Eat Well, Spend Less: Wholesome, Homemade Food for Air Travel

We’ve just returned from a family vacation in the Caribbean where we unplugged, relaxed and enjoyed time with extended family. While the get-away gave us some much needed R&R, the traveling to and from our destination was an adventure!

Our boys, now 5 and 3, did amazingly well on the four flights, all things considered. Mateo napped during the long stretches and they both ran their little legs off between gates during our tight connections. Danny and I battled some nausea on the journey home, but Noah and Mateo sustained good health and had a cheery disposition from take off to touchdown.

While flight delays, lost luggage, and air turbulence cannot be helped (or avoided, it seems) one aspect of air travel that can be controlled is nourishing food. When you bring your own, that is.

On our recent trip to Atlanta for BlogHer Food, I felt particularly gouged by the expensive, yet tasteless, food options available in the airports and on flights. Knowing I would have the kids along on the next trip, I mentally noted to pack my own snacks and lunch.

Being able to eat well in an airport is rare. Being able to spend little is nearly impossible. For this month’s Eat Well, Spend Less post, I’ll tell you how I managed to do both.


How to Eat Well and Spend Less….in Transit

Planning a bagged lunch and well-stocked snack ensemble for a day of air travel is slightly more complicated than packing for a trip to the local museum or park. Among the things one has to consider are:

  • space limitations – I’m leaving my cooler and ice packs at home, thank-you-very-much.
  • the food’s ability to be transported – It is crumbly? Will it spill or be crushed? Get soggy? None of that sounds like fun.
  • will the food hold at room temperature for several hours? Warm yogurt? Non merci.
  • nutritional value – there’s no point in packing empty calories; you can find those in any vending machine.

Travel can be draining, so we want to eat well, i.e., wholesome, nourishing foods. Packing food yourself ensures that you do just that. Instead of limiting yourself to the selection of fast food joints in the airport terminal, your choices begin before you taxi to the airport – in your own pantry and refrigerator.

The ‘spend less’ part comes into play when food is homemade. Stocking up on organic crackers, granola bars, cookies and other treats at the local Whole Foods is going to cost you a bundle, not as much as at the airport, granted, but costly nevertheless.

I’ve already talked about how homemade substitutes for pantry staples can be cost effective and the same goes for travel snacks. A few dozen hearty homemade cookies (like the recipe below) or a Tupperware of addicting fruit & nut crisps can be made at a fraction of the cost of buying them, plus, you can customize them to suit the families tastes. A bonus when some of the travelers are, ahem, selective eaters.

So what does one pack?

Food should be friendly for little hands, easy to eat, not messy, smelly (no eggs!) crumbly, or sticky. It should not require utensils, cutting, assembling or any preparation whatsoever. We’re traveling with small children, let’s be realistic!

  • Crackers, pita chips, bagel chips, rice cakes, etc. These homemade fruit & nut crisps can be made well in advance.
  • Nuts, seeds, and Trail Mix. We’re partial to pistachios (as a bonus, shelling them keeps little hands busy), and sesame snaps (pictured).
  • Dried FruitHomemade apple chips are amazing, and can be prepared well in advance.
  • Raw vegetables. I packed the boys’ favorites, which also happen to be the sturdiest – carrot & celery sticks, plus a few radishes for me. Cherry tomatoes are great if you have a sturdy container and sugar snap peas always fun.
  • Granola bars. We bought ours, but you can certainly make your own if you plan ahead.
  • Muffins, scones with cheese or fruit. Customize my basic Best Ever Oatmeal Muffins with add-ins to suit your tastes.
  • Sweet Breads. My sister-in-law handed out mini loaves of banana bread on this last trip that was so good, it eased the pain of the 4AM departure. This Whole-Wheat Zucchini Bread with Cinnamon & Dark Chocolate Chunks would be perfect as well and can be made in advance.
  • The PBJ. It’s hard to beat. Not only does it hold up well after a full day, but you don’t have to twist the children’s arms to eat it.
  • Wraps. With coldcuts and cheese, but only if they will be consumed within a few hours,
  • Sugar Free Lollipops. They keep the kids quiet (and occupied) during the customs line-up. Do not use in conjunction with iPhone games. Ahem.
  • Firm Fruit – Apples, Pears, nothing too juicy. Note: Consume fruit before passing Customs. My last remaining apple was confiscated when we landed in Mexico.
  • Popcorn. A lot of readers on Twitter mentioned this as a family favorite travel snack. Personally, I can’t see how the space it requires makes up for the enjoyment. I’d prefer something a little more substantial, like GORP.

TIP 1: Pack an empty water bottle and as soon as you are past security, fill it at a water fountain to avoid the $4 gouge for bottled water.

Tip 2: Before a meal, whip off your child’s t-shirt, turn it inside out and eat. When the snack or meal is over and faces and hands wiped, return the shirt to it’s proper place. Granted this works well for me because I have two young boys; you’ll have do decide for yourself if this ‘snacktime stripping’ is suitable for your children’s age and sex.

Recipe: Honey-Oat Cookies with Chocolate Coated Sunflower Seeds

I’ve just got iPhone photos of these treats I made for our Mexico trip, but they were a huge hit. The colorful and fun chocolate coated sunflower seeds were an add-in I didn’t feel guilty about and earned mass appeal from the children (and uncles).

Ingredients:

  • 1/4 cup plus 2 Tablespoons butter, softened
  • 3/4 cup brown sugar (I used Demerara sugar)
  • 1/2 cup honey
  • 1 egg, 1 egg white
  • 1 cup plus 1/3 cup flour
  • 2 cups oats
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1 heaping cup chocolate covered sunflower seeds

Method:

  1. Preheat oven to 350°F. In a large bowl, combine butter and sugar until smooth. Add honey and eggs and beat well.
  2. In another small bowl, combine flour, baking soda, salt, cinnamon, and oats together. Add to the wet mixture and stir gently to combine. Add in candy coated sunflower seeds.
  3. Drop by teaspoonfuls onto greased cookie sheets. Bake for 7 minutes until golden around the edges and still slightly raw in the center.
  4. Remove from oven and let set for a few minutes. Transfer to a wire rack to cool completely before packaging.

Yield: 4 dozen two-inch cookies.

For more tips on traveling with kids, I recommend Tsh’s post on the topic: How to Travel Long Distances with Little Ones (and not go insane). And definitely check out Marla’s Essential Travel Oatmeal recipe. It’s a healthy and frugal breakfast option that she pack from home and enjoys right in the hotel room. Genius? I think so.

What is your most successful wholesome travel snack?

About Aimee

Cooking has always been Aimée's preferred recreational activity, creative outlet, and source of relaxation. After nearly ten years in the professional cooking industry, she went from restaurant to RSS by trading her tongs and clogs for cookie cutters and a laptop, serving as editor here at Simple Bites.

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Comments

  1. Fantastic tips!!! :)
    Pretty. Good. Food.’s last post: Cinnamon-Raisin Almond Butter

    • As a mom of a big family that loves to travel together, we have discovered that most airline security agents will let you through security with ice cubes in tow! SOOOOO . . . pack zip lock bags of ice cubes as your ice packs to keep food cold, and you’ll be set to travel with your own meal!

  2. Great post Aimee! As one who’s not a morning person but always seems to end up on very early morning east bound flights, I’m terrible about feeding myself and usually wind up eating something terrible and expensive at the airport just so I have something in my stomach before arriving near dinnertime. Obviously, I need to think ahead a bit more – there’s some great ideas here!

  3. Great post! Your Honey-Oat Cookies with Chocolate Coated Sunflower Seeds looks very delicious and colorful! My son Luis, who loves cookies very much would surely love this one! Thank you Aimee!
    Leigh@rental-property-management.com‘s last post: What is Rental Property Management

  4. Oh, thank you! I tried packing snacks for a long flight last month and I packed way too much stuff and it was hard to manuever full bags of crackers and whatnot. The flight next month I will buy those trays and fill one for each girl then I’m done. Brilliant. And I think I will get a water bottle with a filter on it for filling. We got gouged by water prices, too. FWIW I got ice past security because it wasn’t melted yet.

    • Kara D. says:

      We fill up ice and water at the pop machines past the gate. Never had anyone complain, and our water can stay nice and cool.

  5. Thank you…thank you for this valuable travel tips… I’m totally agreed with you that the airport food is expensive and mostly are fast food. Too early, the food counters haven’t replenish… too late, most food is gone. Even as adult, I find it’s unpleasant.

    Now, with a kid, I found it even worst travelling and transit with long overhaul schedules (even nightmare when facing foreign staffs employed that can’t even speak proper clear English and confusing directions as in Abu Dhabi Airport!)

    I’m going to follow your steps and preparing myself going through the same airport again in November :-\ Thank you so much :-)
    Esef’s last post: Contributors Wanted! MyMyCityCuisineorg-A Travelers Guide to Local Cuisine

    • Yeah, those stupid foreigners who can’t even speak proper clear English in their own non-English-speaking country are ridiculous, aren’t they? How dare they not speak American Standard English? Jerks!

  6. Thanks for the tips. Even though my boys are older, 8 and 13, I find the suggestions really helpful. Also, I’m thinking of using some of the ideas for lunches and snacks for summer camp. They go to a really active camp, and sturdier food is better. Have a great weekend.

  7. Great tips. I always prefer to bring food with me. I especially like cheese and crackers and sometimes summer sausage. You do have to cut it all up before hand, chill it really well, and it eat it soon, though. I’m excited to see those water bottles with the built-in filters in the stores now. On my next flight, I’m planning to bring one of those through security empty and then fill from the water fountain.

  8. Love this and it’s especially true and necessary when traveling with little ones. I can put up with airport food for a while but providing healthier and still yummy options for the little ones is very important.
    Rachel @ Baked by Rachel’s last post: Almost Wordless Wednesday- Visitors

  9. great post!!…….I always end up on the plane STARVING because I forget to eat or pack any thing
    TidyMom’s last post: Saving Money to Keep Your Smile Bright

  10. Yay! I was thinking about writing this very same post – but you did it even better (and saved me the work!). Now I can just tell everyone to read it here :-) Thanks, Aimee! xoxox Michelle
    Michelle (What’s Cooking with Kids)’s last post: Delicious Dessert Recipe – Just 4 Ingredients!

  11. This is excellent! The apple confiscation reminded me of an incident returning from Canada when US customs confiscated an entire bag of oranges we had purchased IN THE US earlier that day. Based on that contraband, they searched the entire car, including taking out rear seats.

    I’m going to adapt some of these foods for lunches while my boy’s at camp this summer.

    One other tip–powder for the water bottle. I use something awful like Tang, or individual serving-sized packets of Gatorade, but I bet you could get healthier options.

  12. I like to bring little applesauce containers and hard plastic straws. Poke a hole in the lid and let kids drink it like a juice box. No mess! It also works with baby food purees which are shelf-stable so you can choose from a huge variety of fruits and veggies.

    • Really great idea, Lauren. I actually forgot to mention applesauce. I brought a fruit cup for Mateo on this last flight –and he made a horrific mess. Hense the t-shirt reversal tip. :)

      • Great tips but I am a bit puzzled about the t-shirt reversal suggestion. If something does spill on the t-shirt how will it help if it is inside out? They still can’t wear it.

  13. Great post! Just in time for my trip over the water in a week. :) On the longer flights they feed you for free so I never think to pack anything and always end up hungry at some point. I very much needed this reminder! Plus homemade snacks truly are so much tastier. Thanks for the tips, now I just really wish we had those chocolate covered sunflower seeds over here so I could make those cookies!
    Cheri’s last post: Kids in the Kitchen- Homemade Egg McMuffins for Dad

  14. I’m headed on a flight next week so I’ve been thinking about this. I usually load up on some of Trader Joe’s tasty snack mixes and organic lollipops. But you’re right that it’s hard to beat a PBJ.

  15. What a helpful post! I’ve bookmarked the recipe–oats and Sunny Seeds sound like a great combo. I also like the suggestion to bring sweet (and healthy) breads to the airport. They would be a great perk, especially for less enthusiastic travelers. :)

    Do you have any suggestions for healthy snacks that can be bought at the airport if, for some reason, you run out of the ones you brought (or just plain forget to bring your own)?
    Lisa’s last post: Sunny Seed Story 8- Sunny Seed Card

    • Good question, Lisa. We had a 5-hour delay on our way home from Atlanta in May, so yeah, I got hungry. I picked up box of food from Starbucks that contained cheese, grapes, veggies and dip. It tasted like the best thing ever!

      Fortunately I had a food voucher from Delta, or else it would have cost like $8. Ouch!

      • Oo that does sound good–but I think I’ll save my $8 for buying more snacks at the grocery store beforehand. Good to know in case I get stuck, though! Thanks so much!
        Lisa’s last post: Sunny Seed Story 8- Sunny Seed Card

        • Martha Artyomenko says:

          I have mostly flown alone, without children, but I usually need something warm to eat once. A couple of things I did, was bring tea bags. I found I could ask almost anyone for a cup of hot water and pay for the cup, saving money and refilling many times. It made my traveling very enjoyable! I brought some snacks, but then found an asian wrap place where they had whole wheat wraps, cabbage, broccoli, brown rice, in the Denver airport. It was so good, even though it sounded weird! It was so big too, that three people could have eaten it.
          Martha Artyomenko’s last post: Indelible by Kristen Heizmann

  16. This is a great post! Thanks for all the tips. I will use them myself when I fly this summer, and then again for the whole family when we roadtrip across America in late July. :)

  17. Thank you so much for this post! Will certainly come in handy this summer and I’m going to make your cookie recipe ASAP! Thanks so much for sharing! We also like to bring banana chips and pretzels with us!
    Kelly’s last post: Friday Finds- Carrot Cookies- Parenting- Father’s Day Gifts- Make Ahead- Blogging

  18. Mine has to be whole fruits and wraps. Sandwiches can be messy at times, so wraps are the way to go.

  19. Can you make me cookies when I fly ;-) Seriously, great tips, I always like to bring my own food too when I’m traveling.
    Sylvie @ Gourmande in the Kitchen’s last post: an indoor culinary herb garden growing your own flavor

  20. Kristen says:

    If you have a baby or toddler, you can easily get away with flying with liquids. When I flew with my not quite 3 year old and my 15 month old, I brought milk and water in large enough quantities for all three of us with no trouble at all. I had to be screened separately, but with traveling with 2 kids under 3, it wasn’t like I was going to zoom through security anyway.

  21. I love this post!! Such great ideas.

  22. Woah! I did not know you can spend little in airports. The prices there are just waaay too high, when I fly, I eat a lot before getting on the plane to avoid the overprices food. I’ll go try that when I and my girl go to another vacay. Nice post! :)
    Rothman@Food Cart Franchise Philippines’s last post: Kentucky Friend Chicken KFC Franchise

  23. Where did you buy your chocolate covered sunflower seeds?? Can’t wait to try your recipe for our trip out east this summer :)

  24. These are some awesome food ideas. I love the cookie idea – would satisfy the travel munchies without being junky. I love Pirate Booty on trips. We went to Sesame Place in PA this week and brought our own snacks, PB&Js, water, and juice pouches. So fantastic!!

  25. these tips are very useful to me!!! thanks!
    sap’s last post: How to clean silver jewelry and other silver products

  26. Thanks so much for these ideas! I noted during my last trip that I needed to pack myself some food. These ideas are great for adults too.
    ~Liz
    Liz@HoosierHomemade’s last post: Gardening with Antiques- Hoosier Homemade Rewind

  27. Great post! Just landed today and I must say, what great ideas! Wish I had thought of them a few days ago. I’ll be better prepare next flight. Making those cookies this week!
    Melissa @ Baking For The Boys’s last post: A Summer Breakfast Series Recipe- Raspberry Vanilla Smoothies

  28. As others have said, these ideas are great for both kids and adults! I don’t have kids yet, but I have made a note of your tips because I often find myself cursing the lack of healthy options at airports, yet never think ahead to bring my own food.

  29. Almonds have been a favorite snack to grab for travel for us lately, but I think we need to make some cookies before our next trip too!

  30. I have been traveling overseas with three kids for years. The first time I had to spend a night at Gatwick in London with my 4 yr-old due to a delayed flight, I cried after spending over $100.00 to feed us awful, overpriced meals. From then on, I packed snacks.
    My kids are bigger now, but it’s still important to think ahead about food choices (our youngest has Type 1 diabetes). My carry-on is almost always full of snacks for the airport and flight.
    Your choices of snacks are wonderful, and I don’t have much to add. My girls always liked thick pretzel rods for a salty alternative, and they pack easily (especially cushioned by the change of clothes:)
    I love your cookies, and might switch this year from the usual fare:)
    Lana’s last post: Foiled Again!

  31. At LAX airport, I have seen them throw away yogurt as they said it was considered a liquid when I went through security.

  32. statgirl says:

    I love all the ideas, but I need to comment on the idea of filling up an empty water bottle right after security. I do this all the time, but I have run into problems in some international airports, with flight attendants that either happened to see my full water bottle (in Frankfurt), or security actually inspecting the bags (Mexico City), and in both cases making me empty the bottles or hand them over. Very frustrating rules that didn’t make any sense to me, but it’s something to keep in mind if you’re doing this in other countries. Luckily in Mexico they let me keep one of the bottles for my baby.

  33. Great tips! I’ll be thinking of some of these when DH and I fly next month. I’ve used the water bottle trick for years and shared it with many people who are always shocked that I thought of that. I always just fill it at a drinking fountain once I’m through customs/security.

  34. I love your ideas. Where do you find chocolate covered sunflower seeds?
    jackie brown’s last post: Bulk Spices Plus Freebies

  35. Great suggestions for kid-friendly foods while traveling! I don’t have any children but I have to pack healthy snacks for my husband and I. Bunches of grapes, trail mix, and Cabot cheese are some of our favorites!

  36. I just had to leave a comment to say that I made these cookies, and they are by far one of the best cookies I have ever had. I’m normally a recipe tweaker, but I didn’t change a thing when I made these. I will definitely be making them again and again!
    Tracy’s last post: Big Summer Potluck 2

  37. I didn’t know they would allow food through security. I would have been taking my own food all the time. I hate the nasty stuff in the airport but I though my own snacks would be confiscated.

  38. Nice post. Airline food is…. never mind. Better to bring your own. What’s more, if you book with budget airlines, food is not free and price is sky rocketting so save on cost and eat healthy by bringing your own.

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