Chicken or Beef: What’s the Healthiest Economy Option?

Jun 27, 2019

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Ask someone about economy catering offerings and rarely will someone give you a positive response. The term ‘plane food’ has been coined to describe bland, tasteless, unattractive and mostly unhealthy food. But what if there were some healthier economy offerings? What if you knew whether to pick chicken or beef, or even if there some nutrition hacks to make your time in the air a little healthier?

The average person consumes more than double their daily calorie allowance from check-in to arriving at their destination — a staggering estimated 3,400 calories for hours of being idle watching the inflight entertainment. Moreover, it’s noted that due to the cabin pressure, we lose some taste and smell, and airlines know this. Often, inflight food has more sugar and salt to satisfy the senses than regular food, meaning it’s often not healthy and mostly very high in carbohydrates.

It helps to think about eating on planes as such: When you eat better on board, you recover better when you land with less jet lag. As such, you’ll get to enjoy more of your holiday. So how do you know if what you’re eating on board is healthy? And what are the healthiest options?

Photo by Katie Genter / The Points Guy
(Photo by Katie Genter / The Points Guy)

Lack of Nutritional Information

It’s hard to find information about in-flight dining offerings. In fact, there’s no single resource that accurately breaks down the nutritional values for each airline. With recent changes to EU law, the nutrition is required to be on the product but this is only what the cabin crew would see when they taking off the foil or if you request it.

Luckily, you don’t need to rely on the calorie content or nutrition labelling to know if something is going to be healthy or not. It can be assessed according to a few rules: Is it processed? How much starch is included? Does it have enough protein? How much sugar and salt is in the product?

Beef or Chicken?

The classic economy choice across all of the airlines — beef or chicken. Among those choices, the healthiest option tends to be the beef. Usually, the chicken is served in a sugary sauce where beef may be more of a basic meal with potatoes and vegetables.

When it comes to vegetarian options, it’s often pasta and cheese that’s loaded with carbohydrates and fats with little protein, which is needed for energy and blood sugar balance. As a general rule of thumb, avoid vegetarian options — even a panini on some airlines can be around 1,000 calories.


Breakfast is usually served just over an hour before you land. The key here is to ask yourself if you really need to eat then, as there’s usually no healthy choice. A continental breakfast is around 783 calories and a Full English is 1,119 calories. If you need to eat, just eat the eggs and leave the bread/potatoes and the sugary juice/smoothie out and opt for a black coffee instead.

Choosing the Best Option

Looking at British Airways’ four-course economy menu, you can do a few things to keep in line with health targets.

  • Skip the bread — who even enjoys eating vacuum-packed airplane bread rolls anyway?
  • Skip the pretzels with the drink and ask for nuts if they have them.
  • Have the cheese on its own without the crackers. There are already enough carbs to keep you going in the main meal.
  • Don’t eat everything put in front of you — space it throughout the flight.
  • Ask yourself if you need the second meal option. It’s usually just a box of confectionary, and no, the Nutri-Grain bars are not healthy.
  • Ignore the crisps, Cadbury’s and sugary yoghurts at the snack bar and opt for one of the following: Graze box, Fruit, Nuts or Hummus Pot.

BA now offers you the chance to upgrade your economy meal by paying £15-£18 in advance. Here are the options, ranked in health order:

1. Healthy Choice Menu (£15) — Healthy options all round and a low-sugar dessert.
2. Taste of Britain (£16) — Rich in Omega-3, protein rich and not heavy on the carbs. Make it even healthier by skipping the clotted cream dessert.
3. Gourmet Dining (£18) — Indulgent but balanced enough compared to normal catering.
4. Taste of the Far East (£16) — Asian dishes tend to have more sugar, and the starter is only vegetables, which lacks protein compared to other choices.
5. Vegetarian Kitchen (£15) — Heavy in terms of fat and carbohydrate content.
6. Great British Breakfast (£15) — Very indulgent and high in calories. As mentioned above, it’s sometimes a good idea to skip breakfast on the flight and eat when you land at your destination.

This is making the most out of economy dining in the sky. In an ideal world, you would be having something at the airport before you board and there are plenty of healthy options to pick from there. If you eat before you fly, then you realistically only need to have a snack in the sky if you are travelling around eight hours.

Aside from the food offerings, remember to keep hydrated. You need more water in the air than you do on the ground — especially if you are eating high sugar and salty food with a few alcoholic beverages. Aim to drink about 3 litres of pure water during your flight.

Featured photo by Alex Macheras/The Points Guy.

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