These Are The Healthiest In-Flight Meals On 12 Different Airlines

by James Hale
Spencer Platt/Getty Images News/Getty Images

It's no secret that keeping yourself healthy while traveling can be difficult. We have to think about everything, from maintaining a good sleep schedule to mitigating the stress traveling puts on our bodies. It can be especially hard to make sure we're eating regularly, which is why knowing which airlines offer the best, healthiest foods can help you plan to cruise the skies with the best snacks at your disposal.

Luckily for you, these results have been tabulated. Hunter College NYC Food Policy Center and have released the 2017-18 Airline Food Study, which evaluates the meals and snacks available on 12 airlines and ranks each airline based on the nutritional value of its offerings. Dr. Charles Platkin, who is the director of Hunter College NYC Food Policy Center, has been doing airline food studies since 2009, and has published his findings yearly on Diet Detective. It should be noted that some of his evaluations are based on calorie-counting, but a food having a certain number of calories doesn't automatically mean that it's healthy.

Platkin noted some overall trends for food selections, like the fact that airlines are beginning to eliminate purchasable, multi-serving packages of snack foods and are instead offering smaller packs or even "eliminating individual snacks altogether," Platkin noted in his study report. He also noted that some airlines are serving individual complimentary snacks again, a practice that became scarce over the past few years. Purchasable food, especially snack boxes, has become the norm on airlines, but nutrition information about available items is not as easily available, Platkin said.

The top airline overall when it comes to healthy meal offerings, according to Platkin's investigation was Delta, which scored four stars out of five. Stars were assigned based on critera including "healthy nutrients and calorie levels of meals, snack boxes and individual snacks, level of transparency (display of nutrient information & ingredients), improvement and maintenance of healthy offerings, menu innovation and cooperation in providing nutritional information," Platkin wrote. Delta is followed by Virgin America, Air Canada, JetBlue, Alaska Air, United Airlines, American, Frontier Air, Southwest Airlines, Allegiant Air, Spirit Airlines, and Hawaiian Airlines.

Platkin's evaluation is super helpful for folks who have dietary restrictions or who want to stick to specific foods, especially if you tend to get run down in airports and don't want the hassle of trying to get your own foods through TSA.

So what puts Delta at the top? Well, it provides free snacks and offers a wide selection of purchasable foods. It provides a guide to purchasable items, noting which foods are vegan, gluten-free, kosher, and lacto-ovo vegetarian, so folks with dietary restrictions will know exactly what they can have. Delta's Tapas Snackbox "is the U.S. airline industry's only non-GMO snack box," Platkin wrote, and it's a pretty filling choice, too — it includes almonds, bruschetta, cheese spread, chocolate, crackers, dried fruit, flatbread, hummus, and a mint for less than $10. Platkin's Delta recommendation for healthiest snack is almonds, and if you want something a little more, go with the Tapas box, he said.

Close runner-up Virgin America also scores in the snack box category, including a high-protein pack containing hummus, nuts, and tuna, and a Jet Set Kid Pack. Packs like this, with enough individual snacks to make a full meal, can be hugely helpful for people who are on long flights and want to purchase one meal and be able to spread it out throughout the whole flight. It's also great for folks who need to eat at regular intervals for health reasons.

Platkin also noted that Virgin offers purchasable meals that include a turkey sandwich and a chicken and grape salad. His top choices are the protein pack, granola with yogurt and fruit, and the chicken salad.

Other notable options from various airlines include more snack boxes: The Avocado Smash Box from Air Canada has fresh guacamole, hard-boiled egg, green apple slices, and multigrain bread; JetBlue's AmpUp box with olives, hummus, crackers, and a fruit bar; and American Airlines' breakfast snack box, with yogurt and granola.

But if you're not flying one of those airlines, the survey noted a recommended option from each of the 12 airlines Platkin looked at. Tapas boxes with Mediterranean themes were common contenders, such as the Mediterranean Tapas box from Alaska Airlines; the Tapas snack box and the Mezze Sampler from United; and hummus and pita chips from Spirit Airlines, Allegiant Air, and Hawaiian Airlines. Another popular option were trail mixes and nuts from Frontier Airlines and Southwest, respectively.

Platkin's evaluation of airlines' meals was less promising than his evaluation of the snack boxes. He noted a lot of snacks with high sodium content and suggested ditching nearly every dessert offered with various airlines' meals, though when I'm trapped in a box with 100-plus other disgruntled people, I'm gonna eat my brownie no matter what. If you're not into the whole snack box thing and are concerned about how to keep your food levels healthy while you're on the go, he offered some tips. First, bring your own reusable (and empty, for security purposes) water bottle, or snag one after security. According to Harvard Health, dehydration can exacerbate jet lag, so stocking up on fluids will help you minimize your jet lag fallout.

If you want to DIY your plane snacks, Alyse Whitney writing for Bon Appétit has some excellent suggestions: single-serving dips like peanut butter, hummus, and guacamole paired with carrots, cucumbers, pretzels, or veggie chips; vegan foods, since they don't spoil as quickly as meat or dairy; and full-on bringing containers of pre-made food from home, though be prepared to eat it cold onboard.

If meals can be a problem for you while traveling, always check your airline's website for its offerings and see if you can plan meal selections and/or purchasable meals and snacks ahead of time. Even for folks who don't have to be too concerned about what they're eating, alleviating just a little bit of travel stress can make your trip that much better.