Air travel, like holiday parties and office bake-offs, is one of those occasions during which it's acutely difficult to eat wholesome, healthy food. Once you've entered the airport, your stomach is at the mercy of faceless fast food corporations and busy airport 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 (airlines like American Airlines and Air Canada now only allow travelers to take a single carry-on piece on some flights), throwing some apples in your bag often means sacrificing a valuable portion of luggage real estate.
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, others are more covert. Sbarro, a pizza restaurant with quite a few airport locations, does not list nutrition facts on its Web site. When I called Sbarro, a representative of the company refused to provide me with nutrition facts for Sbarro foods. 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 what 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.
Healthy airport food options
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 260 calories (without dressing) with 33 grams of protein and 50 percent of your daily value of vitamin C. But watch out — the chicken strips step up the salt in your meal with 710 milligrams of sodium. If you're watching your salt, order the salad sans chicken. Douse your salad with the low-fat balsamic vinaigrette dressing, which adds only 40 calories.
Au Bon Pain Garden Vegetable Soup
Filled with cabbage, broccoli, zucchini and green bell pepper a medium-size serving of this vegetarian soup has just 80 calories plus 3 grams of protein and 3 grams of fiber. Like most restaurant soups this dish is high in salt (with 1,070 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 320 calories per serving, 12 grams of protein and 4 grams of fiber. And with just 220 milligrams of sodium, it's a lower-salt airport option. (These numbers are for a bagel without cream cheese.)
Starbucks Perfect Oatmeal
This food is quite possibly one of the healthiest options in your airport. It has 140 calories with 5 grams of protein, 105 milligrams of sodium and just 2.5 grams of fat. Plus, there's vitamin A, 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).
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 290 calories plus 11 grams of protein and 3 grams of fiber. Real veggies like bell peppers, potatoes and onions add vitamin A and vitamin C. Keep in mind that there are 9 grams of fat and 680 milligrams of sodium in this sandwich.
Airport Foods to Avoid
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 813 calories, 55 grams of sugar and 32 grams of fat, according to dietfacts.com. 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. One slice of cheese Pizza Hut stuffed crust pan pizza contains 390 calories, 21 grams of fat and 820 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 Baja Turkey Sandwich
Yes, we thought "turkey" usually meant "healthy" too. If you want to consume 700 calories, 1,670 milligrams of sodium and 27 grams of fat, then this is the sandwich for you. The Baja turkey sandwich is stacked with guacamole, Swiss cheese, jalapeno mayonnaise and turkey on a farmhouse roll. 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 740 calories, 1,380 milligrams of sodium and 42 grams of fat (plus 95 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.