By Gregg Rossen

A confined space, no room to move, and air filled with the reek of tightly packed bodies—no, this isn't a description of a poorly run veal farm. Rather, it's an average day on one of the thousands of U.S. flights transporting multitudes of passengers to far-flung destinations. In these cramped quarters, it's easy to understand why Wolfgang Puck once said, "To me, an airplane is a great place to diet." After all, who wants to eat while elbow wrestling for the armrest on a plane packed to the overhead storage bins with other travelers?

Of course, Mr. Puck was likely referencing those mostly bygone days when air travelers could look forward to the question, "Would you like the chicken or beef?" But a coach passenger on a domestic flight can't expect one of those oft-ridiculed trays of airline food anymore. (Continental is one of the few holdouts still providing meals in coach, while most airlines only do so in business and first class.) In this era of declining air services and increased fees, travelers face a new aspect of dining en route—choosing which foods to buy onboard. On one hand, this presents opportunities for passengers to make their own meal choices, but at the same time, it introduces new challenges . . . like eating right at 30,000 feet.

Here are 8 ways to help ensure you get off the ground nutritionally the next time you fly.
  1. Plan ahead. How many times have you been hustling to make a flight and thought, "No time for breakfast," or, "I'll just grab something to eat at the airport"? The problem is, that's exactly what thousands of other travelers planned on doing too. So after making your way through the lines to get you and your luggage checked in, and the lines to go through security, you're famished and ready to scarf down anything you can get your hands on. Making sure to have a good meal before a flight and stowing some apples or protein bars in your carry-on bag before you leave the house are significantly more important things to mark off your checklist than making sure you've got the latest issue of People to read on the plane.
  2. Pretzels v. nuts. Though the unpredictable airline industry may at some point find a way to monetize even these two ubiquitous airline snacks, at this point, pretzels and dry-roasted peanuts are generally free to passengers, and both are fairly healthy, fairly sensible snacks to take the bite off your hunger. A 1-ounce portion of pretzels contains approximately 3 grams of protein, and a 1-ounce portion of peanuts contains approximately 6 grams of protein. Peanuts are also excellent sources of calcium and potassium. But let's face it—when you're in an environment of forced inactivity (for example, you're packed in so tightly you can't cross your legs), calorie needs are simply not as great as they would be going through a normal day's activities. So for hardcore calorie-counters, you might want to consider that 1 ounce of pretzels contains about 110 calories, while peanuts ring in at about 160 calories.
  3. Beware the Pringles . . . . And by Pringles we mean the tempting but highly processed, high-calorie, low-nutritional-content snacks that airlines have started selling in an attempt to fuse air travel with the movie-going experience. On Northwest flights, passengers have a wide variety of snacks to choose from, including the Pringles Grab and Go! can, which, with 40 chips, pushes 400 calories. Other Northwest choices, like Twizzlers licorice (a 7-ounce package with close to 700 calories) and M&Ms (a 5.3-ounce bag with a whopping 750 calories), may seem enticing to the traveler needing a pick-me-up after the challenges of the check-in procedure, but the super-sized containers sold onboard mean calorie overload. Remember, while a movie may be showing onboard, it's a flight (i.e., a period of forced inactivity), not a trip to the multiplex.
  4. Vegetative states. Truth be told, many airlines have made great strides in providing healthy and/or low-calorie alternative foods to air travelers. Northwest offers a fruit and cheese platter as well as a vegetable platter on many of its flights. US Airways sells a breakfast fruit plate on selected flights, while United boasts a julienne chef salad. American Airlines' menu even offers a hummus and vegetables plate. And since even fast food giants like McDonald's offer a range of healthier choices in the salad and fruit departments, making a (hopefully) quick stop at the terminal's McDonald's on the way to the gate is a small investment in a narrower waistline. You should keep one thing in mind, though. In all cases, try to forego the additional dressings and "dipping sauces" included with these meals. Remember, in an airplane seat, you're confined like a sheep in a pen, so eating moderately is the key.
  5. Sandwich envy. Healthy and tasty sandwich choices abound these days on most airlines (though again, stay away from the mayo packs and "sauces" on the side). A $7 turkey club sandwich on US Airways, for example, has the makings of a healthy meal with its ciabatta bread, sliced turkey breast, turkey bacon, lettuce, and tomatoes. Leaving the side of "Dijonnaise" where you found it, on the side, this sandwich has a moderate calorie count, is fairly nutritious, and would likely keep you feeling full for hours. Similar choices can also be found on other airlines' menus. One thing to be a little more cautious about are sandwiches that combine multiple cheeses and meats, such as United's wrap sandwiches (for example, the Tuscan chicken/salami wrap also contains a slice of provolone cheese and garlic cream cheese—it's not like eating M&Ms for lunch, but it is slightly higher in fat than you might think, especially for a wrap). In all cases, check your airline's Web site before you travel to get a sense of what low-calorie and healthy choices you might have while traveling. Almost all major airlines are now listing their menus online.
  6. No drinkies . . . . No alcoholic drinkies, that is. Yes, it is sad, but the rules that apply to eating sensibly on the ground apply equally or more so when you're suspended miles above the earth. Sure, alcohol can be fun and it might help you shake off the tensions of the day by letting you snooze your way from Atlanta to Seattle. Maybe it's even a necessary evil to tolerate the inane conversation you're forced into with your talkative seat neighbor who's intent on sharing his or her views on politics or why his or her special trip to France/Fresno/Fredonia was so amazing. But in addition to being empty calories without nutritional value (we can discuss antioxidants some other time), alcohol also lowers your guard. That's right, call it beer goggles in the sky and the thing most likely to make you decide to throw caution to the wind and buy that 7-ounce pack of Twizzlers with its massive 700 calories. Remember, flying can be a way of getting to a party, but flying itself isn't a party. And if the temptation to drink rears its ugly head while you're still on the ground, when the loudspeaker announces a 2-hour delay in your flight, the no-drinks rule works well in the airport, too. Though drowning travel sorrows may be appealing, a sober traveler is about a million times less inclined to succumb to deep-fried mozzarella and buffalo wings in an airport Chili's than someone who's had a few. And by the way, you're better off without the sugary soft drinks or their chemical-laden diet counterparts (see "Best and Worst Gas Station Cuisine" in the Related Articles section below). Stick to water. Keeping yourself hydrated will make you come off the plane more refreshed than any amount of caffeine or alcohol will.
  7. Aisle seats. The area allotted to each passenger on a plane is measured and remeasured by countless engineers and designers all trying to maximize the economical usage of space. The result is that passengers find themselves in a state of forced immobility unlike many (or any) other experiences in daily life (unless you're a user of Japanese capsule hotels). With this in mind, sitting in the aisle seat frees you to get up and walk around with much greater frequency than passengers in the middle or window seat, allowing you to stretch and get your blood flowing. No, nobody will confuse a quick jaunt around the cabin with a run in the park, and it's not going to burn off a meal. But as tempting as it might be to grab a window seat to sleep all the way to your destination, it is a far more natural and healthy state for your body to have some movement, albeit limited, than no movement at all.
  8. B.Y.O. whatever. Of course, the best way to make sure you are eating healthy food while flying is to pack it yourself and hope it survives in your carry-on bags. Fruit, turkey jerky, sliced vegetables, and low-fat string cheese are just a few of the snack items that slip easily into your carry-on and will last for the duration of your trip. Sandwiches made without mayonnaise or fatty meats will last hours, and provide a pleasant alternative to a Big Mac on the tarmac.