Getting good-for-you air fare may mean calling ahead


Airline food is full of funny surprises these days.

By now you probably know airlines will provide you with meals to meet your special dietary needs, as long as you order 24 hours in advance.

For a while, I ordered a special meal every time I flew, just to see what they had to offer. I tried fruit plates, vegetarian meals, diet meals, low fat meals, kosher meals and even low sodium meals.

Then I began to realize the standard fare offered by US Air and United (the carriers I used most often) was beginning to fall in line with the U.S. Dietary Guidelines.

Typically, they offer a tossed salad with low fat dressing on the side, some fruit, whole grain bread and a polyunsaturated margarine, along with a moderately low fat entree, vegetables and a starch. Sauces often are served on the side. Usually the dessert is an old-fashioned high-fat item -- real butter cookies, real chocolate mousse cake.

Because you have options on sauces and butters, you could eat the regular meal, skip the dessert and end up with a calorie-controlled, fat-controlled meal that fits within your limits, RTC even if you forgot to order ahead.

That won't work every time, though. On another airline I used recently, I was served cold fried chicken fingers with honey mustard sauce (first ingredient listed: soy oil), cold green noodles with creamy Alfredo sauce, a roll with a cholesterol-free butter blend, and coconut cake. There wasn't a fruit or vegetable in sight, except for the lettuce leaf under the chicken and one small tomato wedge garnish.

So if you have a serious reason for avoiding high-fat fare, you might consider ordering a special meal. But even that may not guarantee you get what you want.

For example, you may get the correct center plate (entree, starch and veggie) served with the standard bread, salad and dessert served to all other passengers.

I was surprised, for instance, when I ordered a vegetarian meal. The center plate arrived with a card explaining how carefully the meal had been prepared without animal fat, just in case you are vegetarian for "animal rights" reasons, or you're watching your cholesterol.

The dessert, however, was Scotch shortbread, proudly proclaiming "Made with real butter." It was the same dessert being served on all the trays that day.

Colleen Pierre, a registered dietitian, is the nutrition consultant to the Union Memorial Sports Medicine Center in Baltimore and national spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association.

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