In case it isn't obvious, I'm an enormous fan of cooking as many meals from scratch as I possibly can and reducing packaging waste, especially the single use plastic variety. Most of the time, this isn't a problem as I have a well-stocked kitchen packed with staple ingredients, fresh vegetables and fruit, quality cookware, and food storage options. It becomes more challenging when I'm travelling by airplane, and now also need to pack meals and snacks for my child. I love to travel, but unfortunately, airlines aren't exactly on the healthy food, low waste train (or plane!). It can be challenging to figure out the best meal and snack ideas for airplane travel! It's taken a lot of trial and error but I've become quite versed at packing meals and snacks for the family for airplane travel.
Airlines are certainly making an effort to provide travellers with lots of choices, as are airports where you can grab snacks or a full meal before you fly. I also love that so many now offer the option to fill your reusable water bottle, rather than having to buy a single-use plastic disposable. And bringing your own reusable bottle will also save you from having to use plastic bottles once you arrive for your trip.
I love playing the game, If I had to, what would I buy here to eat?, as I kill time before a flight. Efforts are definitely being made to offer healthier options like veggies and hummus and fruit cups, but the majority of the food (at least here in North America) is centered on gluten- or bread-based items, high-glycemic junk foods, sugary juices and pop, or meat- and they all come with a load of garbage.
Some airlines are starting to make an effort - like this United Airlines flight working towards zero waste (and being propelled by bio-fuel). But as with all things related to our health and the health of the planet, we can't expect someone else to do the work for us. Big change comes from each of us doing our best, however imperfectly that may be.
Bringing your own food with you on an airplane may require a little extra planning, but in the overall scheme of your travel plans it's actually not that hard and well worth the effort for waste reduction and health benefit.
Know Before You Go!
Before you decide what meals and snacks to pack for airplane travel, check with the airline and airport to see if there are any restrictions on what you can take. A 3.4oz or 100ml limit on liquids and gels is fairly standard on all flights.
Foods that are considered liquids or gels include:
- Cranberry sauce, jam or jelly
- Maple syrup
- Salad dressings and oils*
- Ketchup, and other condiments
- Creamy dips and dressings
- Spreads including cheese
- Salsa and pesto
- Nut butters
*Coconut oil is a tricky one! If you're coming from, say Toronto in the winter and going to Jamaica, your coconut oil will be solid on departure and liquid on your return.
There are also rules that apply when flying domestically within your own country and different regulations when crossing borders. For example, you can fly within Canada with whole fruits and veggies, but you best not take them across the border. They can be permitted if processed in some way, like if you cut a whole apple into slices, but there better not be a stray seed.
I haven't had a problem traveling in North America with the foods I'm recommending, but it's worth checking – better to know before you go than have to toss out a bunch of high-quality foods.
Declare Declare Declare
When you are clearing customs, declare what you are bringing with you. Often times you will be pulled aside and have your food reviewed but typically, when you follow the guidelines below, it's a short diversion, and you will be allowed to keep what you have and can carry on your way.
A Doctor's Note
If you have specific dietary needs and have certain things, like liquids or other essentials that may be questioned, be sure to have a signed note from your primary care practitioner.
Meals and Snacks To Eat in the Airplane Cabin
Choose a few of these foods to take with you for meals and snacks on the plane. You don't need to overdo it and take a ton of food, unless you are traveling with a large family or are on a long flight. You also need to be mindful of whether any fresh items will be confiscated when you arrive, so this isn't necessarily the time to be batch cooking.
Watery Fruits and Vegetables
These are great options for domestic travel. They will help to keep you hydrated and provide you with essential vitamins and minerals that are great for your health, like immune-boosting Vitamin C. Apples, cucumbers and pears are some of my favourite travel fruits as are blueberries and strawberries, but you can choose yours.
As mentioned earlier, it's worth repeating, but any fruits and vegetables you take need to be cut up. You can take apple slices but not a whole apple. Orange wedges, but not a whole orange. We had blueberries confiscated because we'd put them in a reusable container and so had no proof of country of origin. I wonder what would have happened if those blueberries were in a prepared salad? Yes, sometimes it all seems a little arbitrary.
Pack up some lemons or limes, which you can squeeze into a glass of cold or warm water, add to a cup of tea, or use as a salad dressing.
Veggies for Snacking
Sliced carrots, celery and red peppers are easy foods to pack for airplane travel and pair extremely well with dips and spreads.
Hummus and/or Nut Butter
These provide a satisfying texture and flavour, as well as protein and nutritious fats to keep you feeling satiated. You won't be able to take a full sized jar, especially if your nut butter is extra oily, so aim for the smaller options or take a couple of ounces out of the jar and pack into small containers.
These are also great for pairing with dips, hummus and other spreads, or for crumbling over salads. Grab some fabulous gluten-free cracker recipes here.
Toasted nuts and seeds
Raw nuts and seeds aren't typically permitted however if you toast them up a little, they now move from potential farming supply to snack.
Make your own trail mix with an assortment of nuts, seeds and dried fruit, and include some chocolate or cacao nibs for an extra treat. If you're concerned about nut allergies on the plane, use seeds only.
Grain /Cauli-Rice Bowls
Cook up a large batch of brown rice, quinoa or cauliflower rice the night before travel and then load that up with whatever scraps are in your fridge that you need to eat before you leave. This could include shredded carrots, avocado slices, roasted veggies, chicken/meat/tofu/tempeh and add a handle of pumpkin or sunflower seeds and a wedge of lemon.
Dried fruit like mango, raisins, apricots, cranberries and dates are a special treat – but don't eat too much of them. Dried fruit, being dried and all, can dehydrate you and lead to constipation, or you'll be that person on the plane with the super stinky toots. We've all sat beside one of those!
I enjoy gluten-free baking! Try some of these:
- Lemon Poppyseed Muffins
- Chia Pumpkin Muffins
- Chocolate Chip Muffins
- Blueberry Muffins
- Oat Bran Muffins
Travel Meal Ideas
We all travel at different times and some of us might want to eat before flying, others may want to eat a full meal on the plane, and others may only want snacky things. If you're looking for a full meal deal that you can take on the plane with you, try:
- A power bowl with your choice of gluten-free grain (quinoa, wild rice, buckwheat, brown rice, etc.), raw or roasted veggies, and your choice of protein (tempeh, tofu, beans, meat)
- Homemade sushi with nori sheets, gluten-free grains (or a spread if you prefer grain-free) and veggies
- Collard wraps
- A big salad with lots of veggies, nuts/seeds and beans/meat
- Marinated tofu/meat/tempeh and roasted veggies
- Burgers (veggie/meat) with a side of vegetables
And please, leave the boiled eggs and the fish at home! These are amazing, incredibly nutritious foods but in a small space the odor can be incredibly overpowering. You also want to be mindful of some cruciferous foods, which can also stink up the joint (especially if they are overcooked). Even cauliflower rice or broccoli can have a very, very strong smell.
Foods to Pack in Your Suitcase
You may not be able to grocery shop right when you land or are going to a place that may not have a lot of food options close-by. It's handy to have a stash of healthful foods if you are checking a bag. Again, check with the airline about what you can take with you into another country – fresh items like fruits and vegetables are usually out.
- Granola or oatmeal – these can be easily paired with dairy-free milk or fresh fruit at your destination, but also could be consumed on their own
- More trail mix, as well as toasted nuts and seeds
- Sea salt or small amount of spices
- Granola bars or protein bars
- Collagen powder
- Single serve nut butters or coconut butter
- You may be able to take a loaf of gluten-free bread
Keeping It Low-Waste: Food Storage For Travel
Flying creates a lot of waste – and I'm not just talking about carbon emissions. When a flight is complete, cabin waste includes uneaten/unfinished food, plastics (cups, cutlery, etc.), food packaging, and cans/cartons from beverage service.
My preference at home is always to store food without plastic, and as such, most of my containers are glass. Glass, however, isn't the optimal material for travel. I've had mason jars confiscated but small glass containers are usually fine. My optimal packaging for travel snacks include:
- Fabric snack bags
- Silicone food storage bags
- Stainless steel meal containers
- Takeaway containers – if I happen to end up with a plastic re-usable container, I hang on to it for as long as it holds together for travel use
- Take a reusable water bottle with you to fill once you're through security
- Bring your own travel cutlery set, either stainless steel or bamboo
There are plenty of foods to pack for airplane travel – it's just a matter of deciding which ones you want to eat. Whenever I travel, the goal is to feel vibrant before, during and after my trip, and not throw all of my dietary habits out the window. Add food and snack planning to your travel to-do list and I'll bet you'll notice the benefits once you're in the air and get to where you're going!
More Healthy Travel Tips
- 10 Travel Essentials I Always Pack With Me
- UnDiet Travel Tips for Healthy Holidays
- Natural First Aid Kit for Home and Travel
- How to Plan a Retreat for One or Two
- Healthy Holiday Ideas for Any Budget
- 6 Essential Supplements for Travel