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5 healthy eating tips for holiday travelers

At an increasing number of airports nationwide, more options for the health-conscious are on the menu.

Story highlights

  • Consumers are demanding healthier options when they fly
  • 76% of airport restaurants sell at least one low-fat, high-fiber, cholesterol-free entree
  • Planning ahead will help you avoid diet downfalls, experts say

It's the day before Thanksgiving, and your stress level could be measured on the Richter Scale.

There are a zillion people at the airport. Your flight has been delayed because of a nasty winter storm. The kids are crying. Your husband is yelling. Starving, you find the nearest food vendor and order a $12 basket of chicken fingers with fries.

Been there, done that? Eating healthy on the road has long been a struggle for holiday travelers. It's one of the many reasons people tend to gain a couple of extra pounds between Thanksgiving and New Year's Day.

The good news is that consumers are demanding more nutritious options when they fly -- and the industry is responding, says Renate DeGeorge, director of culinary services for HMSHost, which operates dining facilities at more than 100 airports worldwide.

In recent years HMSHost has made several changes to its menus, including adding a variety of new salads, offering hummus plates as appetizers and providing whole-grain bread for sandwiches.

"Most places now offer a variety of healthy options no matter where you stop, so that every traveler can find something they are looking for," DeGeorge told CNN.

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    Here are five ways you can make sure you eat right while flying this holiday season:

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    Have a plan

    You know your departure time, arrival time and the time you'll -- hopefully -- have during a layover. Use that schedule to plan full meals throughout the day.

    A meal often has the same number of calories as many snacks, says Charles Platkin, founder and editor of DietDetective.com. But if you eat a real meal, "you're actually going to get decent nutrition ... and you're going to feel a higher level of being satiated."

    For example, if you leave early in the morning, plan to eat breakfast at home. If you'll be on the plane during lunch, decide what you'll eat in the air before you get to the airport. If dinner will be late because your plane lands after 8 p.m., make sure to eat a bigger protein- and fiber-filled lunch to tide you over.

    When mapping out your meals, remember to prepare for the possibility that your timing and/or location could be thrown off by a delayed flight or missed connection. Which leads us to our next hint --

    Know your airport

    Every year the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine reviews the food served at the busiest airports in the United States. In 2013, the group found that about three-quarters of airport restaurants sell at least one low-fat, high-fiber, cholesterol-free vegetarian entree.

    In other words, the excuse "there's nothing healthy to eat at the airport" is no longer valid. (Sorry!)

    Airport restaurants in Denver, Detroit and Chicago are most likely to offer a healthy option, according to the PCRM report, while Atlanta's airport landed at the bottom of the group's ranking for the third year in a row. So if you're connecting through Atlanta, stock up on some healthy fare beforehand.

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    Know your airline

    Platkin publishes an annual health ratings survey that ranks the snacks and onboard food service offerings from most major airlines.

    "When you're a passenger on an airplane, you don't really have much choice," he says. "You're a captive audience, and that creates a higher standard that airlines need to have."

    In 2013, Virgin America and Air Canada each earned four and a half stars on Platkin's site for offering plenty of healthy options and providing calorie information for consumers. Platkin recommends Virgin's snack boxes -- like the protein meal with hummus -- and Air Canada's roasted chicken wrap with salsa.

    You can check out his recommendations for other airlines here.

    Pick wisely

    Most of us have at least a general idea of what's good for our bodies (a fruit plate) and what's not (a king-size chocolate bar). Making smart decisions is half the battle.

    The other half is knowing where hidden dangers lie. Platkin cautions consumers to be wary around anything that comes with a sauce, whether it's salad dressing, mayonnaise on a sandwich or caramel dip for your apple slices. Even an extra tablespoon can add unnecessary calories.

    Also be on the lookout for packaged snack foods like chips or crackers that are probably high in sodium. "Look for things that are in their natural state," he says.

    Most importantly, avoid fried food, DeGeorge says. Anything smothered in batter, then cooked in hot oil, isn't good for your health, even if it did at one time resemble a vegetable.

    Airport cuisine at the touch of a screen

    Pack for emergencies

    You always pack an extra pair of underwear in your carry-on, so why not some extra healthy snacks too?

    "We often underestimate the amount of time a trip can take," Platkin writes on his site. "A two-hour flight could mean four or five hours of travel."

    Although liquids are restricted, most foods can be taken through security, according to the Transportation Security Administration. Platkin recommends dry cereal like shredded wheat, energy bars or cold-cut sandwiches. Raw fruits and vegetables are also easy to pack and carry on board.