I’ve been traveling a lot for the past few months, commuting between DC and Colorado each week for work. I’ve spent a lot of time in airports, and a lot of time hangry on airplanes. But I’ve figured out a few tricks for how to eat healthfully (and as a vegetarian or vegan) while on the road or in the air and avoiding that gross-I-just-ate-a-ton-of-junk-and-now-sit-the-rest-of-the-day-on-an-airplane feeling as well as the I-am-going-to-eat-my-luggage-because-I-am-so-hungry feeling. Here’s what I’ve learned.
Tip 1: Embrace Fast Food
I believe there is a time and a place for McDonald’s. And now that they serve breakfast all day, that is anytime! Kidding. But seriously, vegetarians can now get egg and cheese biscuits all day, which is a huge win. (Note that not all airport locations have jumped on the breakfast-all-day bandwagon, but it’s worth asking.) I find that these sandwiches pack well; I will often carry it on the plane and eat it about halfway through the trip. You might be thinking “That really does not sound healthy,” but let’s look at some stats. An egg and cheese biscuit sandwich from McDonald’s has 390 calories and 13 grams of protein. Yes, it also has 21 grams of fat and a solid dose of sodium, but it only has 3 grams of sugar. Personally, for the price and weighing the ills and benefits of fat vs. sugar, I’d opt for this everyday over any of the smoothies discussed in Tip 2 below. Plus, I find these things to be incredibly satisfying, and in terms of indulgences, they really aren’t that bad. And for only $3! (Similarly delicious and inexpensive egg-and-cheese options abound at most fast food spots, but only in the morning hours.)
Another veg-friendly fast food option is Taco Bell. Pick up a bean burrito or two for a hearty dose of beans and cheese, or make it fresco style for a wholesome vegan meal. Probably my favorite option when available. The regular bean burrito weighs in at 370 calories, with 14 grams of protein, 9 grams of fiber, and only 3 grams of sugar. And the fresco option has fewer than 350 calories! These also pack well, and yes, they go through security just fine. It doesn’t hurt that you can get two (TWO!) bean burritos (either style) for $3 flat.
Finally, a few fast food outlets also offer passable veggie burgers. I’ve enjoyed Burger King’s version and Fuddrucker’s (at DCA). Buffalo Wild Wings also has a veggie burger option that I haven’t tried yet. Load em up with tomatoes and other goodness. Not seeing them on the menu? I’d ask. I’ve noticed some BKs don’t have them up on the board. Also note, BK burger is NOT vegan but the fries are!
Tip 2: Don’t Be Fooled By Health Halos
Unless you are carb loading, never, ever, ever get the McDonald’s oatmeal or anything else labeled “with brown sugar” or “maple.” (Unless it is a relatively-low-sugar maple yogurt, which I had at the Vermont airport and was deeeeelicious.)
But other sugarbombs are even better hidden. I love Jamba Juice as much as the next marathoner and it looks so healthy, but unless I ran 10+ miles that morning or am carbloading, I stay away. The Chunky Strawberry Bowl, one of my favorites, packs 590 calories and 58 grams of sugar. Yes, it has 19 grams of protein and 12 grams of fiber, but goodness that sugar! How about smoothies? Amazing Greens comes with 420 calories (ok) and 11 grams of protein (good), but also 54 grams of sugar. Even the relatively low calorie Apple n’ Greens smoothie, with only 250 calories has a whopping 45 grams of sugar. That’s twice the amount of sugar in a Snickers bar.
Even worse, IMHO, is Freshens, which makes super processed frozen yogurt treats and sorbet-based smoothies. These should all be treated like desserts, not health foods. In which case, why not just opt for more-wholesome, more-delicious Ben & Jerry’s?
Tip 3: Find Fresh Food
Some terminals have good, customizable options for fresh food on the go. Seek these out:
- I find that although burrito bowls are often really caloric, they can be a satisfying, nutritious option for a solid meal if you don’t add queso, chips, and other sides. Check out Chipotle (IAD, ATL, BWI, Philly, etc.), Willy’s (ATL), Qdoba (DCA, SLC, etc.) and load up on lettuce, rice, beans, salsa, veggies, and guac for a vegan feast.
- Once in a while I find an airport that sells a lower-sugar yogurt option, such as Siggi’s or unsweetened plain Greek yogurt. Yum.
- Fruit. If you can find fresh, decent-looking fruit, awesome.
Tip 4: Bring Packable Snacks
Here are some of my favorite snacks that pack well, will make it through security, and are perfect anytime:
- Oloves. These always make me feel so fancy and satisfy any salt cravings. Alternatively, buy some bulk olives from Whole Foods and swap the clunky plastic container for a little snack baggie.
- Cheese. Put some cubes in a baggie, or grab some snack-size Babybel cheese rounds. Go great with pretzels from the plane, or with apples, or alone. Pick a cheese made with vegetable rennet to be sure it is vegetarian.
- Apples. Go great with airline peanuts, won’t stink up your bag like a banana will, won’t get smushed like berries. And they keep the digestion a-OK during travel!
- Justin’s nut butter packets. I mean, I could live on these things.
- Dr. Praeger’s Sunwiches, a better version of Uncrustables. Who cares if they are made for kids?
- Make your own trail mix. For a really easy mix, I like unsalted almonds plus a few M&Ms (my preferred ratio is 3 almonds : 1 M&M). Be careful with this though– it is really easy to eat a ton of calories because trail mix is so dense. Eat with a ton of water.
Tip 5: Hack Your Snacks
I don’t have a kitchen in Colorado, so packing wholesome homemade meals for my plane ride hasn’t really been an option. But by combining items purchased in the terminal with your own snacks, you can make some awesome stuff. For example:
For a hearty vegan option, find some oatmeal at Starbucks or another restaurant in the terminal (Modern Market in DEN has a good, hearty steel cut option). I’ve also brought my own oats to-go from the hotel breakfast; yes, you can bring it through security. Skip the brown sugar and dried fruit, and find some better fixins:
- banana — they might have them for free at your hotel breakfast buffet, or try one of the airport markets in the terminal
- nuts — either pack these yourself or you can definitely find some at airport markets; I love raw walnuts on my oatmeal but peanuts or almonds will work too
- chia and hemp seeds — doubtful that you’ll be able to find these in the terminal, so pack your own
- nut butter — a great use for a Justin’s packet, or the free PB at the hotel breakfast buffet.
Tip 6: BYO Water Bottle
Buying bottled water is expensive and bad for the environment. Save your bottled-water dollars for when you’re in an exotic location without clean water. In USA airports, water is free! Many airports now have water bottle filling stations with cold, filtered water. But I promise even old fashioned water fountains and bathroom sinks will provide you with potable water. Bring an empty bottle through security, and fill it up before your flight. Make sure the top is secure — some handhelds might leak during travel. I bring a Nalgene, clip it to my backpack, and look really hip.
What are your tricks for eating healthy on the go? What’s your favorite airport meal?