Planes, Trains, and Automobiles: Healthy Travel Food

How to eat well when you're on the go

Medically Reviewed by Kathleen M. Zelman, RD, LD, MPH on June 07, 2006
5 min read

Whether you're planning a trip by plane, train, or automobile, you'll most likely face the challenge of feeding yourself during what can be a very long day.

If you need to get to the airport two hours before takeoff and are flying internationally or cross-country, you could be looking at a 12-hour travel day. And increasingly, air travelers must fend for themselves, as many airlines are cutting back on the traditional in-flight meals or offering "buy on board" meals instead.

Travelers basically have two food options: BYOG (bring your own grub), or buy meals or snacks on the way -- on board, at the airport or station, or on the road. If you prefer to buy en route, you'll be happy to hear that many of the busiest U.S. airports have more restaurants offering healthy entrees than before, according to a report from the Physician's Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM).

PCRM, a doctors' group that advocates a plant-based diet, defined a "healthy entrée" as one that is low in fat, high in fiber, and cholesterol-free. Of the 14 busiest airports in the U.S., the three airports offering the highest percentage of eateries offering at least one healthy vegetarian entrée in 2005 were in:

1. Chicago O'Hare (with 92%)
2. Detroit (with 89%)
3. San Francisco (with 88%)

The lowest-ranking airports were:

12. Minneapolis-St. Paul (with 68%)
13. Houston (with 46%)
14. Las Vegas (with 42%)

"Two good bets -- available at many airports -- are a veggie burger and a bean burrito, found at most fast-food style restaurants," says PCRM staff dietitian Trulie Ankerberg-Nobis, MS, RD.

Whether you choose to buy something along the way or pack your own food, you'll find more healthy options below.

If you're flying and looking for healthy food, the first thing to do is know your airport. Go to the airport's web site and click on "restaurants" (or similar link), if available. Look for familiar chains, if you prefer. You may even find nutrition information for different menu items on the chain restaurants' own web sites (such as Subway, Baja Fresh, Jamba Juice, etc.).

Here are some of the better choices you can find in quick-serve establishments and airport restaurants across the country:

  • Grilled chicken sandwich (without mayo or creamy condiments)
  • Lean meat burritos with beans
  • Bean burritos
  • Lower-fat sandwiches (without mayo)
  • A slice of cheese or veggie pizza
  • Smoothies made with reduced-fat dairy and lots of fruit (add a fiber boost if you can)
  • Cheese quesadillas
  • Pasta with red sauce (meatless or with lean meat)
  • Green salads with raw veggies and/or grilled lean meat or seafood, drizzled with light or reduced-fat salad dressing. Save leftover packets of reduced-fat dressing from fast-food chains so that when you travel, you can take one along to dress restaurant salads (in case they don't offer any light dressings that appeal to you).
  • If you've got to have a burger, choose the smaller size and dress it with catsup, BBQ sauce, or mustard, and load up on low-fat veggie fillers: lettuce, onions, and tomatoes.
  • At Chinese food outlets, choose an entrée with veggies and lean meat (that's not battered and deep-fried).

Here are 7 tips for packing treats to tote along as you travel:

1. Pack a frozen bottle of water. This will keep any perishable foods you've packed chilled for hours. Then, your ice pack becomes a refreshing bottle of ice water to drink! This works with 100% fruit juice in pouches or plastic bottles as well.

2. Power bars or breakfast bars pack well. They're not the perfect food, but if you choose bars with some fiber (at least 3 grams per bar) and protein (at least 5 grams per bar) but not too much sugar (less than 35% calories from fat) or fat, they aren't bad at all. You can find good choices among the following brands: Clif, Odwalla, Power Bar Harvest, and Luna.

3. Bring a fast food salad to go. Buy a grilled chicken salad or a spinach or green side salad from one of the fast-food chains (like McDonalds or Wendy's), and keep it chilled with an ice bottle. Then, when you are ready to eat, dress it with a packet of reduced-calorie dressing (McDonald's has a reduced-fat balsamic vinaigrette and Wendy's has a reduced-fat ranch). Don't forget to pack a plastic fork!

4. Try a parfait in a pinch. Bring along a yogurt parfait from McDonald's and keep it cool with an ice water bottle. When you're ready for a cool, creamy treat, just pop off the lid and you're good to go. Don't forget your plastic spoon.

5. Drink your meal. Diet shakes (or meal replacement shakes) may not be the magic diet bullet that some advertisements suggest they are. But some are far preferable to the junk foods people typically grab when traveling, according to WebMD Weight Loss Clinic Director of Nutrition Kathleen Zelman, MPH, RD. Look for a shake with less added sugar (around 10-17 grams of sugars per 11-ounce can), and 3 or more grams of fiber, with around 10 grams of protein but not too much fat. Some types to look for are: Slim Fast Optima 50% less sugar, Glucerna Shakes, and Glucerna Weight Loss Shakes. Tip: Freeze a can or two of your favorite flavor the night before you travel. Just before you leave, take the shake out of the freezer and slip it into your carry-on. In about four hours, it will be icy and refreshing. Bring a straw for easy sipping.

6. Munch on some whole-grain crackers. Crackers work well when you're on the go, but make sure you choose a type that has some fiber and not too much fat, such as Ak-Mak, Ry Krisp, or Reduced Fat Triscuit.

7. Pack a deli-style sandwich (with an ice water bottle or ice pack) that you know you'll like instead of taking your chances en route. Use a firmer sandwich roll, which will stand up better in your tote or carry-on. You can even buy a low-fat sandwich at an outlet such as Subway and bring it with you. When making or buying your sandwich, choose mustard instead of mayo, and lean fillers (like turkey breast or lean ham) over higher-fat options like salami or mayo-drenched tuna or chicken salad.