Worst Airline Meals: What You Should and Shouldn’t Eat While Flying

The FDA is cracking down after finding unsanitary conditions at airline caterers. So is anything safe to eat at 36,000 feet? Nutritionists and food safety experts helped The Daily Beast rank mile-high foods.

Breakfast Burrito 


What is it: Scrambled eggs and cheese wrapped in a soft flour shell.
Cost: About $5.
How long does it last? 2-7 days or more.
Calories: 400-2,000

Who serves it: Most major airlines offer a breakfast dish with egg or egg substitute on flights of more than three hours. On discount carriers, or planes without working galleys, you’ll have to manage with fruit and breakfast bars—or nothing.

The risks: If expired or improperly prepared, the biggest food safety concern is salmonella bacteria. Symptoms of salmonellosis include diarrhea, abdominal cramps, fever, and nausea.

Should you order it? “Depends on what’s in it,” says Abigail Peairs, an assistant professor of nutritional sciences at the University of Cincinnati. “For example, sausage, egg, cheese isn’t a healthy combination. But something with egg whites, vegetables, and light cheese could be.” Although burritos can last days if refrigerated, they’re best consumed quickly, or they become soggy. If you’re watching your fat intake, this probably isn’t the best way to start your day: Most breakfast burritos are high in fat because of the cheese and tortillas, which are usually made from refined white flour. Look for a whole-grain shell, if available.

On your menu: Probably not. Definitely send it back if it’s soggy. Better yet, bring your own fruit and yogurt and save yourself a few bucks—and calories.

Lauri Patterson

Turkey Sandwich


What is it: Bread, sliced turkey and cheese.
Cost: About $7.
How long does it last? 2-7 days or more.
Calories: 400-2,000

Who serves it: Major airlines usually sell sandwiches on longer flights. Some low-cost carriers may also offer it.

The risks: Eating spoiled meat can result in an E. coli infection, which is potentially deadly.

Should you order it? “Turkey sandwiches are good on the day made or one day later,” says food safety expert Jackie Keller. “They are rarely made on whole wheat and generally have mayo on them which makes them high in fat. If you can find one with vegetables and on whole wheat that’s dry, it would be rare, but a good choice. You can expect that the meat will be high in sodium.” Don’t order one if it’s on a croissant, and skip the mayonnaise if you can, say nutritionists.

On your menu: No. Even if it’s perfectly safe, it’s not the healthiest lunch.

Chicken Entrée


What is it: Chicken with vegetables, either rice or potatoes, bread, and dessert.
Cost: About $7 (but included in the price of your ticket on certain longer, international flights).
How long does it last? 2-7 days—longer if frozen.
Nutritional value: 400-2,000

Who serves it: The chicken entrée has been a staple of airline cuisine since the Jet Age. Any plane with a galley is likely to serve chicken at some point.

The risks: Eating spoiled meat can result in an E. coli infection, which is potentially deadly.

Should you order it? “There’s a definite risk of spoilage if it’s not cooked and stored properly,” says Lisa De Fazio, a dietician and TV host, adding that it isn’t just the pre-flight preparations that concern her. Once the meal is cooked, it should be served within two hours, she says. The devil is in the details on this dish: Some entrées can be healthfully prepared, minus butter and cheese, which increase the likelihood of spoilage (and make it more fattening). Ask what’s in it before you just say, “I’ll have the chicken.”

On the menu: Probably not. But if you do, skip dessert, which could send the calorie count off the charts.

Crackers


What is it: A crisp wafer made of flour and water.
Cost: Usually free.
How long does it last? 3 months to a year, depending on the manufacturer.
Calories: 100-300

Who serves it: Who doesn’t?

The risks: If improperly prepared or past its expiration date, the biggest food safety concern is salmonella. Symptoms of salmonellosis include diarrhea, abdominal cramps, fever, and nausea.

Should you order it? “The safest things to order in-flight are prepackaged, shelf-stable items, such as those that you find in the snackboxes most carriers are now offering,” says Julia Stamberger, the chief executive of GoPicnic, which sells ready-to-eat meals. Why? All the contents of each item are individually packaged and sealed at the original manufacturing facility, not at a catering kitchen. The level of quality and supervision in a clean, closed environment offers fewer opportunities for contamination, she says. Whether the peanut-butter crackers are healthful is another question altogether. They tend to be high in fat and sugar, so safe doesn’t automatically equal good for you.

On the menu: Possibly. It’ll hold you over til you land if you’re on a short flight. On a longer trip, it’s a safe snack.

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Pretzels


What is it: A glazed and salted cracker.
Cost: Usually free.
How long does it last? 3 months to a year, depending on manufacturer.
Calories: 100-300

Who serves it: Hard to find an airline that doesn’t pass out pretzels as a snack.

The risks: If improperly sealed, pretzels can go stale.

Should you order it? “Pretzels have a very long shelf life,” says Carolyn Paddock, the founder and chief executive of In-Flight Insider. The biggest problem is the quality of the pretzels, she says. Since they can be stored for a long time, airlines sometimes serve older pretzels that may be stale. “Bags sometimes pop because of the air pressure at cruise altitude—think of your water bottle, air expands,” she explains. Pretzels are high in salt and loaded with carbohydrates, which may be a no-no if you’re watching your weight.

On your menu: As a snack, maybe.

Peanuts


What is it: Roasted, salted nuts
How long does it last? 3 months to a year.
Calories: 100-300

Who serves it: Most airlines, although the federal government is mulling a ban to protect passengers with allergies.

The risks: Improperly prepared peanuts can have a toxic mold called aflatoxin that can cause abdominal pain, vomiting, and, in extreme cases, death.

Should you order it? “Peanuts are actually reasonably nutritious, with a high protein content,” says Nicholas Gillitt, who directs the Dole Nutrition Research Laboratory in Kannapolis, NC. But he says you should avoid the salted variety, especially if you eat a lot of processed foods. Peanuts can also be considered a source of healthful fat, as most of their fats are of the mono- and polyunsaturated kind. The nut also contains resveratrol, a potent antioxidant with potential cancer-fighting properties.

On your menu: Unless you’re allergic, yes. It may be the safest thing to order on the plane.