Seasons by the Sea: Airplane Carry-Ons

On a recent trip I was determined to only eat healthy food
At the Minneapolis airport, food options include Aunt Annie’s pretzels and candy-coated apples. Laura Donnelly

What are you supposed to do when you are trying ever so hard to stick to a nutritious diet and you travel a lot? At home, every aspect of what you eat is under your control. When traveling, almost none of it is. Interestingly, it seems like airport terminals have gotten better about offering healthful choices (hummus, sushi, fresh fruit), but the airlines have gotten worse.

When I travel, I get panicky if I don’t have a good book and some magazines. I seldom bring a computer, I don’t have a Kindle or iPad, and even if I have music loaded on my phone, I still don’t have earplugs to listen to it. I guess I’m a woefully low-tech frequent flyer. I also need some kind of food. This is true if it’s a few hours on the Jitney, flying across the country, or hours and hours of international travel. Food appeases my waiting-at-Gate-B12-for-three-hours boredom.

On one recent flight, it was announced that the airline would not be serving peanuts (which is all it had) because a passenger on the plane was severely allergic. On another flight, the attendant refused to give me some water until the service cart was wheeling through the cabin, about an hour and a half later. This is another good reason to be prepared with your own supplies.

When I see people go through security with empty bottles and then fill them from a water fountain, I think “now that’s a clever, money-saving person!” I’m  often the idiot who spends $8 on eight ounces of Fiji water on the wrong side of security, and then have to throw it away because I forgot the rules. I also have a tendency to buy those overpriced bags of dried apricots and cashews and spicy Cajun flavored peanut and sesame-stick mixes at the airport and then notice on the plane that you can’t close the bags once they’re open. That’s when I totally freak out my fellow passengers by rifling through the seat back in front of me, looking for the barf bag so I can wrap up my leftover fruit-nut-weird-flavored mixes.

On a recent trip I was determined to only eat healthy food. I packed up a darned good salad with brown rice, kale, almonds, and apricots, the kinds of ingredients that taste just as good six hours later, don’t go bad, and don’t stink up the plane. One must be considerate of the other passengers. No garlic or onions, please! 

I used some frequent flyer miles to travel first class on Delta, J.F.K. to Minneapolis, then Minneapolis to Tucson. The airplane was a brand new 319. It had pale, glowing blue lights in the cabin. I swear, it was like the sexy, under-lit lobby of a W Hotel. It had Malin and Goetz soap and hand lotion in the lavatory, and you got hot towels to clean your hands! No wonder first class is so expensive! Our meal offering at breakfast was an egg and cheese sandwich or Cheerios. Seriously?!?! They were basically offering us a “meal” that could have just as easily come from the 7-11 in Sag Harbor or a gas station on Route 27. 

When I heard a passenger mention that she had ordered the vegetarian meal, the flight attendant announced (rather triumphantly, I thought) that she was getting the Cheerios. The meal did include some nonfat yogurt, a fruit bowl containing three grapes, two slices of cantaloupe, and two slices of pineapple — kind of a mouse-sized feast.

Strolling through the Minneapolis airport to see what kinds of foodstuffs a health-conscious person might want to buy, I was appalled at the options. There were stores that sold nothing but huge chocolate and caramel covered apples, stores with nothing but big-batch candy bags, the usual Auntie Anne’s pretzels, and the gloriously naughty Cinnabon, a treat I would have availed myself of a few years ago. Even on my return flight home.

If you can find a Starbucks in an airport (yeah, that should be real hard), you can get the oatmeal. The $5-for-half-an-ounce-of-instant-oatmeal oatmeal. Financially, you’re an idiot, but at least you didn’t go for the Chipotle mega-burrito or leaden maple scone or egg McMuffin.

I have come to enjoy the challenge of finding foods that travel well or finding food at the airport that won’t destroy my ultravirtuous diet. Protein bars will do in a pinch, although I think the whole concept is pretty bogus. Read the label, they’re basically a bunch of fattening nuts and dried fruit held together with sugar and chocolate. Take a banana or apple from home. Make a filling, grain-based salad that won’t spoil, and take an empty water bottle to fill as needed. There, you just saved about $15 that can now be used to get a premium tequila margarita when you arrive for your first day of vacation. Also take Ziploc bags with pistachios or almonds, pumpkin seeds, cashews, whatever you like.

Some airports have a chain called Cibo, which offers some pretty good options: quinoa salads, hummus with vegetables, fruit, and yogurt. If you’re compelled to buy a whole meal in the airport, the Chinese restaurants usually have something called “bourbon” chicken. Yes, it is a bit oily and probably too salty, but it’s a tasty protein fix that will fill you up before your flight. Or you could get in line behind all those cement mixers and get some McDonald’s crap.

Eating right while en route can certainly be a challenge, but it’s not an excuse to blow your diet. Plan ahead and take your own foods. If you must purchase something at the airport, choose carefully, there are options out there. As for me, I have a couple of barf bags filled with healthy goodies that have already crossed the country twice. But I feel better knowing I have them at the ready, in case we get stuck on the tarmac (“Ladies and gentlemen, this is your captain speaking, we are, uh, number 16 for takeoff”) or stuck in the air, or stuck at the airport . . . or stuck in Minneapolis, surrounded by caramel, peanut, gummy-bear-coated candy apples and nothing else.

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Although airports in major metropolitan areas are offering healthier options, there is no escaping the candy aisles in most newsstands and shops. Laura Donnelly