Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Wanted: Whole Foods on the Fly

Chicago high rises:  Are there fresh
fruit and vegetables anywhere out there?
I didn’t have to wait long for service at the Anchorage International Airport Starbucks on concourse C.  The barista had just opened her counter and only one other traveler stood between me and my coffee.  I’d been up since 3:30 a.m. in order to catch a flight to Chicago for a conference and was mentally hazy and unfit for decision making.  Yet, I’d given myself a challenging blog assignment for this trip and needed to rise to the occasion.  The barista awaited my order.

My assignment was to report upon the availability of whole foods and the practicality of eating healthily while traveling on business. Business travel presents particular difficulties because the schedule if often grueling and food choices at airports, on board airplanes, during conferences and at hotels are limited.  Add to that the fact that one’s focus during these trips is on networking, learning, meetings, and keeping up with emails from the home office.  With all of these hurdles, it’s easy to slide into a program of overly processed food from vending machines and retail stalls.

During this Chicago trip I developed several recommendations to help travelers maintain a moderately healthy diet, even while jetting across the U.S. attending to business.

Go ‘Bucks!
For the business traveler, Starbucks is far more ubiquitous than the Wall Street Journal.  Starbucks stores appear on every corner of every U.S. city to which I have ever traveled.  They are in malls, airports, hotel lobbies, casinos, office buildings, and conference centers.  The value of this is that once you’ve found a healthy meal or two at Starbucks, you will always have a standby.

The dilemma, of course, is that not everything at Starbucks is whole or healthy.  Much of the menu is sugary and fatty (can you say “Mocha Coconut Frappuccino ®” for 410 calories).  On this trip, I made an effort to identify and select items that fit the definition of “whole”.  On the first morning, in my 3:30 a.m. haze, I ordered house coffee with half-and-half, a low-fat raspberry muffin and a Naked ™ protein smoothie.  The muffin was tasty, and, while I was pleased to find that most of its ingredients were the same as those used in home baking (flour, sugar, oil, milk, eggs), I was disappointed that it didn’t contain whole grain flour.  Additionally, the muffin’s ingredient list displayed two mystery products:  invert sugar and konjac gum.  The protein smoothie’s label promised “no sugar added” and “all natural” and the ingredient list confirmed the claims: apple, banana, orange, coconut, pineapple, soy and whey proteins.  Unfortunately, the drink was chalky and bland and I couldn’t stomach more than a few sips.

I returned to Starbucks three more mornings (there was a Starbucks at my conference hotel and another at my departure gate at O’Hare).  The second morning I tried pumpkin bread, a banana and coffee.  The pumpkin bread contained pumpkin (of course) and pepitas (pumpkin seeds) both of which rate high for food value.  There were no mystery ingredients.  Yet, still no trace of whole grain flour.  Finally, on the third morning, I gave the oatmeal a try.  The dried cranberries and raisins, toasted nuts, and brown sugar made the oatmeal a satisfying whole-foods winner for the harried traveler.  Combine this with either the Naked ™ 100% orange juice (very good) or banana for a well rounded hard-to-beat breakfast.

The Gold Standard: Fresh Fruit and Vegetables
Never pass up fresh vegetables or a piece of fruit.  Banana at the Hudson News stand in the airport?  Buy two.  Garden salad on the catered lunch buffet?  Fill up.  Apple in the continental breakfast at the hotel?  Enjoy one and pocket another for later.  Grape garnishes on the cheese tray at the networking reception?  Don’t be shy – take them all.  On my Chicago trip, I had to pay attention, but I found fresh fruits and vegetables amid the array of junk food.  Here’s where I found it:

  • Starbucks:  Bananas in a basket by the cash register
  • On board Delta flight 1068:  Two apple slices in the Fruit and Cheese Tray ($6.25) from the EATS menu
  • In the Marriott Downtown Chicago hotel restaurant:  Fresh green salad with tomatoes and carrots
  • On the menu at Dao Thai Restaurant a block from the conference hotel:  Fresh stir fried red bell pepper, broccoli, snap peas, bok choy
  • In the catered lunch box:  a whole Gala apple
  • In the refrigerated section of the airport news stand:  fruit cups with melon and berries
Pack Snacks
A secret stash of whole food snacks can save the day for the exhausted and time constrained traveler.  Along with my black wool slacks, Netbook, and business cards, I packed three apples, whole wheat Triscuit crackers, roasted pistachios, homemade trail mix with organic walnuts and almonds, and mozzarella cheese sticks.  My goal was to avoid starving when I missed meals because of tight connections, supplement any fresh and whole foods I could find on the road, and subvert the compulsion to visit the vending machine down the hall from my hotel room.  I packed the crackers, nuts, and trail mix in baggies and stashed a handful of each in my carry-on.  The rest of the goodies tucked neatly into my suitcase – even the apples.  I took trail mix to conference sessions, munched on mozzarella sticks during coffee break, and sliced apples for a midnight snack after walking to the Navy Pier with co-workers.

Stroll through downtown
fueled by Dao Thai
Dining Out – Invest in High Yields
When my co-workers and I travel from our small town, we experience sensory overload as soon as the flight hits the tarmac.  In Chicago, we ogled restaurants, shops, and people along the Magnificent Mile and wandered several blocks before we could settle on where to eat dinner.  For the best possibility of a whole foods dinner, I recommend going Asian.  The Dao Thai Restaurant presented itself just as the 96-degree temperatures started to sap our energy.  I was delighted to find whole grain brown rice on the menu (as an alternative to white rice) for only $2.50 and a wide range of dishes featuring fish and vegetables.  My co-workers noticed the vegetable stir fry, which arrived with subtle seasonings and a light oil. 

The next night, we chose Cajun cuisine at Heaven on Seven and amid the heavy fried fare, I discovered vegetarian black beans and rice.  The flavorful home-cooked beans were complemented by a mixture of chopped fresh tomatoes, onions, and parsley.  As a side, I ordered a bowl of sweet potato polenta.  Though this dish was probably loaded with butter and maple syrup, the sweet potatoes contributed significant vitamins and food value to the dinner.

By combining the above ideas, it was possible to maintain a relatively satisfying and healthy diet over four days on the road.

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