Monday, January 14, 2008

Travel Plans to Include Food Can Be a Wise Investment

Who among us hasn't flown? I'd be willing to bet the percentage is strikingly small. Yet how many of us devote as much attention to our dietary needs in transit as we do to schedules and/or prices? An investment of as much time as it takes to find a flight that leaves or arrives when we need it, or to secure the lowest price, is well worth it. Its no secret that the food in airports, when available, is typically dominated by fast-food giants such as McDonalds and Dunkin' Donuts, but even there, the selection may be limited, so even a salad may not be an option. Certain airports have marginally better fare, but even that varies considerably from one terminal to the next. There is some effort to improve the offerings, but its not always a simple task and finding high-volume tenants who can make the economics work is tough. Even the salads, a seemingly healthful option, typically come with salad dressings that make a regular hamburger or chicken nuggets seem low-calorie by comparison.

Nice. So what can you do? For short flights, it may not be a big deal to just wait and eat when you arrive. But travel inherently can bring delays, missed connections, etc., which may force you to alter your plans, so planning for the unplanned can help. Bringing your own food in a carry on is always the better option. Making your own food is best, but if you're returning from a trip, consider picking up a sandwich at a deli or even a Subway outlet which may be a healthier alternative what the airport and the airlines have to offer. A trip to your local supermarket may also be a decent option if one is nearby. There, in addition to pre-made salad offerings and also vegetable packages meant for kids to pack in their school lunches, but virtually anyone will find these travel-sized packages perfect. My only gripe is that most of these salads and snack packages seem to love ranch dressing, which is not only high-calorie, but also not my idea of great taste. The ban on liquids can present a challenge (for example, don't plan on bringing a small bottle of salad dressing for your fast-food salad to save yourself hundreds of calories, because you can't bring it through. But you may order packets to take with you (just be sure to place them in another plastic bag with a zipper to avoid leaking that can occur). Individual packets can be ordered in advance online from, who also offers a variety of other travel-sized products. A visit to a local Costco, BJ's or Sam's Club may also have these items, although selection may be more limited. Other options in the canned foods aisle include Bumble Bee Sensations (a bit high in salt, but not bad if you want to take something with you and don't want to prepare it), or in the deli or packaged meat aisle, Oscar Meyer has options, too -- just watch the calorie counts on those and select accordingly.

Then there is the in-flight food offerings, which are often limited to greasy potato chips or sugar-coated nuts (euphemistically called "honey roasted, even though they don't contain a trace of genuine honey). Fortunately, a growing prevalence of nut allergies has made these far less common today. To make matters worse, the latest survey of airline food indicates that it may be a lot worse than you think. "The individually packaged snacks are oversized and have mega calories," the survey's author, Charles Stuart Platkin, writes of American Airlines' in-flight cuisine. "These snacks should be for a family of four, not one person. They really are a disaster." Northwest Airlines admitted that it doesn't even track the nutritional information in its on-board food.

For longer-trips (such as trans-continental, trans-Atlantic or trans-Pacific flights), people using insulin may not be able to afford the luxury of waiting. Of course, if your flight does offer a meal, ordering the special entrees for passengers with dietary restrictions, such as vegetarian and/or vegan, Kosher or Muslim meals, or even meals that are supposedly for people with diabetes. Based on experience, I will say that diabetes meals are seldom a wise choice (always consisting of bread and some other high-carb but low-fat items). I have consistently found the vegetarian meals tend to be healthier and far better tasting. On trans-Atlantic flights, ordering a Muslim meal can mean the difference between a microwaved sandwich and freshly-prepared food that is far lower in calories. To order a special meal, contact your airline at least a day in advance to order the meal. It's well worth the call.

Travel need not result in a caloric and carb-laden nightmare, but you probably need to dedicate as much time to your dietary needs as you do to finding the right flight to avoid the inherent travel pitfalls.

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