When the airline food trolley rumbles down the aisle, you can feel it happening: Your resolve starts to crumble. Your mouth starts to open and close like a guppy’s. Your stomach begins to grumble the hungry demands of a teenager after wrestling practice.
Salt, fat, carbs, Pringles.
Charles Platkin is here to help restore your nutritional balance during domestic flights. The director of the New York City Food Policy Center at Hunter College and editor of DietDetective.com studied the edible options in coach class on a dozen carriers. He ranked the airlines for their mealtime healthiness, anointing each with a score of zero to five.
“Am I looking for celery sticks across the board?” he said of his Airline Food Investigation. “No, but I am looking for options — three or four snacks that are healthy.”
He first released the study in 2000 and has inspected in-flight munchies annually since 2009. He bases the overall score on findings in nine categories, such as health and calorie levels, improvement of healthy offerings, menu innovation and cooperation in supplying information. He also provides a nutritional breakdown of each carrier’s snacks and meals, as well as the number of minutes of walking required to burn off, say, JetBlue’s 580-calorie spicy soba & Korean-style chicken. (Answer: 125 minutes.)
Virgin America won first place with 4.25 stars, and Delta and Air Canada tied for second with four stars. Platkin bestowed the Shame on You Award to Frontier and Spirit, which scraped the burned pan with one star each. The top placers earned an “excellent” for assisting with his study; he dismissed Frontier as “rude and terrible.”
“It’s a public health issue,” he said. “We need transparency.”
Consuming onboard food that is too salty, fatty or carb-y can make you feel like a turducken. Platkin says poor food choices can also lead to grumpiness and cast a pall over your travel experience. Lean proteins like skinless chicken or boiled eggs, fruits and vegetables and non-sugary drinks can lighten your body and lift your spirits.
“There’s a lot of stress eating and comfort eating on planes,” he said. “If you do eat healthy, you have a higher likelihood of enjoying the experience and not feeling cruddy.”
On the waistline front, Platkin noted a small decrease in the average number of calories per item, from last year’s 400 to 392. He also noticed the shrinking size of individual snacks. He admitted that “none of the airlines have great snacks,” but praised several airlines for heading in a more healthful direction.
Air Canada: “They are working really hard to improve food choices.”
Delta: “They are experimenting and have a partnership with LUVO,” a prepared food company that focuses on antibiotic-free proteins and non-GMO and organic ingredients. The airline also unveiled its salubrious Flight Fuel program in June. Sample dish: the mesquite-smoked turkey combo.
Alaska Airlines: “They are trying to do good and are focused on joining the top echelon of foodie airlines.”
Virgin America: “The best.” The company lists the nutritional content on the seat back Red InFlight Entertainment system and its website.
To help passengers make wise choices, Platkin offers guidance in ordering and consuming. For Virgin America, he directs travelers to the ginger chicken soba noodles, a high-protein meal with only 328 calories; the Provençal tuna sandwich, notable for its protein source and low-fat mayo; and the vegan wrap, which covers the veggie and hummus levels of the food pyramid. On Hawaiian Airlines, he recommends the salted macadamia nuts, with an advisory: “Split them with five other people or have them over the course of a few weeks.” For United’s chicken sausage egg skillet, he says to skip the chicken sausage to save calories. Also, don’t fall for the temptations of the ham baguette.
Of course, you can always bring your own food. Just be aware of Transportation Security Administration restrictions on liquids as well as the musk of your food. Your seatmates might not appreciate your Limburger cheese sandwich with raw onions. For an in-flight picnic, Platkin suggests:
• Shredded wheat or other low-calorie cereals. Look for portable choices with fewer than 120 calories per cup.
• Fruits — apples, grapes, oranges — that can withstand the tumble of travel. If you prefer freeze-dried fruits, eat them in moderation. Raisins are high-calorie pellets.
• Energy bars, which are often high in calories and fat but are less sinful than candy bars. Try Larabars.
• Pre-cut sandwiches of lean chicken, turkey, cold cuts or cheese tucked into 100 percent whole-wheat bread.
• Nuts, a good source of protein. Divide them into one-ounce bags, or about 160 calories each.
• Whole-wheat crackers such as Ak-Mak, Mary’s Gone Crackers or Doctor Kracker.
• Beef jerky, but gnaw sparingly if you are watching your sodium intake.
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