What do Pilots Eat

What do Pilots Eat Hero Image

Land based professionals take many everday tasks, like grabbing a salad for lunch, for granted. Faced with shifting schedules, delays, and overnights, airline pilots and other members of the flight crew often find themselves scavenging whatever light night eats border the airport hotels or indulging in room service. And, the workday doesn't offer health-concious pilots much reprieve - how can a pilot find nutrious and delicious food in a crowded airport terminal on a tight turnaround?

Few start their aviation career with ambitions to eat dinner from an airport Chili's To-Go everyday. While pilots may grab a quick bite and coffee from Starbucks or Dunkin' Donuts when the mood strikes, most aviators want to maintain their medical - a few too many sugary caffeinated beverages over the course of a career could make for an unpleasant trip to an Aviation Medical Examiner.

It's important for everyone to keep an eye on what they're eating, but it's particularly important for pilots.

What do Pilots Eat?

In short - everything. Pilots don't follow a uniform diet. Some pilots do a fantastic job planning meals and snacks for their trips in advance, others live off candy bars, fast food, and hotel restaurants.

Eating healthy as a pilot is important. The FAA requires airline pilots pass a satisfactory medical examination to fly. And, many of the conditions Aviation Medical Examiners test for are influenced by diet. Rather than asking "What pilots eat," a better question might be - "What should pilots eat?"

Eating Healthy While Traveling

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Pilot Food Kit - Clean Eating While Traveling

Skip terminal temptations. Pilots regularly flying out of major airport hubs and regional spokes face a myriad of savory and sweet airport temptations. A well equipped flight bag can help even the most reluctant healthy-flyer from falling victim to the airport cafeteria. Even if you're not health concious, your wallet and Aviation Medical Examiner will thank you in the long run.

Add Utensils to Your Flight Bag

Including reusable utensils in your flight bag is a great way to make sure you have the tools on hand to eat a healthy meal. If you're on a budget, simply throw in a spoon and fork before your next trip. But, if you've got a few extra to spend, check out travel friendly solutions - they normally come with a nifty pouch to help keep you organized.

Pack Lunch

Food containers have come a long way since the brown bag lunches of elementary school. Reusable thermal lunch containers readily fit into flight bags packed full of nutritious snacks and meals that help avoid those pesky terminal temptations. Packing a lunch enables tastier options - particularly on short trips.

With the right thermal container, it's easy to throw in mozzalella cheese sticks, fresh vegetables, and yogurt. And, if the trip is short enough, make a sandwich at home and toss in a side salad. Save money, eat well, and stay alert on the flight deck. Also known as a win-win-win situation.

Noodles and Soup Packets

Regional first officers at regionals generally aren't flushed with cash. There's no shame in stretching a dollar and leveraging a cheap stable. While lacking in nutrition and high in sodium, ramen noodles provide in a pinch. And, conventiently, they don't require anything more than hot water and a few minutes of your time.

Stash Snacks - Best Travel Snacks

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Average travelers looking for healthy travel snacks on a plane make a critical mistake - they leave healthy snacking to chance and luck. Pilots and experienced travels stash snacks to avoid falling victim to terminal temptations and hangry flying companions.

Pack healthy snacks that travel well and take up minimal space in your flight bag:

  1. Protein Bars
  2. Granola bars
  3. Nuts
  4. Dried or Fresh fruit
  5. Trail Mix
  6. Beef Jerky
  7. Popcorn
  8. Energy Gu

Stear Clear of Large Meals

Avoid eating too much before a flight. At the same time, avoid boarding the aircraft or starting a shift starving. Eating light helps prevent the drowsiness the often accompanies large, heavy meals. Digestion takes effort, and it's tough to fly a plane when you're in a food coma.

Whether you're a member of the flying public or the Captain of a Boeing 777, eating frequent, small meals throughout the day helps maintain an optimal level or alertness. When working to maintain energy levels and alertness, it is best to avoid snacks and treats with excess sugar (think candy and soda).

Study Your Terminals and Hotels

Image of healthy pasta bowl, healthy dinner for pilots

It's difficult to muster the motivation to track down a nutritious meal when contending with tight schedules, early mornings, and late nights. Figure out which airports restaurants and bodegas offer healthy options prior to your trip.

If you're away from home for a few nights and you know the hotels on the route, pull up Google Maps and research nearby healthy options. You'll be grateful you took the time to find something filling, nutritious, and delicious when you only have an hour for lunch at an unfamiliar destination.

Plan Breakfast

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Plan breakfast and don't skip it. Skipping breakfast makes travelers more succeptible to terminal tempations. Planning a healthy breakfast in advance of a trip increases chances for maintaining healthy eating habits. Plus, a solid breakfast keeps pilots energized and satiated - both imporant when you're acting as pilot in command.

Any decent hotel includes an in-room coffee pot. And, if you're really in a dive, you can likely still procure potable hot water from somewhere in the facility. Use hot water to heat up:

Instant Oatmeal Pouches

Instant oatmeal is the ultimate travel hack. It's a cheap, quick, nutritious, and tasty breakfast. You'll be hard pressed to find a better alternative while on the road. Throwing a handful in your flight bag ensures you're equipped for the trip ahead and anytime you're hungry in the air - ask a flight attendant to heat some up for you in a pinch.

Trade Fries for Greens

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If you are eating out while traveling, check to see whether your side of fries can be swapped for a vegetable. Most restaurants are willing to sub-sides, though you may incur additional cost. But, it's worth it. French fries and other fried foods are fine when an occasional indulgence. Eating a bucket a day while flying across the country will be construed by a nutrionist as french-fry-substance-abuse. Fried foods add to your waistline and daily sodium intake, which can make you more susceptible to issues during an Aviation Medical Examination.

Hydration - What do Pilots Drink?

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Staying hydrated helps pilots remain alert and focused on the flight deck. Unfortunately, pressurized aircraft cabins circulate dry air, making it more difficult to stay hydrated while flying. Expect low cabin humidity when flying - humidity hovers around 20% when flying in a pressurized aircraft. For reference, the air on a pressurized aircraft is drier than the Sahara desert (humidity around 25%). While low humidity doesn't pose specific health risks, it can cause dry skin and eye irritation.

How much water should you drink on a flight?

Stick to plain, non-carbonated water before and during a flight to avoid dehydration and impaired aeronautical decision making. The Aerospace Medical Association recommends drinking 8 ounces of water for each flight hour.

Experience professional pilots agree, but note this is particularly true on flight in excess of three hours. Short flights don't have a significant effect on dehydration. But, if you have a few short flights back to back, error on the side of caution and drink enough water.

Drink about 8 ounces of water each hour

As many airports now have water bottle fill stations, pilots and travelers alike benefit from considering a reusable water bottle an essential item in their carry-on luggage. Make sure to leave the bottle empty until after you're through security, as TSA may make you throw it away.

Staying hydrated while flying

Limit Alcohol Consumption
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Limit consumption of alcohol, tea, coffee and caffeinated drinks because they cause you to lose fluids.

While pilots should always avoid alcohol before and during duty, they also encourage all travelers to avoid alchol and caffeine while flying. Alcohol and caffeine cause fluid loss, which can lead to dehydration.

Sodium, Salt, and Flying
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We've all experience the familiar sensation of thirst after snacking on salty foods or grabbing a heavily preserved to-go meal from a convenience store. What some may not know is that eating excess sodium causes the body to retain extra water. The kidneys, in an attempt to maintain the appropriate ratio of potassium and sodium, may pull water from other cells. In turn, this causes dehydration.

You may think, "Why not simply drink more water to counteract the excess salt." While nothing in this article should ever be construed as medical or nutrition advice, it is safe to say remaining hydrated after eating salty or heavily preserved foods is important.

As pilots, it is important to keep in mind that excessive sodium intake can increase chances of developing hypertension (aka high blood pressure). And, uncontrolled hypertension can make it difficult or impossible to obtain a valid medical from your Aviation Medical Examiner.

Play it safe and stay hydrated - avoid consuming foods with excess sodium and salt. It's important while flying and for overall pilot health.

Eat Water Rich Foods
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Foods like cucumbers, tomoatoes, spinach, broccoli, oranges, and apples are rich in nutrients and are mostly water. Eating these before a flight, or as a snack during, can help prevent dehydration.