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Five healthy eating tips for holiday travelers

Tuesday, December 25, 2012 - 1:00pm

Your stress level could be measured on the Richter Scale. It's the week before Christmas, so there are a zillion people at the airport. Your flight has been delayed. The kids are crying. Your husband is yelling. Starving, you find the nearest food vendor and order a $12 basket of chicken fingers with fries.

Been there? Done that? Eating healthy on the road has long been a struggle for holiday travelers. It's one of the many reasons people tend to gain a couple extra pounds between Thanksgiving and New Year's.

The good news is that consumers are demanding more nutritious options when they fly -- and the industry is responding, says Renate DeGeorge, director of culinary services for HMSHost, which operates dining facilities at more than 100 airports worldwide.

In recent years HMSHost has made several changes to their menus, including adding a variety of new salads, offering hummus plates as an appetizer and providing whole-grain bread for sandwiches.

"Most places now offer a variety of healthy options no matter where you stop, so that every traveler can find something they are looking for," DeGeorge wrote in an e-mail.

Here are five ways you can make sure you eat right while flying this holiday season:

Have a plan

You know your departure time, arrival time and the time you'll -- hopefully -- have during a layover. Use that schedule to plan full meals throughout the day.

"A meal in general is typically the same calories as many snacks," says Charles Platkin, founder and editor of DietDetective.com. But if you eat a real meal, "you're actually going to get decent nutrition... and you're going to feel a higher level of being satiated."

For example, if you leave early in the morning, plan to eat breakfast at home. If you'll be on the plane during lunch, decide what you'll eat in the air before you get to the airport. If dinner will be late because your plane lands after 8 p.m., make sure to eat a bigger protein- and fiber-filled lunch to tide you over.

When mapping out your meals, remember to prepare for the possibility that your timing and/or location could be thrown off by a delayed flight or missed connection. Which leads us to our next hint...

Know your airport

Every year the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine reviews the food served at the busiest airports in the United States. In 2012, the group found that on average 76% of airport restaurants sell at least one low-fat, high-fiber, cholesterol-free vegetarian entrée.

In other words, the excuse "there's nothing healthy to eat at the airport" is no longer valid (sorry).

Airport restaurants in Newark, New Jersey; Las Vegas; or Detroit are most likely to offer a healthy option, according to the PCRM report, while Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport and Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport landed at the bottom of the group's ranking for the third year in a row. So if you're passing through D.C. or Atlanta, stock up on some healthy fare beforehand.

Know your airline

Platkin publishes an annual food investigation survey that ranks the snacks and onboard food-service offerings from most major airlines.

"When you're a passenger on an airplane, you don't really have much choice," he says. "You're a captive audience and that creates a higher standard that airlines need to have."

Virgin America and Air Canada each earned four stars on Platkin's site for offering plenty of healthy options and providing calorie information for consumers. Platkin recommends Virgin's snack boxes -- like the protein meal with hummus -- and Air Canada's Roasted Chicken Wrap with salsa. You can check out his recommendations for other airlines here.

Pick wisely

Most of us have at least a general idea of what's good for our bodies (a fruit plate) and what's not (a king-size chocolate bar). Making smart decisions is half the battle.

The other half is knowing where hidden dangers lie. Platkin cautions consumers to be wary around anything that comes with a sauce, whether it's salad dressing, mayonnaise on a sandwich or caramel dip for your apple slices. Even an extra tablespoon can add unnecessary calories.

Also be on the lookout for packaged snack foods like chips or crackers that are probably high in sodium. "Look for things that are in their natural state," he says.

Most importantly, avoid fried food, DeGeorge says. Anything smothered in batter then dipped in hot oil isn't good for your health, even if it did at one time resemble a vegetable.

Pack for emergencies

You always pack an extra pair of underwear in your carry-on, so why not some extra healthy snacks too?

"We often underestimate the amount of time a trip can take," Platkin writes on his site. "A two-hour flight could mean four or five hours of travel."

Although liquids are restricted, most foods can be taken through security, according to the Transportation Security Administration. Platkin recommends dry cereal like shredded wheat, energy bars or cold cut sandwiches. Raw fruits and vegetables are also easy to pack and carry onboard. 

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