Dec. 2, 2010 -- Staying healthy on the road is not easy, and in no place is that more true than at the airport food court in the skies. Airlines today offer a wide variety of food for sale, but while some items are good for your diet, others are nothing short of mile-high junk food.
Charles Stuart Platkin, a visiting assistant professor at CUNY School of Public Health at Hunter College and editor of DietDetective.com, has ranked the airlines based on his observations about their various in-flight food offerings.
United, JetBlue and American Airlines top his list, with Southwest, Virgin America and US Airways at the bottom.
Healthy eating starts before you get on the plane. Platkin suggests stocking up on some key items at the terminal and bringing some snacks from home. Among his suggestions:
Buy water after the security checkpoint to take onboard. Dehydration can cause or exacerbate hunger, jet lag and fatigue.
Bring Kashi, Shredded Wheat or other low-calorie cereals from home. Look for portable, low-calorie choices, under 120 calories per cup. You can also look for cereal in a cup -- portion-controlled 1.5-ounce packs that are easy to store and easy to use.
Bring along fruits but choose carefully. Apples and oranges are best able to withstand the rough treatment of travel. Otherwise, put grapes or other fragile fruits in a small plastic container.
Energy bars tend to be high in calories and fat but are generally better than a slice of pizza or a candy bar at the airport.
Prepare pre-cut sandwiches made into portion-controlled sections so you can pull them out at different times during the trip without making a mess. Chicken, turkey, cold cuts and cheese on whole-wheat bread are all great options for sandwiches on the go.
Best Airline In-Flight Meals
All that sounds very smart, but not everybody prepares in advance. Which airlines have healthier food and which options should you choose during your flight?
Platkin rates airlines from one star to five, although one of the factors was how helpful the airline public relations department was. Virgin America (which got two stars) took umbrage at that, as well as Platkin's focus on calorie counts, which it says is just part of the story. For the record, Virgin America's eggs are cage-free and it focuses on fresh items and organic and locally-sourced products.
Other airlines told ABC News they are constantly refreshing snack selections and expanding menus to offer more options based on what customers want.
Here are Platkin's ratings and reviews:
United Airlines: 4 stars
"Best Bet: On flights longer than two hours go for the Tapas; it has some great foods, including almonds, olives, hummus and bruschetta – nice, and guess what? It's their top-selling snack box.
"The Lite is also very good and balanced at only 430 calories. For flights longer than three hours, United has a plethora of choices, but I really like the turkey sandwich at 600 calories including the sauce and chips -- skip those if you want to save the calories.
"The Chicken Caesar Salad and the Fruit Tray are also good choices. All the meals are served with dressing on the side, so try to use only half.
"As far as the individual snacks are concerned, wow, those are some pretty high-calorie items. For breakfast, your best bet is the Smoothie or the Yogurt Parfait -- nice and healthy. Or you can have the ham and swiss croissant -- it's not too high in calories. Skip the Continental Breakfast -- at 783 calories it's a bad start to your day."
JetBlue Airways: 3.25 stars
"Best Bet: If you're really hungry, try the nuts. They have protein and good fat and will satisfy you. Eat them one at a time. The animal crackers are OK but not very nutritious.
"Try to stick with no more than one snack. Just because they offer more doesn't mean you have to take them, especially if you're not hungry. In terms of the meal boxes, the Shape Up is the clear winner -- pick that over all the others."
American Airlines: 3.125 stars
"Best Bet: Your best bet is the Cheese & Cracker Snack Tray. Just skip the cracker packages. The Premium Nut Blend is a strong nutrition choice, but make sure to split it with at least two other people. If you're traveling alone and don't have a lot of willpower, take a third of the nuts and give the rest back to the flight attendant. Nuts are very high in calories, but the remaining choices don't offer much in terms of nutrition, and they're just too high in calories.
"If you're on a longer flight, the Boston Market Chicken Caesar Salad with chips and dressing is a pretty good meal choice. Also, it's nice that the dressing is on the side (use it sparingly). Make sure you split the Boston Market Deli Chicken Pesto and the Boston Market Turkey Carver -- they are way too many calories for one person."
Delta Air Lines: 3 stars
"Best Bet: Of the breakfast options (on flights of 3½ hours or more) your best bet is the Breakfast Snack, which has light yogurt and a fresh banana. In terms of snack boxes, the Travel Treat is a good option because of the tuna and the raisins, and it's also low in calories.
"Delta also offers a fruit and cheese plate that's available for breakfast, lunch and dinner. The cheese is very high in calories, but it's still a nice option if you skip the crackers; at least you're getting some nutritional benefit from what you're eating. Skip the turkey, egg salad and Canadian bacon croissant at all costs.
"For lunch/dinner options, there is the veggies and ranch -- nice, low in calories, but watch that ranch dressing! Also, I don't think this will be very filling. The roast beef (eastbound) and turkey sliders (westbound) are both high in calories."
Continental Airlines: 2.5 stars
"Best Bet: In terms of snacks, if you have a family of five or six (not very likely) and wanted to split the almonds, it's really the only snack choice that has real nutritional value. You should avoid the chips and pretzels, and the beef jerky is very high in sodium.
"That doesn't leave too many snack options. All the snack packs are very high in calories. I realize they're meant to be shared, but even so, there is no one standout among them. There are elements in each that are OK; however, if I had to choose, the Savory is probably the best -- just watch that fruit-and-nut mix.
"In terms of meals, for breakfast, the yogurt is not too bad. For lunch or dinner, the Grilled Chicken Spinach Salad is the obvious best choice so long as you watch the dressing -- that could put it over the top. The fruit-and-cheese plate is not bad if it's a meal, not just a snack, and the same for the other choices except for the burger. Also, pass on the dessert: It's not worth it."
Southwest Airlines: 2 stars
"Best Bet: Go for the nuts and skip the pretzels and other items."
Virgin America: 2 stars
"Best Bet: In terms of snacks, the PopChips and yumBar are low-calorie choices; the others are high in calories and not good choices. Virgin offers a wide variety of meals, but the focus is not necessarily on health and calories. The chicken sandwich appears to be your best bet. For snack boxes, go with the Veggies and Hummus or the Protein Meal."
US Airways: 1.75 stars
"Best Bet: The CafePlus is not terrible because at the very least you get the protein from the tuna, and it's low in calories. Maybe you can get rid of the cookies (give them to the flight attendant as a gift). Not much else. The Breakfast box is very high in calories and offers little in terms of nutrition."