Anyone who travels knows that finding healthy food options at airports can be challenging. Thanks to Jamie Shifley, MS, RD, LDN, director of the coordinated nutrition program at the University of Illinois – Chicago, things are changing at one Chicago-area airport.
About a year ago Shifley fielded a phone call from Larry Acton, vice president of development at Premier Restaurant Group, a company that handles many of the concessions at Chicago's Midway Airport. Acton was interested in offering healthier food options at the airport and turned to Shifley and her team of students for assistance.
"We didn't really know where to start," says Shifley. "What were we going to focus on? Calories? Sodium? Fat?"
One of the interns had volunteered with the American Heart Association and was familiar with F.I.T. City Chicago, an initiative under the Building a Healthier Chicago. F.I.T. stands for "Fresh, Innovative, Tasty" and one of its goals is to develop criteria for healthy eating options and then get area restaurants to agree to offer healthy options.
- A minimum of two menu items – other than salad – whose main ingredients are fresh, non-deep-fried selections of fruits and vegetables
- A minimum of two menu items whose grain component contains whole grain as the first ingredient (unless water is first)
- No menu items with artificial trans fat
- Only plant-based cooking oils, containing predominantly monounsaturated or polyunsaturated fats, are used for frying entrées and side dishes
- A non-deep-fried fruit or vegetable is offered as an option for all meals that include french fries or chips
Using the F.I.T. criteria as her guide, Shifley and her team went into the Premier Restaurant Group restaurants and examined the food offerings. "We spent a lot of time trying to get the right recipes so we could analyze them. We realized there were some items that were never going to meet the healthier criteria so we focused instead on the ones where we could help the restaurants more easily meet the criteria," she says.
The students organized the recipes into a database and developed a nutritional analysis for each recipe. "We are now printing nutritional fact labels for the recipes so it is easy for them to know what they are working with," Shifley says.
Premier Restaurant Group operates out of central kitchen and there were already some healthy options, like oatmeal, muesli and fruit parfaits, available to travelers. In some cases only minor adjustments were needed to bring a food item into compliance with the F.I.T. Chicago guidelines. "If a restaurant was offering a turkey sandwich on white bread, we switched it to a turkey sandwich on whole-wheat bread," Shifley says. "They might still offer the sandwich on white bread, but now they have wheat, too. In a lot of cases it was not a radical change."
Midway is planning to develop signage to highlight the healthier food options that are available at the Premier Restaurant Group restaurants. “We are not trying to impose this on everyone," Shifley says. "But we want to make it easier for people to make healthy choices and know what the healthier options are."
Shifley and her team are not done with bringing healthier foods to the airport. They have agreed to continue to work with Premier Restaurant Group to make sure they stay on track offering healthy food choices. She recently worked with them to develop a healthier grab 'n go kids' meal and she also hopes to soon offer healthy options for children and vegetarians, as well as providing some gluten-free options. "There is definitely more work to be done, so we will keep working," Shifley says.