Is it really possible to find healthy food at an airport?
When it comes to airports in the United States, at least, the answer is yes, increasingly so.
In recent years, airports around the country have amped up their availability of healthy snacks, meals and drinks to cater travelers who want to follow a balanced diet when they are away from home.
“Health-conscious travel has become a fast-emerging movement in the airport environment,” said Scott R. Elmore, the vice president of marketing and communications for Airports Council International, a nonprofit organization that represents the world’s airports. “Healthy food options are part of this effort.”
Much of the push is coming from the concession companies that operate restaurants and food markets in airports. HMSHost, for example, which has a presence in more than 120 airports globally, launched an initiative earlier this year – titled “Eat Well. Travel Further.” – at 11 U.S. airports including Newark Liberty International Airport, Nashville International Airport and Seattle-Tacoma International Airport.
The program, created in collaboration with a team of nutritionists, has three components. There are five bento boxes, each under 500 calories, such as a vegan box with a lentil and chickpea salad and veggie chips, and a box geared for children with diced chicken breast, cubed cheddar cheese and chocolate-covered raisins, as well as snacks (think kale chips, roasted chickpeas and hummus with crudités), and 30 different drinks including several kinds of green juices. The program will roll out to more airports in the coming months.
According to Atousa Ghoreichi, the company’s vice president of marketing and communications, the products contain no artificial colors, flavors, sweeteners and hydrogenated fats or high-fructose corn syrup. They’re sold at HMSHost food markets and stands throughout the airports and are each labeled with an “Eat Well. Travel Further.” sticker.
Flyers seem to be appreciating the new offerings. The paleo bento box, for one, which has a salad of julienne squash, zucchini and red peppers topped with grilled chicken, a packet of almonds and a cup of berries, fast became a best-seller, even compared with the company’s offerings that don’t fall under the program; around 7,000 paleo boxes sell every week across the locations that carry them.
OTG, an airport restaurant company that has a presence in nine locations in the country including John F. Kennedy International Airport, is also bumping up its healthy food and drink choices. Nate Appleman, the company’s vice president of culinary, said part of the reason is requests by flyers. “All diners in our restaurants can leave instant feedback on an iPad about what they want dining-wise, and they were increasingly telling us that healthy but tasty food was a priority,” he said.
OTG’s Cibo Express Gourmet Market, at all the airports where the company operates, carries its own line of cold-pressed juices and sandwiches that are made with gluten-free bread, or are vegan or low sodium. Cibo also sells more than 20 brands of health bars such as Kind and Larabar, as well as apples and bananas.
The company also has new restaurants that emphasize clean eating: Gavi, its Italian restaurant at George Bush Intercontinental Airport in Houston, has a menu of grain bowls including one made of black, white and red quinoa, chickpeas, cauliflower, almonds and a grilled chicken skewer. At Newark Airport, flyers can order sashimi that’s flown in from Tokyo’s Tsukiji fish market at Tsukiji Fishroom or head to Supreme Bowl for a bowl of hot steel-cut oats topped with their favorite nuts and fresh fruits. And in September at Newark, OTG will open a juice bar called World Nectar, which will offer green juices and smoothies.
Individual airports are also putting balanced eating at the forefront.
In 2010, Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport, home to 110 food outlets, required that all must offer at least one vegan, low-sodium or low-calorie meal or snack. “Healthy eating is very important to us, and it’s an idea that we have pursued for the past decade,” said Zenola Campbell, the airport’s vice president of concessions.
Campbell said the efforts were backed up by a 2016 survey by the airport’s marketing department that asked flyers what they wanted most from their airport experience. “The No. 1 thing was healthy food,” she said.
Many restaurants at Dallas/Fort Worth have multiple options for the wellness-minded traveler. Most dishes at UFood Grill are well under 700 calories, including a grilled sirloin burger with a spring lettuce mix on a whole-wheat bun, and a curry masala bowl with brown rice, red quinoa, broccoli, carrots and grilled chicken. At Artisan Market, travelers can pick vegan and vegetarian salads, sandwiches and soups that use produce from local farmers.
In Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport, at least 21 restaurants have opened in recent years that have a large variety of low-calorie, gluten-free and vegan dishes, according to Karen E. Pride, the airport’s director of media relations. The airport even has an aeroponic garden that grows vegetables and herbs used in many of these dishes.
At Harstfield-Jackson Atlanta Airport, the world’s busiest for passenger traffic, the concessions director, Chilly Ewing, said that when he is vetting proposals from food outlets, he’s more interested in those that have at least a few healthy food choices. Nature’s Best Market, for example, has a large choice of salads, whole fruit and fruit cups.
Now that healthy dining at airports isn’t nearly as challenging as it used to be, flyers have no excuse not to eat well before they’re airborne, according to Keri Glassman, a registered dietitian in New York City.
“The old mentality used to be – and rightly so – that you could only get junk food at an airport, but the choices of unprocessed and healthy foods today are overwhelming,” she said.
Brian Sumers, the aviation business editor for the travel research company Skift, is based in Los Angeles and said that he even looks forward to the healthy dining at Los Angeles International Airport on his frequent cross-country trips. His favorite spot is the fast casual eatery Lemonade, which serves seasonally driven dishes, including the pineapple chicken with green beans and toasted coconut that he usually orders.
“So many of the places at the airport have delicious dishes with fresh produce and don’t weigh you down,” he said. “It’s easy to make the decision to eat well.”