5 Easy Tips for Picking the Healthiest Snack on Every Flight

Aug 9, 2016

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TPG Contributor Molly Rose recently asked Keri Gans, a registered dietician, nutritionist and author of The Small Change Diet: 10 Steps to a Thinner, Healthier You, about her best tips for selecting the healthiest snacks on every flight (hint: it has nothing to do with those giant snack boxes).

It’s always healthier to plan ahead for snacks when flying, but even the most meticulous travelers can end up mid-flight, stomach rumbling, without a Kind bar or bag of trail mix within reach. So what should you eat? Nutritionist Keri Gans offers five simple strategies for picking healthy snacks on the plane, even when you’re craving junk food.

1. Pick Peanuts and Pretzels
Southwest and Delta are now the only major domestic carriers that still serve prepackaged peanuts in coach, but when this classic airline snack is offered, eat up — the humble peanut offers many of the same heart-health and longevity benefits as fancier nuts. Both airlines serve small bags of both pretzels and peanuts, so ask for one of each and mix them together. The DIY snack mix provides fat, saltiness, protein and crunch in a reasonable portion size. “I always take one mini pretzels and one mini peanuts, so I’m getting some of the protein and the fat,” said Gans. “It’s a small bag, so it’s not a lot of calories.”

2.  Order Your Favorite Drink
Let’s get one thing clear: Health-wise, you simply shouldn’t drink alcohol on flights. Alcohol dehydrates, interrupts sleep habits and can leave you with one of those miserable baggage carousel hangovers. But for many flyers, an in-air cocktail is a comforting ritual (and a sure way to prompt a cat nap). Your best bet? Whatever your favorite drink is — but just one. “Your serving sizes are actually portioned out for you on a flight,” said Gans. “It’s the one place where a shot is a shot. Usually, I’m concerned that it depends on the bartender and how big his martini glass is or how big his pour is. A plane’s the one place it’s kind of portion controlled.”

3. Seek Out Umami
According to a 2010 study commissioned by Lufthansa, the combination of high altitude, low pressure and dry air on flights dulls the taste buds that detect sugar and salt, but not those that sense umami, sour and bitter flavors. That means you could plow through an entire super-sized bag of peanut M&Ms without really tasting the candy. Instead, seek out foods featuring umami, the savory fifth flavor that makes steak taste beefy and makes bacon irresistible. One good option: tomato juice. Your dulled senses will pick up on the drink’s umami flavors but not its harsh acidity, plus it’s low in calories, high in antioxidants (vitamin C and lycopene) and is a touch festive. “It’s a mocktail,” Gans said. “It feels like you’re drinking a bloody Mary.”

4. Go With Your Gut
Free snacks are definitely making a comeback on domestic legacy carriers: you’ll find pretzels, peanuts, and Biscoff cookies on Delta; stroopwafels and spicy snack mix on United; and pretzels and Biscoff cookies on American. When choosing between salty or sweet, simply go with your gut. “It’s really based on the individual,” said Gans. “Eat what you have a taste for. If you think ‘I should have x y or z,’ you’ll keep eating until you satisfy your craving. Sometimes it’s better to eat a moderate amount of what you’re craving … than to have three other foods before you get to the food you really wanted.”

5. Avoid the Boxes
When airlines stopped serving meals on domestic flights, they started selling larger snack boxes (think JetBlue’s EatUp boxes, United’s Choice Menu and American’s snack packs). Be careful though, as those packs can be very deceiving. For instance, hummus and crackers seem healthy, but the boxes are calorically dense and arguably the worst thing to buy on the plane. “If you ate the whole thing, it would be complete overkill,” Gans said, referring to JetBlue’s BeefUp Box. “This is like four snacks in one. The Kind bar is one, the cheese and crackers is two, the salami is three and then the peppercorn spread is four.”

A Final Tip

Ironically, the days of hot meals were healthier, even when the entrées were pastas or chicken with creamy sauces. “When they serve baked ziti on flights, my attitude is, ‘It’s not so terrible,’” Gans said. “I sometimes indulge myself in it, because it’s a smaller portion of what I might get in a restaurant. It’s not actually as awful as you might think.”

What are your favorite snacks to eat on the plane? Sound off, below.

Featured image courtesy of United Airlines.

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