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Harvard Commentaries
Harvard Commentaries
Reviewed by the Faculty of Harvard Medical School

Food for Thought Food for Thought

Airports – Avoid the High-Fat Food Trap

October 23, 2014

By Hillary M. Wright, M.Ed., R.D., L.D.N.
Brigham and Women's Hospital

As the food on flights has gotten skimpier — or even nonexistent — many airport restaurants and cafés are filling the gap so time-crunched, weary, and frazzled travelers don't go hungry. Many now offer healthier alternatives to fast food. Ethnic foods, vegetarian entrees, and freshly made prepackaged meals are readily available where once only burgers and pizza could be found.


The New Look of Airport Menus An informal "survey" of airport terminal food at Boston's Logan International Airport, for example, found healthful food options in several eating establishments:

  • An Italian restaurant offered many light dishes, including grilled chicken Parmesan with marinara sauce, salads with shrimp or grilled chicken, and a vegetarian club sandwich. They also said they’d gladly pack any of their meals to go.


  • Menu options at a deli-type restaurant included salads with grilled chicken and light dressing; reasonably sized prepackaged half-subs and wrap sandwiches made with turkey, ham and veggies; yogurt; vegetable soup; chili; fresh fruit and fruit salad.


  • Au Bon Pain, the bakery and café chain, offered a variety of salads with light dressing; vegetable soup; sandwiches on 4-grain bread; fresh fruit and fruit salad; and a low fat yogurt cup with fresh fruit and granola.


  • Even Starbuck's, known more for their scones and coffee, offered a prepackaged veggie sandwich, a turkey sub with brown mustard, yogurt and fresh fruit salad.

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Make the Most of Fast Food Fast food chains such as McDonald's, Burger King, Pizza Hut and Sbarro's still have a strong presence in airport food courts, which may be where families with children often end up. On the bright side, fast food restaurants are beginning to offer healthier food choices as well (although you still need to get by the smell of French fries!). It's possible to order a fast food meal and not do any major calorie damage. Here's how:

  • When grabbing a burger, opt for a single burger sandwich rather than a double-decker or extra large one. Look for veggie burgers. Use lower-calorie ketchup, mustard or relish instead of mayonnaise or creamy sauces. Say "no" to offers to "super size" anything.


  • Limit the size of a burger by ordering a "kid's meal." Add a side salad to help fill you up.


  • Steer clear of fried fish sandwiches, which are often fried in oils that contain trans fats, which are as calorie-laden as a greasy burger and are suspected of increasing the risk of heart disease.


  • Opting for grilled or broiled chicken sandwiches over fried ("crispy") will save your around 100 calories and 4 grams of saturated fat.


  • Limit the use of added cheese, croutons and bacon bits on salads. Use low-calorie dressings, or use half the amount of full fat dressings.


  • When possible, choose a deli or sandwich shop (like Subway), many of which offer healthier alternatives to traditional subs. Ask for extra vegetables and whole grain breads where available.


  • Try a wrap or pita sandwiches (ask if they offer the whole wheat varieties) that are vegetarian or include lean meats. Watch added dressings and extra cheese, which can easily add 100 or more extra calories.


  • Choose vegetables or bean soups over cream soups or chowders.

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Pack for Snacks Attacks Another way to avoid the high-fat airport food trap is to bring along your own in-flight foods. Given the lack of nutritious food options for kids, brown-bagging it lets you save yourself time — and money — by packing a few simple snacks to go:

  • Peanut butter spread on whole grain crackers, a banana or an apple
  • Peanut butter and all-fruit spread on whole grain bread
  • Yogurt (also widely available in airports)
  • Hard granola bars
  • Reduced fat cheese and whole grain crackers
  • Low fat cottage cheese mixed with pineapple
  • Herbed cottage cheese and whole grain crackers
  • Whole wheat pita with reduced-fat sliced cheese
  • Nuts
  • Homemade "trail mix" of dry cereal, nuts, seeds, raisins or dried berries, and a few chocolate chips

As you can see, eating healthier "on the fly" is possible if you take a few moments to look beyond standard airport fare!Back to top

Hillary M. Wright, M.Ed., R.D., L.D.N., is a Senior Nutritionist for the Dana Farber/Brigham and Women's Cancer Care Program. Hillary also has a private nutrition counseling practice specializing in women's health and is a writer and contributing editor for the newsletter Environmental Nutrition.

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