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We looked at the healthiest options on five major airlines. Here's what we found.

Zee Krstic
August 28, 2018

Good news for travelers with dietary restrictions: As the New York Times wrote earlier this month, airlines in the United States are becoming more and more accomodating. Gone are the days of a "one size fits all" meal service. Both domestic and international flights are now offering as many as fourteen different kinds of inflight meals.

Russ Brown, the director of in-flight services at American Airlines, told the Times that the airline has seen a more than 60 percent increase in special meal orders overall. Between January and June of 2017, travelers requested approximately 106,000 special meals—that number has soared to 250,000 this year in the same period, with vegan and gluten-intolerant meals being the most popular, Brown said. (The vegan diet is actually more trendy than ever.)

The range of snacks and foods available for purchase is also growing. Southwest Airlines, which has earned a reputation for complimentary snacks, offers a core selection of BelVita products on long-distance flights among other snacks.

You may believe that you can only request a special meal if you have a prescribed medical condition. But the rise of diet-friendly options on major airlines has to do with the fact that passengers are choosing to eat alternative meals out of personal preference. For many airlines, that process begins when you first purchase your ticket, but we'll walk you through the entire process of ensuring you get a meal you'll want to eat—plus the available options.

Trying to stay healthy while on the road? Read on:

And what about actually bringing your own meals on board? The Transportation Security Administration is more strict about the food you can take through security checkpoints. But if you're traveling for a long period of time, preparing your own meals in advance can help you remain healthy and happy, as long as you navigate which foods you can bring on board. Per TSA guidelines, a surprising amount of food, from cooked vegetables to pies, can be brought on—though liquids still have to be kept to the proper amounts.  

To be thorough, we asked each airline about restrictions on what you could bring onboard—nearly every airline confirmed that they don't maintain a list of prohibited foods, but it's important to remember that each airline has different policies for carry-on luggage based on the type of ticket you purchased. A full sheet tray or cake pan is considered a seperate piece of luggage, according to one representative, so the rule of thumb is to keep items within a backpack or purse.

Additionally, here's how to choose the healthiest options at five major North American airlines:

 

American Airlines

American Airlines offers a wide selection of 14 different kinds of meals, ranging from gluten-free to low-sodium options as well as kosher, halal, Muslim, and Hindu meals. You can find American's full list of available meals right here. There are options for nearly every restriction, from food allergies to religious precedence. American even provides a "bland" meal, which is designed for those with a sensitive stomach.

A chicken wrap served on American Airlines flights. Photo courtesy of American Airlines.

On most international routes, the process of selecting a special meal begins when you buy your ticket. You'll have the opportunity to select a meal and indicate any further preferences at the time of booking, says Sunny Rodriguez, a corporate communications representative for the airline.

If you used a travel agent or third-party booking site, or if you forgot to include your dietary restrictions or preferences, you can speak with a customer service representative as late as 24 hours prior to takeoff. If you don't notify the airline of your preference before then, however, don't expect a special meal—the airline doesn't bring these meals unless a passenger requests it.

An entree served on American Airlines flights. Photo courtesy of American Airlines.

These days, meal service is mostly limited to long-distance international flights, but special meals are also available to first-and-business class customers who fly domestically on non-regional flights. Free in-flight meals are offered to those flying in economy between New York's JFK and Los Angeles as well as San Francisco.

If you're traveling on any American flight that is longer than three hours, you'll have a chance to purchase food.

The fruit and cheese plate served on American Airlines flights. Photo courtesy of American Airlines.

"There's a full menu with photos and in-depth ingredient lists, in most seats so that passengers who have dietary restrictions can easily identify what they're able to order," Rodriguez says. "We're always looking to update our menus by looking for things our passenger can enjoy, which often includes sandwiches, wraps, cheese plates, and snack boxes, filled with items like hummus, chips, and beef jerky."

On many regional flights, you won't be able to get more than standard complimentary items—pretzels and Biscoff cookies. If you're gluten-free, or otherwise trying to avoid sugar, this is the time to pack a snack.

Delta Airlines

Delta serves more than 1 million alternative meals each year, and also offers 14 different kinds of meals for passengers, says Savannah Huddleston, a corporate communications representative. Vegetarian meals are the most popular request, accounting for more than 10 percent of all alternative meals, but Delta also offers low-fat, low-calorie, and low-sodium meals, a vegetarian-based Asian meal, and even meal options for toddlers and babies.

One of Delta's in-flight menu offerings. Photo courtesy of Delta.

While the menu changes regularly, the gluten-free meal might, for instance, be a slow-cooked beef dish with thyme sauce, whereas a popular vegetarian option has been Eggplant Masala with yellow lentil dal.

Delta asks passengers to confirm special meal selections at least 48 hours in advance of a trip, either at the time of booking or by calling the airline's reservation line.

Huddleston says that passengers who have requested special meals—available mostly internationally between the U.S., Europe, and Asia—need to check in with a gate agent upon arrival to reiterate any special order, and to confirm one last time with a flight attendant prior to takeoff.

An example of a cheese plate on board a Delta flight. Photo courtesy of Delta.

On Delta's international routes, economy passengers are able to enjoy special meals and complimentary alcoholic beverages—on longer domestic routes, passengers can expect a meal if the flight coincides with a mealtime. Otherwise, special meals are available only to first-class passengers on routes that travel more than 1,500 miles, with smaller plates available on flights longer than 900 miles.

A popular health blog called The Diet Detective ranked Delta as the "healthiest" provider of food in America this year (a great resource if you'd like to see each menu Delta item broken down by calorie count), picking up on the wide array of vegan, gluten-free, kosher and non-GMO snacks on board. Huddleston says that Delta works with Luvo, a better-for-you frozen meal provider that also makes meals available online, to create nutritious meals available to economy customers on select flights. Each of these Luvo meals averages about 480 calories each.

You can purchase these on any flight over 900 miles, including snack boxes and Delta's fresh fruit and cheese plate, the safest item nutritionally by far. Complimentary snack items available to all customers include KIND Dark Chocolate Chunk bars and a gluten-free pretzel snack mix.

United Airlines

United Airlines offers 10 different kinds of meals on flights that are scheduled to include meal service, which tends to include international routes that occur during a normal meal time. United offers religious options (Hindu, Kosher, Muslim, and even Jain) and diet-specific options like gluten-free, lacto-ovo-vegetarian, and vegan. United has published its full list of meals, and where they're available, on its website.

A note for those with peanut allergies—United serves meals containing peanuts and uses prep facilities that are in contact with many food allergens.

United allows frequent fliers to indicate any permanent dietary restrictions in a MileagePlus profile—your preferred special meal should be automatically assigned to you on all future trips where meal service is offered. Otherwise, you'll need to specially indicate your preferences at the time of booking, or by speaking to a United representative 24 hours before your trip.

United makes their alternative meals available on most international flights. However, there are a few international routes—mostly out of Micronesia and the Marshall Islands—that do not offer special meals.

One of United's on-board entrées, a seared beef short rib with bordelaise, grits, fava beans, shiitake mushrooms, cherry tomato and shallots. Photo courtesy of United Airlines.

If you're traveling within the United States, you'll only be able to eat alternative meals when you travel 2,000 miles or longer (think cross-country trips like New York to Seattle, or Boston to San Francisco) and travel in first class, says Rachael Rivas, a public relations manager for United Airlines.

Standalone food items—including United's vegan "mezze" platter touting edamame, corn, almonds, hummus and pita, and a wheat berry salad with quinoa—are available for purchase on flights longer than 3 hours within the U.S. and on flights to Canada, Central America, and the Caribbean. Breakfast is also served on morning routes, where the best option is the mixed berry breakfast bowl: Blueberries, raspberries, strawberries, vanilla granola, slivered almonds, pecans, sunflower seeds, and a Chobani Greek yogurt drink.

On flights that are longer than 90 minutes but shorter than 3 hours, both in the U.S. and abroad, United customers can purchase curated snackboxes and snacks during the flight—the best option, if available, is the Dip'N hummus snack pack, which is a low-sodium variety that also includes crackers for dipping.

JetBlue Airways

If you travel for business, there's a good chance you've frequented JetBlue, especially if you travel between the east and west coasts: The airline operates 18 cross-country flights daily where meal service is offered, four of which are scheduled to the Caribbean via New York and Boston. The catch is that you'll have to fly Mint, JetBlue's take on a business class-like premium seat and service, in order to receive plated meals during your flight.

Photo courtesy of JetBlue.

Mint fliers enjoy seasonal menus, which change each month, based on the direction they're travelling—there are menus with multiple options for breakfast as well as lunch and dinner, where customers are asked to choose three of five available options. There's also a full wine list that is curated each month, as well as a selection of ice creams, desserts, and coffee. Flight personnel have been trained on the ins and outs of the Mint menu and can break down each ingredient within a meal if asked, says Julianna Bryan, a corporate communications representative for JetBlue.

But if passengers have any dietary restrictions, JetBlue offers five special meals outside of their expansive Mint menu: a vegan meal, a low-calorie meal, gluten-free options, "Plane Eats" (which is used frequently as a kid's meal option or for those who have sensitive stomachs), and a Kosher meal. You'll need to contact JetBlue's customer care line to indicate your preference on your reservation or make a special note at the time of booking, Bryan says. Dietary requests need to be made at least 24 hours ahead of the flight, and Kosher meals must be requested at least two days in advance.

A trio of entrees selected by a Mint passenger. Photo courtesy of JetBlue.

If you're flying in an economy seat on a JetBlue flight longer than four hours, the airline sells a collection of health-focused meals under their "EatUp Café," including a Mediterranean salad served in a shaker jar that is vegan, with cheese packaged separately. The salad, which contains no added sugar or artificial ingredients according to Bryan, features cucumber, chickpeas, tomato, kale, quinoa, and comes with feta cheese, alongside a dressing made of tahini, olive oil, lemon juice, sea salt, and honey.

Other items on the café menu include a turkey and pepper jack cheese sandwich, a cheese and cracker plate, a ham and cheese croissant, and chia seed pudding. You can see how each item stacks up nutritionally right here, as JetBlue publishes nutrition facts about each item they serve on board.

A standard Mint meal. Photo courtesy of JetBlue.

JetBlue has earned a reputation for being travel friendly, thanks to amenities like the "unlimited" snack selection—for travelers flying in economy or on regional JetBlue flights, there's a selection of five different snacks, with the two best options being Terra's Sweets and Blues chips and Popcorners' popped kettle corn chips. And if a snack isn't enough to hold you over, there are five different snack boxes available for purchase—the safest pick being the CatchUp box, which clocks in at 295 calories, 3g of saturated fat, and 365mg of sodium, and includes cashews, popcorn, brownie thins, and jellybeans.

JetBlue doesn't restrict travelers from bringing food on board, but crewmembers may ask you to move seats if someone is particularly allergic to foodborne allergens—including peanuts.

Air Canada

International airlines have been making some of the most noteworthy strides when it comes to providing meal service: As the Times notes, Turkish Airlines offers a whopping 24 different meals on board, and Qatar Airways provides an impressive range of 17 different kinds of meals as well. If you're heading to Canada—or even to Europe, Central America, South America, or Asia via Canada—Air Canada provides 18 different special meal options, mostly available to those who fly on non-stop international routes or in business or premium economy classes on North American flights, says Kevin Mio, Air Canada's corporate communications manager.

Air Canada always provides hot meals to those flying on international routes—up to four options in the airline's "signature" class, and two options in economy—and also to those who fly in business class on all Canada-bound domestic flights. If you have a medical restriction or are following a certain diet, Air Canada has options including gluten-free meals, low-calorie meals, low-fat meals, lactose-intolerant meals, and meals designed for those with diabetes.

An example of Freshii's meal service on Air Canada flights: Photo courtesy of Air Canada.

If you're looking for a Kosher meal, you'll need to order that a day before you travel—all other requests can be made 18 hours in advance.

If you're flying to Canada and sitting in economy, Air Canada provides a "Bistro" service, where snacks and meals are available for purchase, including vegan, gluten-free, and peanut-free items. There are sandwiches, soups, salads, even sushi, and Air Canada has partnered with the Canadian fast-casual chain Freshii to offer signature items like an smashed avocado toast, a vegetarian Tuscan wrap, and a Southwestern rice bowl loaded with chicken and fresh veggies.

You can peruse Air Canada's full Bistro menu, which is available to all economy passengers, right here.

Photo courtesy of Air Canada.

The bottom line: Airlines are offering more special meals than ever before. While some airlines make nutrition information available, there's no guarantee that special meals—from gluten-free meals to those designed for religious reasons—are actually better for you nutritionally than the standard meals served on these flights. There's a good chance that they'll taste better, however, since we now know that airlines specifically order your meal for you, if you request a special option.

For many Americans, navigating eating while flying has to do with picking the best snack option available to them—or, if they're lucky, choosing the best salad or fruit plate from an a la carte menu. But frequent travelers who still feel like there is nothing redeemable on their flights will have to turn to their own kitchens: The best answer to the dilemma of staying healthy while traveling is to pack your own food.

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