Ever wondered which airlines serve the best food?

With 51 million people set to travel in the United States during the holiday season – that’s going to make for an awful lot of airplane food. With that in mind, one university has ranked the twelve biggest airlines from best to worst based on who has the healthiest food options.

Which airlines serve the best food? Image by ViewStock/Getty Images

Dr Charles Platkin, editor of the Diet Detective website, scored the airlines from zero to five based on a range of criteria including calorie levels, healthy nutrients, clarity of nutritional information, menu innovation and more. This year, Delta and Virgin America were joint top with the “healthiest” food choices available 35,000 feet above the ground. Air Canada and JetBlue were tied for second in a year during which the number of calories in the average airline meal rose to 405. There were several new developments in the industry too with both American and Delta offering free meals in economy class for the first time in fifteen years. Some airlines were also going back to offering complimentary snacks … a positive development maybe, but they weren’t always very healthy according to the study. Not all carriers scored highly either, with Allegiant Air, Spirit Airlines, and Hawaiian taking up the bottom three spots in the rankings.

Dr Platkin, who works in Hunter College in New York, said: “Delta is doing an incredible job focusing on improving its food, transparency, and communication. It is the clear leader among the big carriers.” He said overall calories in a Delta flight meal were down and said the airline does everything possible to keep passengers informed about what they’re eating. Dr Platkin also gave high praise to Virgin America, which has just been purchased by Alaska Air. “Eventually the Virgin name will disappear,” said Dr Platkin. “The good news is that Alaska Air is committed to adopting the healthy food options and transparency of Virgin America. Additionally, Alaska will more than likely reduce the sizes of the individual snacks. Virgin is still the only airline that provides nutritional information (not just calories) for all items.”

Inflight snacks also come under scrutiny in the survey. Image by Cheryl Chan/Getty Images

Ranking Top Five

Delta: 4 stars

Virgin America: 4 stars

Air Canada: 3.75 stars

JetBlue: 3.75 stars

Alaska Air: 3.5 stars

A selection of Dr Platkins’ verdicts on the Top Five:

Delta Airlines came joint first in the survey. Image by Sjo/Getty Images

DELTA

Best Bets: For a snack, the almonds are the best choice–even over the Kind bar or the lower-calorie pretzels.

The vegan, GMO-free Tapas Snack Box is a good healthy choice if you share or make it a meal (it’s too high in calories as a snack).  Within the box the best bests are the Super Seed Crackers, Snapea Crisps, dark chocolate, almonds, hummus, and quinoa with pepper dip.

For morning travel, choose the continental breakfast (fruit and yogurt) at 345 calories, but save the Kind bar for a snack later in the day. For Lunch/Dinner, choose the Sesame Noodle Salad or the Greek Meze Plate.  You can skip the caramel-filled chocolate to save calories.

VIRGIN AMERICA

Best Bets: For breakfast, try the Udi’s Granola with Yogurt and Fruit, which is a bit high in sugar but overall low in calories at 330. The best snack box is the Protein Meal with hummus, nuts and tuna.

For kids, skip the Jet Set Kid Pack if you can, and go for the half peanut butter and jam sandwich … the Quinoa Wrap at 420 calories is high in protein for a vegetarian meal, which will help keep you full longer. The Protein Plate is also a good choice, as is the Farro Salad with roasted chicken – powerful from a health perspective.

AIR CANADA

Best Bets: For breakfast, the Greek yogurt is still a good option – and will probably fill you up. The Avocado Smash Box with fresh guacamole, hard-boiled egg, green apple slices, and multigrain muesli bread sounds amazing and also offers 23g of filling protein to keep you energized.

The Chicken Soup is a low-calorie choice for a snack that will fill you up, but be wary of the 950mg of sodium if you have high blood pressure. The Celery & Carrots with Ranch Dip (if you use no more than half the dip) is an OK choice.

If meals are available, the newly added Pangoa Bowl and the Fiesta Wrap are high-nutrient, low-calorie choices. The California Roll is another light offering that’s low in fat and calories. It would also make a great snack! The Thai Chicken Wrap is also a high protein, lower calorie option, but very high in sodium.

Dr Platkin gives advice on healthy plane snacks. Image by Westend61/Getty Images

JETBLUE AIRWAYS

Best Bets: The Pick Me Up box is lowest in calories but not necessarily the most nutritious. The AmpUp box features hummus, Mary’s Gone Crackers and almonds, and while it’s high in calories, it’s loaded with good nutrition (e.g. fiber and protein). Have it as a meal though, not as a snack, and skip the chocolate crispy squares to reduce low-nutrient calories.

If you’re on a flight that offers the Eat Up Café, the Yogurt and Granola (you might want to limit the honey), the Kale & Quinoa Salad and the Spicy Soba & Korean-Style Chicken (unless you’re sodium sensitive) are all good choices.

ALASKA AIRLINES

Best Bets: Among the snack boxes, the Mediterranean Tapas hasn’t changed much from last year and is still the healthiest choice. It has olives, hummus, almonds, dried fruit and even a dark chocolate bar. But keep in mind that 510 calories is a bit high for a “snack” (or even a meal), so it would be best if you either shared the box or had it as a meal replacement.

If you opt for the fruit and cheese plate, skip the crackers and half the cheese. There aren’t too many dinner choices, but the Roast Turkey with Veggie Hash is a high-protein, low-calorie choice, although also high in sodium.

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