While waiting for a flight recently at Reagan National Airport, Katherine Tallmadge found herself checking out pre-packaged nut mixes, which are loaded with healthy fats but can contain as much as 1,200 calories per bag. The registered dietitian and spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association knew that boredom was driving her impulse to eat, but she still struggled to resist temptation.
"I had to shake myself out of it," says Tallmadge, who is also the author of "Diet Simple: Shed Pounds Without Even Trying".
Adding to fliers' airport boredom—and likely poor food choices--is the growing percentage of delayed flights. According to the Federal Aviation Administration, delays have been increasing since 2004. Then 16.1 percent of U.S. flights were delayed; in 2005 it was 17.4 percent; 2006 was 19.6 percent; and 2007 was 20.5 percent.
Fliers also have fewer choices on board: Many major airlines have stopped serving free meals and have instead replaced them with pre-packaged, nutrient-deficient snacks. What's more, travelers face the daunting challenge of navigating outlets offering calorie-dense comfort food that dot terminals nationwide.
It is possible, however, to adopt a healthy approach at the airport. Airport management companies have taken note of a growing consumer demand for fresh and nutritious menu options. Heeding customer preferences can be especially lucrative in the airport concession market. According to the Airport Revenue News 2007 Fact Book, fliers spent $3.2 billion on food and beverages in 2006. Management companies are also increasingly catering to business travelers who expense meals and want gourmet, brand name experiences. With the variety now available at most airports nationwide, even the most harried traveler can satiate his or her appetite without going for the double-cheese hamburger.
Many airport food courts have a decided advantage over the customer: A choice must be made from a small selection. The options improve at a major airport like Chicago O'Hare, which features eateries ranging from Panda Express to Starbucks to Goose Island Beer, but small- or medium-sized city airports often suffer from limited variety.
Regardless of the available choices, it's easy to fall back on the familiar. That might include a Quarter Pounder with cheese at McDonald's, a chocolate chip muffin at Dunkin' Donuts or buffalo wings with bleu cheese dressing at Chili's.
While indulging in one of these items may alleviate stress related to flying or seem like a fun way to kick off a vacation, your waistline might beg to differ. A better strategy? Take a few minutes to look at the menu and order a healthy alternative. Joan Salge Blake, a nutrition professor at Boston University and author of "Nutrition & You", says that at McDonald's that might be the grilled chicken classic sandwich with BBQ sauce instead of mayonnaise; at Dunkin' Donuts it’s a multigrain bagel; and at Chili's, a good choice is the "guiltless" salmon with sides of black beans and steamed vegetables.
Experts say this is a good start. Yet to really eat well while on the road, one might want to avoid fast-food outlets all together and instead head to an increasing number of spots offering fresher options.
Atousa Ghoreichi, senior director of marketing in North America for HMSHost, a company that operates brand-name and company-created concessions in more than 100 airport locations worldwide, says that the company's customer research has shown a demand for "bolder tastes," "fusion of flavors" and "fresh and flavorful fare."
To meet this need, HMSHost has designed eateries like La Tapenade at the Chicago O'Hare airport. This Mediterranean café features homemade chutneys, hummus, fire-roasted vegetables, high-quality cheeses and grilled meats.
The company has also forged partnerships with celebrity chefs to open restaurants in airports, including one with Todd English, who set up outposts of his Bonfire steakhouse at JFK and Boston Logan airports. The menu draws on Argentinean, European and American steakhouse styles and features crab-meat nachos, a Kobe beef burger and tapas.
"We're taking gourmet food and making it almost artistic," Ghoreichi says. "[The customer] could be in an airport environment but we want to make it feel like the market or city center."
When there are few options beyond potato chips and pretzels, Tallmadge suggests arriving at the airport with a full stomach. "A ravenous person is out of control and won't make as good choices," she says. Additionally, fliers should stick to salads, sandwiches, yogurt and fresh fruit as opposed to pizzas, hamburgers and hot dogs.