Each year I contact the media relations departments of the various airlines to request nutrition information for the foods they serve economy-class passengers on domestic flights.
Here are the snack and onboard food-service offerings from several of the more popular airlines, along with Diet Detective's comments, ratings (Health Score: 5 stars = highest rating, 0 stars = lowest), and personal favorites.
Health score: 4 stars
Best bets: This airline cares about its passengers' health. The airline calls its food Air Canada NutriCuisine and prides itself on the freshness and optimum quality of ingredients. It can do slightly better on the individual snack offerings though. Pick the Nissin chicken ramen noodle soup. It will fill you up, and it's more like a meal. I love the idea of the celery and carrots with ranch dip -- nice touch. I just wish the dip were hummus or something healthier than ranch. As far as the meals go, they are all relatively low in calories. Go for the chicken or roast beef wrap or the vegetarian sandwich. The healthy oatmeal is also a great offering.
Health score: 4 stars
Best bets: In terms of individual snacks, the PopChips are a low-calorie choice; however, the best choice is the nuts. The oatmeal is a good breakfast choice at 310 calories. Virgin's snack boxes, such as the protein meal with hummus, nuts and tuna, are great. In terms of meals, the edamame and portobello mushroom wrap is filled with great stuff and has 9 grams of fiber and 20 grams of protein. The only negative is the high sodium content (1,300 milligrams). Another good choice is the egg and vegetable salad wrap, which is filled with high-quality protein and has only 370 calories. What's also pretty neat about Virgin America is that it offers on-demand in-flight food ordering via a touch-screen on every seatback.
Health score: 3 1/4 stars United has slipped on its snack boxes. Continental and United have merged and now, except for one item, offer the same food choices. Except for the nuts, all of the individual snack offerings are poor choices.
Best bets: On flights longer than two hours, go for the tapas, which have some great foods, including almonds, olives, hummus and bruschetta -- just toss out the cheese spread. All of the individual snacks are pretty high in calories. In terms of meals, the yogurt is not too bad for breakfast. Skip the cheese and fruit plate -- it gives the illusion of being healthy, but it's not at all, and there is really not much fruit to speak of, other than the dried fruit.
For flights longer than three hours, United has several healthy choices, but I really like the grilled chicken spinach salad at 360 calories, including the dressing. The other choices, including the Asian noodle salad, Thai chicken wrap and turkey sandwich, are OK choices. For breakfast, your best bet is the yogurt parfait or the ham and cheddar rustic ciabatta sandwich, which has 318 calories.
Health score: 2 3/4 stars
Best bets: The Cafe plus is not bad because you get the protein from the tuna, and it's low in calories. I also like the Cobb salad, and the dressing is typically on the side. In terms of snacks, the only one that looks good is the chips and salsa at 130 calories. The nuts would be great; however, you need to split them with eight to 10 people.
Health score: 2 3/4 stars
Best Bets: There's not much in the snack area to eat other than the Quaker multigrain fiber crisps. They are made with whole-grain oats -- nice touch. In terms of the meal boxes, the Shape Up is the clear winner. It has 8 grams of fiber and only 2 grams of unhealthy saturated fat. While the Cheer Up is low in calories, I'm not sure it will do the trick as a meal.
Health score: 2 1/2 stars. Its snacks are still high in calories, with few healthy offerings.
Best bets: Your best bet is the Sabra roasted red pepper hummus with pretzels; at least the hummus has a few health benefits. The fruit and nut blend is a decent nutrition choice, but make sure to split it with at least two other people. If you're on a longer flight, the best choice is a new item -- Marcus Samuelsson's new American table turkey and chutney sandwich, which is packed with protein and even has apple slices on the sandwich for flavor. Its only 323 calories without the chips. Another good choice is the Boston Market chicken Caesar salad and dressing for 660 calories. For breakfast, the fruit and cheese plate is an OK choice. The breakfast cafe croissant sandwich is low in calories at 320, and the ham might fill you up nicely.
Delta Air Lines
Health score: 2 1/4 stars. Delta's individual snack choices are not very good, but its meal choices on longer flights are reasonably healthy.
Best bets: In terms of individual snacks, there are no good options; however, sharing a Flight Delights snack box is a pretty good idea (or have it as a meal and eat the whole thing). It has a variety of nutrient-dense foods that are low in calories for what you get. Of the breakfast options (on flights of three hours or longer) your best bet is the breakfast snack, which has light yogurt and a fresh banana. Delta also offers a fruit and cheese plate that is available for breakfast, lunch and dinner. The cheese is very high in calories, but its a nice option if you skip the crackers; at least you're getting some nutritional benefit. For lunch/dinner options, there are not too many offerings. You have the chicken and turkey Cuban at 553 calories or the turkey peppercorn ranch ciabatta at 576 calories. Try to have only half the bread.
Health score: 1 3/4 stars
Not much variety and not much in terms of nutritional value.
Best bet: Go for the nuts and skip the pretzels and other items. Cost: free.
Charles Stuart Platkin, Ph.D. MPH is a nutrition and public health advocate and founder of DietDetective.com.