Southwest Airlines strikes out in airline food survey; Continental tops the list

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By Christopher Elliott

Airline food. No, that’s not the punchline to a joke.

Air carriers serve meals, and where there’s food, there can’t be a restaurant critic too far behind. Just in time for the buys travel holiday season, has released its annual airline food investigation. Continental Airlines topped this year’s rankings, winning accolades for its “free, low-calorie, high-impact meals,” while Southwest Airlines rated the lowest for offering “not much in terms of nutritional value.”

The survey of the major airlines and their snack and onboard food offerings was conducted by health advocate, Charles Stuart Platkin. It provides the calorie information of snacks and onboard menu choices and gives each airline a health rating.

“This year Continental provided the ‘best’ choices in the sky, while United Airlines had a fall from grace, American Airlines wins most improved, and US Airways falls to the near bottom,” he says. (Here’s our ultimate travel food guide.)

Here are the results:

Continental Airlines

Health Score: (**** 1/2) Continental provides a variety of options and offers free, low-calorie, high-impact meals / snacks to hungry passengers.

Best Bet: For flights of two to three hours, both the Petite Cold Sandwiches are good options, and Continental even offers light mayo. For breakfast, skip the calorie-laden muffin and have cereal with low-fat milk and a banana. On flights of more than three hours you get one of the hot sandwiches listed below, a salad (and a Lite Ranch dressing is offered), as well as a fun-size candy bar.

American Airlines

Health Score: (*** 3/4) American is actually improving — slowly, but improving. They got rid of the calorie-heavy oversized 3 Musketeers bar, revamped their Breakfast Café by taking away the high-calorie muffin and replacing it with oatmeal (OK, it has brown sugar; but it’s still better than a muffin), and the Chewy Chocolate Chip Granola Bar is now a box of healthy raisins. Good job AA.

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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 SunChips and dressing is a pretty good meal choice. Also, it’s nice that the dressing is on the side (use it sparingly). If you’re flying for three hours or more during breakfast, your only choice (other than the snacks) is the Breakfast Cafe, which is not too bad.

United Airlines

Health Score: (*** 1/2) United still has the best variety, but their healthful offerings have been reduced. Their individual snacks are very high in calories. If you’re traveling more than five hours, they offer snack boxes, fresh salads and sandwiches, but the sandwiches and salads are much less health-oriented than the snack boxes.

Best Bet: For flights longer than two hours, go for the Active snack box. Even though it has more calories than the Organic, the Active has better food choices, and if you want to save calories eat only half the chips. For flights longer than three hours, United has a plethora of choices but not very many that are healthy. For breakfast, your best bet is the low-fat yogurt and fruit. Or you can have the ham and Swiss croissant. At least you’ll be getting a good supply of protein, and it’s not high in calories.

For lunch and dinner, you’d think the turkey sandwich would be a good choice, but it’s the highest in calories. The roast beef sandwich isn’t bad in terms of calories, and the salads are both fair choices for a full meal. They’re 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! Stick to the energy bars: At least they’re portion controlled. Clearly these snacks are meant to share, but typically we eat whatever we’re given, especially on a long flight. (Related: Can United Airlines fix itself?)

JetBlue Airways

Health Score: (*** 1/2) The individually packaged snacks are portion-controlled; however, you can ask for as many as you want, and many people do. JetBlue is improving slowly. All their snacks are under 140 calories, which isn’t bad. I like the fact that they’ve lowered the overall calorie count of their snacks and added a Stella D’Oro Breakfast Treat for 100 calories as well as the Fiber Gourmet Cheese Snacks, which are only 50 calories. But JetBlue could be more creative and come up with a few healthier, more innovative snacks. How about a Larabar energy bar?

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.

Delta Air Lines and Northwest Airlines

Health Score: (*** 1/2) Delta’s individual snack choices are not very good, but their meal choices on longer flights are reasonably healthy. They can do much better.

Best Bet: If you’re traveling 1 1/2 hours or more you can have one of two snack boxes, chips and M&Ms or trail mix. Your best bet is the Flight Delight snack box. For breakfast options (on flights of 3 ½ hours or more) Delta offers a fruit and cheese plate. 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 egg salad wrap at all costs: Between the “layered” cream cheese and the egg salad, you might gain weight right in the middle of your flight. Ditto the blueberry muffin. For lunch/dinner options, Delta again offers a fruit plate, which is not a bad option. The Asian shrimp salad is also a good choice, especially since the dressing is on the side so you can use it sparingly. Another pretty good option would be the roast chicken sandwich with cheese and dressing, but the honey-mustard dressing can be high in calories, so don’t use too much.

US Airways

Health Score: (** ½) There are some decent choices in the snack box, but overall the choices could use a health tune-up. On flights under 2 1/2 hours they offer only pretzels. Not much nutrition there, but at least they’re not too high in calories.

Best Bet: The fruit and nut mix is very high in calories, so don’t eat more than one or two small handfuls and give the rest away. The chicken salad snack box is not a great choice, but if you must have it, skip the cookies. The salami and cheese box is not much better.

Aside from the boxes, there are a few solid offerings in terms of snacks. Your best bets are probably the Quaker Oatmeal Express or the almonds, if you have someone to share them with or enough willpower to save some for another day. Almonds are healthy, but each one has 7 calories.

For breakfast the choices are not so great. There’s a fruit and cheese platter or a turkey deli club. Although it’s not really a breakfast choice, you can pick the turkey off the sandwich to make a healthy snack. The sandwich comes with a side of mayo (skip it for sure) and a cup of strawberry yogurt (too bad it’s not low fat). The cheese and fruit plate is not too bad, either, as long as you toss the crackers. For lunch and dinner, go with the Caesar salad, but skip the dressing and use that lemon wedge they give you instead. It’s the dressing and to some extent the cheese that cause the calorie overload. Skip the pastrami sandwich. Not only is it very high in calories on its own, but it’s topped off with Thousand Island dressing and a cookie … please.

Southwest Airlines

Health Score: (**) Not much variety, and not much in terms of nutritional value.

Best Bet: Go for the nuts and skip the pretzels and other items.

Question: Do people really choose their airline based on how healthy the food is? I don’t know anyone who does that, although this information is certainly enlightening for those of us who fly.

(Photo: thousandshipz/Flickr Creative Commons)

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is the founder of Elliott Advocacy, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that empowers consumers to solve their problems and helps those who can't. He's the author of numerous books on consumer advocacy and writes three nationally syndicated columns. He also publishes the Elliott Report, a news site for consumers, and Elliott Confidential, a critically acclaimed newsletter about customer service. If you have a consumer problem you can't solve, contact him directly through his advocacy website. You can also follow him on X, Facebook, and LinkedIn, or sign up for his daily newsletter.

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