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Airport Bound? 9 Ways to Eat Well Without Busting Your Budget

photo: rick

Picking at unpalatable in-flight meals was horrific enough when the airlines provided the food for free. Now that most of them are charging $2 to $11 for the experience? Double yuck.

The seemingly simple solution: bring your own. But air travel poses its own unique set of challenges. No liquids of more than three ounces are allowed through security, which nixes both ice packs and foods like yogurt or soup. The potential for long layovers and flight delays sans refrigeration further limits the foods you might pack. There’s also a matter of etiquette: tuna, garlic, onions and other pungent foods shouldn’t be consumed in such close quarters.

Still, there’s plenty of room for creativity on the cheap. On a recent trip to Florida, Frugal Foodie took a tip from Food Network chef Rachel Ray and brought a reusable water bottle empty but for a few orange slices. Once she cleared security, she added free water from the nearest fountain and, voila, instant spa-like treat instead of forking over $3 for a bottle of water. (Ray suggested cucumber slices; lemon or lime would work just as well.)

We asked chefs, frequent travelers and other foodies to share their best tricks. What’s your favorite air-friendly food? Leave a comment below.

Hold the mayo

Prepare your favorite sandwich dry so that it can pass through security, says Bobby Laurie of “In Flight Insight.” Bring a single-serve packet of mustard, mayonnaise and/or relish to add post security. Using ingredients from home, your sandwich will cost just $1 or $2, instead of $5 to $10 purchased at the food court. You could also get through a dry salad of veggies with a packet of salad dressing for later.

Go veggie

Without refrigeration, vegetarian meals are the best option for food you plan to save for mid-flight. Janet DeGras, the author of “Mosaic Meals: Bringing Vegans, Vegetarians and Omnivores Together,” makes a “veggie special” of multigrain bread spread with hummus and layered with roasted red peppers, tomatoes, radish sprouts, cilantro and cucumbers. (Cost: $2.47 per serving.)

Create trail mix

Trail mix doesn’t have to be boring. Janet Groene of “Create a GORP” has both sweet and savory versions, including a mock cheese sandwich with wheat and cheese crackers, grated Parmesan, pecans and dried apples. (Cost: $1.74 per serving.)

Shake it up

Joanna Sutter of Fitness and Spice Marketing brings protein powder and a shaker. “Nine times out of 10 you can get water and ice free of charge at an airport snack bar or food court and whip up a quick shake on the go,” she says. “Sometimes if you ask nicely you can get some places in the airport with a blender to actually mix up a shake for you.” Beats a $5 smoothie.

Just add water

Flights always have hot water available, so packets of dry soup mix or oatmeal make for easy meals, Laurie says. Frugal Foodie has made an in-flight soup of some powdered bouillon and fresh spinach. Total cost: $0.38 per serving. On the drink side of things, powdered lemonade or fruit drink or Starbucks (SBUX) Via instant coffee works well added to cold water.

Pack condiments

If you must gamble on airline food, “a dash of hot sauce would make boot leather edible,” says Marc Matsumoto of “The Wandering Cook.” Add travel-sized containers of Tabasco, ketchup, sriracha and other condiments to spice up bland airline food.

Bring spices

Frugal Foodie usually packs a few travel containers of spice, both to add flavor to food en route and to have a good supply for cooking at timeshares and other destination kitchens without needing to buy full-size jars. A few cents’ worth of cinnamon and curry powder does wonders, or other spice rack favorites into plastic baggies. (For sturdier, reusable containers, look for something like the admittedly pricey $30 Mobile Foodie Kit.)

Order a special meal

If you know in advance you can’t bring food with you, request a vegetarian or kosher meal from the airline, says Heidi Junger, the chief executive of Onesta Organics. Unlike most airline food, such meals are not mass-produced. “The preparation of the less desired vegetarian meals may simply be done with better ingredients and more attention,” she says.

Pick whole fruit

“Believe it or not, I have never had fresh food taken away from me at TSA,” says “Mom Most Traveled” Candice Broom. “I have brought plums, Ziploc baggies of baby carrots, cherry tomatoes, cherries, blueberries and edamame.” Buy whatever’s in season, and you’ll have a snack that’s fresh, nutritious and cheap.

Frugal Foodie is a journalist based in New York City who spends her days writing about personal finance and obsessing about what she’ll have for dinner. Chat with her on Twitter through @MintFoodie.