The phrase “healthy airport food” can seem like a contradiction in terms. Once you’ve entered the airport, your stomach is at the mercy of faceless fast food corporations and busy cafes that serve processed “convenience” foods loaded with sodium and empty calories. On the list of airport priorities, eating well falls pretty far below remembering your passport and getting to the gate on time. But it’s still important. Eating well gives you energy, keeps you healthy on your travels, and prevents regrettable airport binges born of hunger and desperation.
What kinds of foods qualify as “healthy”? That may vary depending on your dietary habits, but in this case, it’s an entree—for breakfast, lunch, or dinner—that is low in fat and cholesterol, has some fiber, and features some fruit or vegetables. In a perfect world, you’d pack your own lunch. But with airline baggage restrictions getting tighter and tighter, throwing some apples in your bag often means sacrificing a valuable portion of luggage real estate.
If you decide to brave the airport food court, it can be nearly impossible to determine which menu options are your healthiest bet. While some chains display ingredients and nutrition data, not all do. If you don’t see that info displayed right on the menu, consider checking the restaurant’s app or website; often you’ll find it there.
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Healthy Airport Food: Snacks and Light Meals
Eating well at the airport is easy to do if you know what to look for. Here’s your very own cheat-sheet of healthy airport snacks available at virtually every airport nationwide.
You might not even notice it, so overshadowed is it by the bigger, bolder, more caloric creations on displays at most airport food areas. But nearly every cafe and quick-stop restaurant has a bowl of mixed fruit—apples, oranges, and bananas—within arm’s reach of the cash register.
Want to move beyond the apple-banana-orange trifecta? Look for pre-cut fruit alongside other refrigerated items. These are often light seasonal mixes featuring options like cantaloupe, watermelon, honeydew melon, grapes, blueberries, and strawberries. Since it’s fork-friendly fare, you won’t end up with sticky hands.
When it comes to yogurt, seek and ye shall find. While not all yogurt is created equal (more on that in a minute), it’s widely available at just about every airport outlet that opens for breakfast. On the healthy airport breakfast spectrum, plain yogurt ranks highest, as it’s not loaded with extra sugar (but is easily sweetened with a bit of honey). If you’re eyeing a perfectly packaged parfait, know that the fat and sugar content gets an unsavory boost from the granola and the (usually) vanilla yogurt.
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Warm, nourishing, and available at many airport food outlets, soup is a healthy eater’s ally on the go. Skip cream-based soups and look for old favorites like chicken noodle, vegetable, lentil, and minestrone. You’ll get a dose of vegetable goodness and the energy you’ll need to power you through your day of travel.
Salad is one tricky dish, masquerading as the ne plus ultra of health while sometimes weighing in with a Big Mac-worthy calorie count. Avoid the pitfalls, though, and you can up your veggie count while keeping calories within a reasonable range. Rule number one is to dress it yourself, since dressings can easily triple the fat and calories of a salad. Dress it lightly or simply ask for a few lemon slices and squeeze them over your salad for the same acidic quality you get from a vinaigrette with none of the guilt. And stick to salads adorned with veggies and fruits rather than cheese and croutons.
Snacks you make and bring yourself are likely to be healthier than those you pick up in the airport food areas. Carrot and celery sticks, your favorite fruit, a make-your-own snack pack of nuts and dried fruit—these are the bring-along snacks of travel champs. Even bringing a less-than-perfect granola or an energy bar can save you from the sort of hunger-driven airport indiscretions you’re likely to regret as soon as you get on the plane.
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Healthy Airport Food: Restaurant Options
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 at the airport, they’re not always fresh.
To get an idea of which 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 popular airport restaurants, including McDonald’s, 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 350 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.
One cautionary note: Restaurant chains often have limited airport menus, and depending on which terminal you’re in, you might not find all of the foods below.
Starbucks Classic Oatmeal
Is there a Starbucks at the airport? Of course there is. And where there’s a Starbucks, there’s oatmeal. This whole-grain food is quite possibly one of the healthiest options at your airport. It has 160 calories with 5 grams of protein, 125 milligrams of sodium, and just 2.5 grams of fat. Plus, there’s calcium and iron in this oatmeal—and the ingredient list is comfortingly short and easy to pronounce. Keep in mind that adding nuts, brown sugar, and/or dried fruit as toppings will up your calorie count.
Au Bon Pain Chicken Noodle Soup
A comforting staple when you’re far from home, a cup of this soup has just 120 calories plus eight grams of protein and one gram of fiber. Like most restaurant soups, this dish is high in salt (with 1,030 milligrams of sodium).
McDonald’s Bacon Ranch Grilled Chicken Salad
McDonald’s offers a number of decent salads that can be ordered with or without meat. The bacon ranch salad with grilled chicken has 300 calories (without dressing) with 39 grams of protein and only three grams of sugar. But watch out—the grilled chicken alone adds 510 milligrams of sodium. If you’re watching your salt, order the salad sans chicken. (Or eliminate the bacon, which has 360 milligrams of sodium.)
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Dunkin’ Donuts Veggie Egg White Sandwich
Thank you, Dunkin’ Donuts, for giving travelers something tasty to snack on other than sugary fried balls of carbohydrates. Dunkin’s egg white veggie sandwich has 240 calories plus 14 grams of protein and four grams of fiber. Real veggies like bell peppers, spinach, and onions add vitamins. Keep in mind, though, that there are 10 grams of fat and 670 milligrams of sodium in this sandwich.
Panda Express String Bean Chicken Breast
This ubiquitous Chinese food chain serves up a lot of heavy, not-very-nutritious dishes, but the string bean chicken breast is a good bet, with just 190 calories plus 14 grams of protein and four grams of fiber. If you have it with rice, though, beware; eating a full portion of white rice will tack on an additional 380 calories. Brown rice is a better choice for fiber (four grams), but it adds even more calories (420).
Chick-fil-A Grilled Market Salad
Packed with healthy ingredients such as romaine lettuce, apples, nuts, and strawberries, this salad offers plenty of vitamins without too many calories (330) or too much fat (13 grams). Note that these numbers don’t include dressing; opt for the light Italian to add just 25 calories.
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Unhealthiest Airport Food Options
Watching your weight? Steer clear of these waist-expanding dishes.
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 880 calories, 37 grams of fat, and 58 grams of sugar. You don’t need to eat this. Also on the no-fly list: the Caramel Pecanbon (1,080 calories!) and the Oreo Cookies & Cream Chillatta (107 grams of sugar!).
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. A single slice of cheese Pizza Hut stuffed crust pan pizza contains 310 calories, 13 grams of fat, and 660 milligrams of sodium. (Doesn’t sound too bad, but good luck eating just one slice.)
Dunkin’ Donuts Sausage, Egg, and Cheese on Croissant
If breakfast is the most important meal of the day, you don’t want to start it off with this diet-buster. With 720 calories, 52 grams of fat, and 1,120 milligrams of sodium, this sandwich is one of the unhealthiest items on the Dunkin’ Donuts menu. A better option for those who want some meat and eggs is the Turkey Sausage and Egg Wake Up Wrap, which only has 240 calories.
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Au Bon Pain Mediterranean Chicken Harvest Hot Bowl
Words like “chicken” and “harvest” make this sound like a virtuous option, but 700 calories, 27 grams of fat, and 780 milligrams of sodium tell a different story. This dish does have some veggies (zucchini, eggplant, spinach) that offer vitamins and fiber, but overall you’ve got plenty of better options. And don’t even think about that Double Chocolate Chunk Muffin, which has 580 calories (270 from fat), 66 grams of carbohydrates, and 41 grams of sugar.
Starbucks Specialty Drinks
Did you know that some drinks at the airport can be just as unhealthy as an entire meal? The Starbucks Eggnog Crème drink has 12 grams of saturated fat and 59 grams of sugar—and that’s without adding extras such as whipped cream (in total, that’s more saturated fat than there is in a Pizza Hut Pepperoni Personal Pan Pizza). Meanwhile, the Peppermint Hot Chocolate packs in 10 grams of saturated fat and a whopping 61 grams of sugar.
McDonald’s Double Bacon BBQ Burger
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), but this is one of the worst. The sandwich contains 920 calories, 1,750 milligrams of sodium, and 51 grams of fat (including more than 100 percent of your daily value of saturated fat). And that’s before you add fries and a soft drink. Avoid that large Dr. Pepper—talk about “jet bloat.”
Taco Bell Fiesta Taco Salad Nachos
Stress can cause heartburn, so if you’re a nervous flyer or worried about delays, you’re already at risk for acid reflux. Don’t make it worse by ordering Taco Bell’s Fiesta Taco Salad Nachos, even if it does have “salad” in the name. The nachos are topped with beans, whose famous gas-causing effect only gets worse in the sky. The dish’s 1,370 calories, 80 grams of fat, and 1,320 mg of sodium certainly won’t do you any nutritional favors either. Just say no.
Do you attempt to eat healthy at airports?
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Editor’s note: This story was originally published in 2017. It has been updated to reflect the most current information. Caroline Costello, Christine Sarkis, Caroline Morse Teel, Sarah Schlichter, and Margaret Leahy contributed to this story.