and depending on what terminal you're in, you might not find all of the foods below.
Healthy Airport Food Options
Au Bon Pain Garden Vegetable Soup: Filled with carrots, green peppers, zucchini, broccoli and corn, a large-size serving of this vegetarian soup has just 110 calories plus 4 grams of protein and 4 grams of fiber. It's also got 70 percent of your daily recommended vitamin A and 50 percent of your daily vitamin C. Like most restaurant soups, this dish is high in salt (with 1,520 milligrams of sodium). Order a smaller size if you want to curb your salt intake.
McDonald's Bacon Ranch Grilled Chicken Salad: McDonald's offers a number of decent salads that can be ordered with or without meat. The bacon ranch salad with grilled chicken has 320 calories (without dressing) with 42 grams of protein and 60 percent of your daily value of vitamin C. But watch out -- the grilled chicken alone adds 570 milligrams of sodium. If you're watching your salt, order the salad sans chicken. (Or eliminate the bacon, which has 360 milligrams of sodium.)
Starbucks Classic Whole-Grain Oatmeal: This food is quite possibly one of the healthiest options in your airport. It has 160 calories with 5 grams of protein, 125 milligrams of sodium and just 2.5 grams of fat. Plus, there's calcium and iron in this oatmeal -- and the ingredient list is comfortingly short and easy to pronounce. Keep in mind that adding nuts, brown sugar and/or dried fruit as toppings will up your calorie count.
Dunkin' Donuts Egg White Veggie Flatbread: Thank you, Dunkin' Donuts, for giving us something tasty to snack on other than sugary fried balls of carbohydrates. Dunkin's egg white veggie flatbread has 320 calories plus 17 grams of protein and 4 grams of fiber. Real veggies like bell peppers, potatoes and onions add vitamins A and C. Keep in mind that there are 13 grams of fat and 610 milligrams of sodium in this sandwich.
Panda Express String Bean Chicken Breast: This ubiquitous Chinese food chain serves up a lot of heavy, not-very-nutritious dishes, but the string bean chicken breast is a good bet, with just 190 calories plus 14 grams of protein and 4 grams of fiber. If you have it with rice, though, beware; eating a full portion of white rice will tack on an additional 380 calories. Brown rice is a better choice for fiber (4 grams), but it adds even more calories (420).
Chick-fil-A Grilled Market Salad: Packed with healthy ingredients such as field greens, blueberries, carrots and strawberries, this salad offers high amounts of vitamins A and C without too many calories (200) or too much fat (6 grams). Note that these numbers don't include dressing; opt for the light Italian to add just 20 calories, 1.5 grams of fat and 2 grams of sugar.
Unhealthiest Airport Foods
Cinnabon Cinnamon Roll: This is a classic airport food, and the smell may prove irresistible for hungry travelers who've gone hours without eating. In case you're morbidly curious, one roll has 880 calories, 37 grams of fat and 58 grams of sugar. You don't need to eat this.
Pizza Hut Stuffed Crust Pan Pizza: When the pizza craving hits, stuffed crust pizza is probably one of the worst choices you can make, short of loading your pie with sausage and bacon. A single slice of cheese Pizza Hut stuffed crust pan pizza contains 310 calories, 13 grams of fat and 660 milligrams of sodium. (Doesn't sound too bad, but good luck eating just one slice.)
Dunkin' Donuts Sausage, Egg and Cheese on Croissant: If breakfast is the most important meal of the day, you don't want to start it off with this diet-buster. With 700 calories, 50 grams of fat and 1,170 milligrams of sodium, this sandwich is one of the unhealthiest items on the Dunkin' Donuts menu. A better option for those who want some meat and eggs is the Angus Steak and Egg Wake Up Wrap, which only has 260 calories.
Au Bon Pain Mediterranean Chicken Harvest Hot Bowl: Words like "chicken" and "harvest" make this sound like a virtuous option, but 780 calories, 37 grams of fat and 1,410 milligrams of sodium tell a different story. This dish does have some veggies (zucchini, eggplant, spinach) that offer vitamins and fiber, but overall you've got plenty of better options.
McDonald's Grand Mac: There are a bunch of nutritional offenders on the McDonald's menu (pretty much any food that has "double," "crispy" or "deluxe" in its name), but this is one of the worst. The X-large version of the already hefty Big Mac contains 860 calories, 1,470 milligrams of sodium and 52 grams of fat (including 91 percent of your daily value of saturated fat!). And that's before you add fries and a soft drink.
Burger King Double Bacon King: You know a dish is bad when its calorie count hits quadruple digits. Eat too many Double Bacon King sandwiches, and you may as well sign yourself up for a quadruple bypass. It weighs in at an astounding 1,040 calories, with 69 grams of fat and 1,900 milligrams of sodium. Just say no.
Do you attempt to eat healthy at airports?
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--written by Caroline Costello; updated by Sarah Schlichter