How to Navigate the Maze of Airport Dining Without Packing On Pounds

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There’s been a lot of publicity about airport dining since the Daily Meal published its list of the 31 best airport restaurants late in 2012.  Some Michelin starred chefs have taken their wares to the traveling masses.  We have Gordon Ramsay’s Plane Food at London Heathrow, and Gilles Dupont and Thomas Byrnes’s Altitude at Geneva Airport.  In the US, mainly burger and pizza joints made the list, which reflects more on the Daily Meal’s staff who conducted the survey than anything else.  The notable exception was Rick Bayless’s Tortas Frontera at Chicago’s O’Hare airport. 

The problem I have with all of this, including the $1.4 billion renovation of Delta’s terminal at JFK is that these venerable eateries are never in a terminal that I fly out of.  They might be in the same airport, which is even more frustrating.  I’ll be stuck in the one that has pizza, ice cream and cinnamon buns while Wolfgang Puck, Todd English and Danny Meyer‘s establishments are just a terminal and security checkpoint away.

So here you are. You’re at the terminal.  You’re hungry.  You have the time to eat.  What do you do?  What are the best options for you even when it looks like nothing else is available?

Let’s start with the food court.  You have pot luck here.  You could have fantastic options such as at Chicago O’Hare where the food court boasts aforementioned Tortas Frontera by local chef Rick Bayless.  Fresh made guacamole, homemade chips and salsa and a bunch of different tortas are offered.  Bayless even lists the local farms from which meat is purveyed. (Yes, really!).

Then there’s the real world for the rest of us.  We’re in the terminal that’s offering Burger King, Panda Express and Nathan’s Hotdogs.

The best advice I can give you is to keep it as simple as possible.  I give a categoric “no” to fast food.  Even though they claim to be offering healthier food, their sources are to be questioned.  You should be able to pick up a salad or a sandwich.  The salad should have an oil-based dressing rather than a creamy one and you should put it on your salad, not keep it on the side.  You need the dressing to digest the micronutrients and antioxidants in the vegetables.

Your sandwich should be on whole grain bread and not have too many ingredients.  Tuna and chicken salad in mayonnaise are out; slices of lean meat are in.  If you’re having meat, do not add cheese.  There’s plenty of protein and enough saturated fat in the meat.  Always sneak in at least one veggie serving to your sandwich, even if it’s lettuce and tomato.  Choose mustard over mayonnaise.

Soups are great as long as they are not full of milk and cream. Choose soups with vegetables and beans or lentils for fiber and energy.  Whatever you order will probably have a lot of salt in it, so drink lots of water to maintain the right balance of sodium and water in your cells.  You’ll feel and function better that way.

What about the ubiquitous Asian food court offerings?  If you order well, they can actually be okay.  You can always find a vegetable dish, noodles, scallops, fresh fish or something simple like chicken and broccoli.  You do have to watch out for MSG and very salty foods so see if they’ll make a serving of whatever you want to order.  Ask for it without salt, MSG and request less soy and oil. 

Always ask for brown rice although chances are that they’ll only have white rice which is tantamount to a bowl of starch.  In this case I do suggest that you order chicken or pork with your veggies as they stop your blood sugar hiking as much.

If sushi is available, that’s a lighter option unless you eat tons of it.  Figure between 50 and 60 calories a piece.  Sushi rolls are better because they have the seaweed around them which is one of the single best foods out there.  The average roll is around 300 calories, assuming it’s not fried or got over the top ingredients.  Again, brown rice is better if it’s available.  Miso soup and noodles in broth are also good options.  Teriyaki isn’t so great because it’s very salty.

If there’s a Nature’s Table or similar healthy eatery, just be careful what you order.  Not everyone’s definition of healthy is the same.  Watch for hidden sugar in smoothies and sodium in savory dishes.

Let’s take a look at actual restaurants rather than food court choices.  If you have the option of going to a restaurant and sitting down to eat your meal in relative peace, please do so.  It’s a better option on so many levels.

The rules here are similar to the regular guidelines for eating out.  The good news is that you can probably find a salad.  It’s not necessarily going to be organic baby greens but it’s still a salad and it’s the best place to start. You’ll have alkaline food that will help you digest everything else and will help you deal with any inflight bloating that may occur.

In addition to the options we discussed for food court outlets, you should be able to put together a plate of meat or fish with a selection of vegetables.  Substitute extra vegetables for the starchy potatoes and white rice.  Steak and sautéed spinach is a lovely option, as is salmon with broccoli.  Broccoli seems to be the most widely served restaurant vegetable, but you may find spinach and asparagus as well.

To my mind, the best part about eating in a real restaurant is that they are more likely to adapt to your requests because the food is made to order.  Nowadays restaurants are used to special requests.  They are being asked for gluten-free, dairy-free, vegetarian and vegan all the time.  So don’t be shy about asking for exactly what you want.

There’s usually some kind of Latin American restaurant or Mexican at most airports.  Rice, corn and bean dishes will be readily available. You can put together a great meal with salad, rice and beans, salsa and guacamole.  You can actually be sure of getting the perfect protein, and a variety of fresh vegetables.  I select the Mexican option quite often when I’m traveling.

The hardest part about Italian restaurants is avoiding the stuff that’s bad for you.  Good choices are soups such as pasta e fagioli, escarole in broda if they’re available.  Pasta is usually made from white flour so you have the same issue with sugar that you get with white rice.  Ask for whole wheat pasta because you never know.  If it’s not available, consider adding fish or chicken to keep the blood sugar steady, just like I suggested with Asian food options.

Keep the sauces light. Choose pasta primavera for a vegetable medley or a plain marinara sauce. Just remember to go lightly on the cheese.   Some Italian restaurants offer sautéed spinach, broccoli or escarole as a contorno or side dish.  That’s a great way to add more fiber to your meal.

If you travel through the same airports a lot, you can check out their eateries’ websites to see what kind of ingredients they use.  Au Bon Pain for example is very transparent about the ingredients they’re using.  You can even check their menus by airport and plan ahead for healthy eating options.

A little bit of planning can go a long way.  The bottom line here is to steer as far away as you can from “composed” dishes.  The more complicated the dish, the more hidden stuff there’ll be.  Go for simple.  Fewest ingredients. If it looks like food, it probably is.  The more you have dishes with tons of ingredients, the more likely hidden fats, sugars and calories are lurking.

And one day, you never know, you may actually find yourself in the right terminal enjoying a sumptuous meal at a Michelin-starred restaurant. Until then, however, I hope I’ve helped you make some better choices.

2 thoughts on “How to Navigate the Maze of Airport Dining Without Packing On Pounds

  1. Fab blog, packed with useful tips. Thank you.

  2. Greetings! Very useful advice within this article!
    It iis the little changes that produce thhe most important changes.
    Tanks a lot for sharing!

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