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.
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And if you decide to brave the airport food court, it can be nearly impossible to determine which menu options are your healthiest bet. The U.S. currently has no federal law requiring restaurant chains to disclose nutrition information. While some chains, like McDonald's and Dunkin' Donuts, display the ingredients and nutrition data for all of their foods, not all do. Sbarro, a pizza restaurant, and Panda Express, a Chinese food joint, both with quite a few airport locations, list nutrition facts on their websites but not in store.
It's a good rule of thumb to simply avoid restaurants that don't disclose what's in the foods they serve, whether in the airport or not. Said Henry Ward Beecher: "To know that one has a secret is to know half the secret itself."
Of course, 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 common 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 300 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. Often, restaurant chains have limited airport menus, and depending on what terminal you're in, you may not find all of the foods below.
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Healthy Airport Food Options
Starbucks Perfect Oatmeal
This food is quite possibly one of the healthiest options in your airport. It has 150 calories with 5 grams of protein, no 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. Jazz up your oatmeal with extra toppings like dried fruit (100 calories) or nuts (100 calories).
McDonald's Premium Bacon Ranch Salad with Grilled Chicken
McDonald's offers a number of decent salads that can be ordered with or without meat. The premium bacon ranch salad with grilled chicken has just 230 calories (without dressing) with 30 grams of protein and 35 percent of your daily value of vitamin C. But watch out -- the chicken strips step up the salt in your meal with 400 milligrams of sodium. If you're watching your salt, order the salad sans chicken.
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Au Bon Pain Garden Vegetable Soup
Filled with carrots, green peppers, zucchini, broccoli florets and corn, a medium-size serving of this vegetarian soup has just 80 calories plus 3 grams of protein and 3 grams of fiber. It's also got 50 percent of your daily recommended vitamin A and 35% of your daily vitamin C. Like most restaurant soups, this dish is high in salt (with 1,120 milligrams of sodium). Order a size small if you want to curb your salt intake.
Starbucks Multigrain Bagel
Starbucks' menus vary based on location, but you're likely to find this quick and convenient snack at most stores. The coffee chain's fat-free multigrain bagel has just 290 calories per serving, 14 grams of protein and 6 grams of fiber. (These numbers are for a bagel without cream cheese.)
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 just 280 calories plus 16 grams of protein and 3 grams of fiber. Real veggies like bell peppers, potatoes and onions add vitamin A. Keep in mind that there are 10 grams of fat and 690 milligrams of sodium in this sandwich.
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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 and 36 grams of fat, according to the company's website. You don't need to eat this.
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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. One slice of cheese Pizza Hut stuffed crust pan pizza contains 310 calories, 13 grams of fat and 740 milligrams of sodium. Compare this to one slice of cheese Pizza Hut pan pizza (you know, the kind without extra cheese jammed into the crust), which has 240 calories.
Au Bon Pain Southwest Tuna Wrap
I tend to equate tuna with light eating -- but there are exceptions. Case in point: The Southwest tuna wrap from Au Bon Pain is stacked with mayonnaise, cheese and a chili Dijon sauce that adds up to a big chunk of calories. If you want to consume 710 calories, 1,170 milligrams of sodium and 40 grams of fat, then this is the sandwich for you. Can't resist this combination? Opt for a half sandwich.
McDonald's Double Quarter Pounder with Cheese
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), and this is one of the worst. This burger contains 750 calories, 1,280 milligrams of sodium and 43 grams of fat (plus 96 percent of your daily value of saturated fat!). For roughly the same number of calories, you could order two and a half premium bacon ranch salads with grilled chicken -- and you would still be consuming less fat.
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--written by Caroline Costello