It's a bird. It's a plane. It's "something they called chicken ... that tasted like rubber and was ice-cold," says TheStreet.com's CEO Tom Clarke when asked to describe the worst in-flight meal he's had.
Like most of us, Clarke has fallen ill from plane food and has learned from the experience. He takes business flights an average of three times a month, on which he generally tries to avoid all fish, sticking to salad and fruit with the occasional sandwich.
So whether you're flying the friendly skies of
, how do you stay friendly to your intestines and waistline?
Keep Your Tray Table Stowed
This advice comes from Diana Fairechild, a former
airlines stewardess who has flown 10 million miles in her career.
Her 2004 book
, remains an essential guide to many travelers and businesses, as does her Web site,
Airlines have good reason to be cautious, she says. Airplanes don't have extensive refrigeration, and you can never be sure how long your food has been sitting out on the plane, runway or delivery truck.
Use extra caution when you have a flight delay. Airplane food "now has all the trappings of gourmet, but it's not fresh food," says Fairechild. "Nutrition is low on the list of priorities." As a flight attendant, she says, she witnessed spoiled food and even once a meal dropped on the galley floor, all scooped up and served.
Besides the immediate health concerns, food, particularly heavy, fatty airplane meals, is more difficult to digest at high altitudes because the intestines swell and because dry cabin air causes the body to lose water necessary for proper digestion, says Fairechild. When you're at 8,000 feet, "be smart -- don't eat," she advises.
Don't Drink the Water
Request a large bottle of unopened water if you're flying first or business class, says Fairechild.
It may seem an unusual request, she says, but it's a smart one, considering she's witnessed flight crews refilling empty water bottles with tap water from the sink, which often has the warning sign "nonpotable."
If you're flying coach, it's a bit more difficult (especially considering the 3-ounce liquid restriction) -- you may have to provide your own, so plan accordingly.
Food is a very personal thing, Fairechild concedes, so if you must have something on the plane for physical or psychological reasons, bring your own.
"Nibble your way across the ocean" with snacks you pack, she recommends. Avoid hard-to-digest foods and stick to carbohydrates, the preference of mountain climbers who must function at high altitudes.
With all that in mind, always ensure you don't go more than five hours without eating, says registered dietitian Susie Bohanan. "After five hours, your blood sugar bottoms out," she says, and reasoning skills are diminished -- not an optimal state for airport navigation. Moreover, you are more likely to overeat when you finally get to your hotel or lunch meeting.
To take the edge off, avoid sugary snacks, which have little staying power and cause your energy to crash. Bohanan recommends sandwiches with condiments on the side, protein bars and pretzels.
Susan Nicholson, a registered dietitian and health columnist, likes to make a turkey sandwich on whole-wheat bread with low-fat mayo before she leaves home. Just keep track of how long your food has been unrefrigerated, she cautions. With perishable foods like eggs and chicken, two hours should be the cutoff.
On the way back, you most likely won't have access to sandwich-making materials. For an easy return-flight snack, eat out the night before and pack your leftovers (which have been kept refrigerated, if necessary).
After the Flight
When you land, immediately schedule your eating patterns to the local meal times, recommends Fairechild, as this will help regulate your body and ease you out of jet lag. In Italy and most European countries, for example, expect to have a very simple breakfast (usually coffee with a pastry), a large lunch as the main meal of the day around 1 p.m., and a lighter evening meal at around 8 p.m.
Avoid the temptation to eat a heavy meal in the airport, and stick to healthy options such as fresh fruit or yogurt, if possible. And always stay away from dehydrators such as caffeine and alcohol. If you simply must have that Starbucks, go for a latte instead of straight coffee.
At least in the foreseeable future, the skies are the last place that business travelers will find healthy gourmet -- so eat wisely while you're in flight.