What I eat on planes

Posted on July 24th, 2014

This is another one of those posts I do when the questions on a particular topic roll in too thick and fast for me to respond to on an individual basis. Every time I travel somewhere I cop this one: but what do you eat in the air?

Image via Favim.com

Image via Favim.com

I’ve covered off what I eat when I’m travelling, that is, what I eat in foreign countries when I don’t have access to a kitchen and familiar foods.

I’ve also touched on what I eat on the run, including toting my breakfast and lunch to work. But today we’re going to cover air travel in all its hyper-packaged, processed, over-salted glory.

I mostly don’t eat on domestic routes

On short flights I simply don’t eat. Honestly, all of us can survive 1-2 hours without food. Snacking is a confection of the food industry to get us eating more of their food. Up until the 1990s common wisdom was to eat three square meals a day. This is what our bodies are designed to do. They like to rest a good 4-5 hours between meals. But in the early 90s nutritionists modified this to the “5-6 small meals a day” prescription in response to their client’s crazy blood sugar issues (from eating too many sugars and cheap carbs).

My issue with snacking is also this: snack food is mostly crappy. And always so on planes.

Know this:

Because our sense of taste dilutes at altitude, plane food is jammed with extra flavourings and salt.

On international flights

On long flights, or if my transit and flying time is right on a meal time, I will generally pack my own food and eat it at the airport or mid-flight. This is what I do:

  • I use up veggies that will go off in the fridge while I’m away. I chop up red capsicum, beans, snow peas etc and put in a ziplock bag (these can be rinsed out, dried and rolled up taking up less room in my suitcase than a lunchbox). I tend to always have a wedge of avocado or cheese lying around. I put that in the bag, too (I always eat fat with veggies). A few lettuce leaves or witlof leaves are helpful for wrapping everything together. And this tip from Sarah Britton: “If you are going to eat greens, stick to romaine. Spinach, butter lettuces, and mixed greens wilt and get soggy.”
  • My Paleo Inside Out Bread is a rippa. Sometimes I add a slice of cheese and some tomato from the Club lounge buffet. Or I’ll use some on-board butter. You’ll find the recipe in I Quit Sugar For Life.
  • A meffin is a great option (a meat muffin). You can find a recipe for such a thing in I Quit Sugar.
  • Some frozen chicken bits. Again, in a ziplock. I always have some in my freezer from making soups and slow cooker chicken. It will have thawed by the time you board and you can team it with the onboard cheese and crackers if you want.
  • Cucumbers. No cutting required, full of water, cool-as.
  • On longer domestic flights I make a green smoothie. Again, I take whatever’s leftover in the fridge, blend and place in a canister or glass jar. I make it extra thick so it won’t spill and add water once on the flight. I then use the canister/jar as my water container for the trip. Here’s some smoothie recipes if you’re stuck.
Anti-inflammatory green smoothie

My favourite green smoothie

  • Super thick dips. In part so they don’t spill, in part because on international flights liquids aren’t allowed and unless it’s stodgy thick, it will be confiscated at security. Simply add some chia seeds to a recipe to thicken things up.
  • Avoid sticky fruit. Oranges etc require napkins etc.
  • I don’t buy little packets of things. As much as those little nut butter sachets etc are handy, I can’t bring myself to add to the packaging disaster on planes.
  • If you make a sandwich, go for a wrap instead so you can secure the bottom in paper/cling wrap and it doesn’t fall out on your lap.
  • Better still, go for some Meal-in-a-biscuit crackers
  • I take a large empty bottle. On the other side of security I fill it up with water. On the plane, I ask the cabin crew to fill my bottle with their main bottle, rather than wasting the smaller ones.

For every hour you are flying, drink at least 500ml / 17oz. of water and drink a stack before you leave for the airport.

Try a chia pudding, too

Try a chia pudding, too

  • Don’t bring sardines. I did once and it was awkward. Which is to say, don’t bring stinky food.
  • Nice teabags. Planes generally don’t have chamomile or green tea.
  • I generally supplement these bits with a bit of plane food (see below) on long flights where I’m in the air for a full day.

When I do eat the plane food

Sometimes I’m stuck, or it’s a long flight, or I’m on a return flight, and so I eat plane food.

  • Choose the main meal with the least sauce. Sauces are full of sugar and crap.
  • Choose the main meal that has the cheap carbs to the side which will will leave you feeling heavy and stodged up and blood-sugar-crazed. Eat the protein and veg only.
  • Eat the fruit and cheese. Possibly your best bet – no added nasties.
  • Don’t eat sugar. It dehydrates, leaves you stodged up, sees you hankering for more food and, as it’s not being burnt off, mucks with your metabolism majorily.
  • Ask for nuts. Economy class mostly don’t serve nuts (due to allergies!?). But business class will generally have a stash and a nice steward will grab some for you.
  • Avoid the soy snacks. They’re full of crap. Avoid everything else in a packet…check out the list of ingredients on most of them to see what I mean.
  • Don’t do the dressing.
  • Don’t order the gluten-free meal. Unless you’re coeliac. Mostly you can avoid crappy carbs on the standard offerings. Plus, for some reason, gluten-free meals come with low-fat soy milk, margarine and other nasty alternatives. I think it might be the same for the vegetarian option?

Take a wastage stand. Please.

Tragically, airlines must turf anything perishable not consumed on the flight. Even the things with 2304928 layers of wrapping between the food and us. So, devastatingly, saying, no to the plane food won’t be saving the planet directly. However, there are a few thing that are not turfed, that you can say no to:

  • the plastic cutlery packets
  • the stupid napkins they bring with everything
  • cups and plastic glasses (if you’re given one, hang on to it the entire flight and reuse)
  • water bottles
  • the soy snacks from the bar cart

But bear in mind: once you touch it, even if you haven’t opened it, it has to be tossed.

I also like to think that by turning down the food, it lowers demand. Wishful thinking, perhaps.

Actually, perhaps some of you might know if there are other ways we can waste less on a plane?

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  • Angelika

    I never take the ear sets they provide you when boarding. They are COVERED in plastic, besides I always prefer to use my own iPod earphones or noise cancelling ones on international flights.

    [Reply]

    Sarah Wilson Reply:

    ditto

    [Reply]

    Shae Reply:

    Yes, we have everything we need. The key is to be mindful before boarding a plane / leaving the house.

    [Reply]

  • Sarah

    Thanks for posting this, I’m doing a long haul flight with two young kids soon and I don’t want them or I to eat too much crap.

    I wasn’t aware that you could take your own food on international flights, has this always been the case?

    [Reply]

    megswalms Reply:

    Hi Sarah – yep, has been the case for as long as I can remember. Just make sure that if you’re travelling internationally, that everything is consumed or disposed of (I’m sure you kidlets won’t leave much uneaten!) – that’s a customs and quarantine rule for every country. x

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  • Katheryn OldShield-Mukai

    I can tell your domestic flights are not in the USA. On cannot even bring a branded bottle of water through security check points, and I’ve had them confiscate clearly labeled canned goods. I’ve not tried veggies in a sandwich bag, not even a sandwich. Don’t think it would pass. I have carried nuts and not had issues.

    [Reply]

    Alejandra Ramos Reply:

    I think she meant an empty water bottle that you fill after security–I’ve done that in the US with no problem!

    [Reply]

    Sarah Wilson Reply:

    correct.

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    itllbealrightonthenight Reply:

    I took my empty nalgene then filled it from the fountain, no problem. And asked the stewards to fill it for me, they were happy to.

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    Amy Reply:

    I’ve been in the states for 3 months and have been traveling a fair bit. For an epic 14hr travel day I had, I took soft boiled eggs, cut up veggies, a tuppaware full of a big salad and frozen chicken to put in it, and a whole avocado. As long as it’s not a liquid you’re fine. The salad even had balsamic and olive oil on it and it was fine. Only problem is, my entire carry on bag was just for food :)

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    Jason & Rachel Deutscher Reply:

    I have flown domestic in the US with an empty water bottle that I fill up AFTER going through security. If you travel with children, they will let you take on a small bottle of milk (3 oz). I think this is true for smoothies too. It is actually possible to travel with most of these food items in the US.

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    Kelly Reply:

    I have taken fresh cut fruit, veggies and even slices of cold cuts (ham) onto US domestic flights, and international flights no problems. The cans probably would be considered dangerous due to the metal, and the weight of them if thrown.

    [Reply]

  • http://www.alwaysorderdessert.com/ Alejandra Ramos

    Love these tips, though the smoothies, dips, puddings definitely won’t work in the US. Even peanut butter or hummus sandwiches have been confiscated (as peanut butter is a “liquid”). So stick with the hard stuff. I love hard boiled eggs or egg muffins, chorizo, nuts, cheese, roasted chick peas, and always some good dark chocolate. Airports usually sell hard boiled eggs so if I forget to bring my own, I buy a few. I always bring a lemon cut into wedges so that I can add to hot water for sipping. Empty water bottles ARE OK to pass through security in the US. And I always get up and walk/stretch right after eating on a plane or train.

    [Reply]

    Sarah Wilson Reply:

    great tips…hmmmm, maybe things have changed…but I’ve been able to get “pastes” through customs.

    [Reply]

  • Cosette

    Cathay Pacific and Singapore both have a raw veg/raw fruit option on flights to and from Australia- you get celery/carrot/cucumber/carrot sticks and usually pineapple and papaya…for every meal! I then bring nuts and my own green and ginger tea bags. I save the napkins, salt and pepper sachets and plastic cutlery for my trip…I get strange looks, but they always come in handy!
    On Qantas domestic you can take a keep cup for coffee/tea/water to save on plastic cups.

    [Reply]

    Sarah Wilson Reply:

    I like your style

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    Lola Reply:

    Ooooh, that sounds fantastic (better than the execrable GF option I had last time I flew Aus to Europe). Do you have to pre-order raw, or can you just choose it inflight?

    [Reply]

    Cosette Reply:

    You have to pre-order- I just get my travel agent to put in a request, but I think you can also do it through the airline website. Yes, I learned my lesson with the GF option!

    [Reply]

    Lola Reply:

    Thanks Cosette! Have jumped on to the website and put myself down for raw food all the way to London. Amused to see that ‘bland meal’ was an option – doesn’t that sum up ALL in-flight food (in economy, at least)?

  • Charmaine

    If I don’t have time to bring food, I’ll request the “raw meal” option offered by some airlines (definitely Cathay) which is just raw fruit and veg, avoiding the sodium dehydration trap. And I couldn’t agree more to bringing your own water bottle – the amount of small plastic bottles that are consumed drives me mental!

    [Reply]

    Amy Reply:

    Emirates had this too. Teamed with a few cans of tuna in olive oil, I made it from London to Melbourne without having anything I didn’t want!

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    Angelika Reply:

    I also think Emirates are brilliant. I requested the raw vegetable meal option and the variety was divine- the cold rolls were a highlight (dippy sauce optional).

    [Reply]

  • http://www.thenutritionista.com Kirstie – The Nutritionista

    Great tip not to order the gluten free meal! I recently traveled to the UK and back and requested the gluten free option – it should perhaps be known as the taste free option? And yes, it was all non dairy and low fat and pretty yucky, so I won’t be doing that again. Bit disappointing that airlines can’t do a bit better than that, particularly on long haul flights. I also took chopped up veggies, falafels and hummus – but unfortunately the hummus was taken away as it was in a container bigger than 100g so next time I will take a couple of smaller containers and I’ll be set!

    [Reply]

    Kelly Reply:

    From past experience (especially on Qantas, but other airlines like Air Canada) the GF meal is also often the dairy free and sometimes even the diabetic one. It’s like they combine a few issues into one meal which does reduce taste/options etc. As wheat + dairy are off the menu for me, and I often fly long haul, it’s an ok albeit tasteless option. I do supplement with plenty of snacks as mentioned above. I liked reading about the raw options and will check that out for future too.

    [Reply]

  • Amy Landry

    Nice one Sarah.

    Part of the wisdom from the Ayurvedic system is to generally eat only 3 meals a day, for the precise reason you mentioned… to give our digestive system a break from the constant overload of food, and to get to work on HEALING and rebuilding. In fact, it’s recommended that we have around 12-15 hours without eating each day (including the hours we are asleep).. so breakfast around 7/8am, then last mouthful around 6pm. Not so easy for everyone due to lifestyle, work etc, but good to aim for.

    Note: Those experiencing a Vata imbalance (as opposed to one who is simply a more Vata type person by nature) can benefit from snacking occasionally, due to various reasons. They generally need the most nourishment and grounding from food.

    [Reply]

  • Amanda Gabrielle

    Passengers sitting next to me generally love it when I offer them my wrapped chocolates or biscuits etc! I also have a big (600ml plastic) glass I take with me to have filed with water and wander up to help myself to that and fresh fruit. I often miss the general snack times as I’m sleeping because I’m on the destination time zone.

    [Reply]

  • Christine

    Be careful if you go through Paris. My Dad had to change flights and bought cheese at duty free. They shuffled him through security again and confiscated the brie he had bought on their premises because at a certain temperature it can be considered liquid…
    Airport logic.

    [Reply]

  • Rob Hood

    Hi! I’m an international flight attendant and the one piece of advice I can offer is eat as little airline food as possible. Pure n simple it’s cheap nasty filler. It’s my job but it hurts when I have to offer chocolates or cookies or ‘healthy snacks’ like muesli bars. I always take a BIG salad with canned tuna with a small (under 100ml) reusable container of oil&vinegar. I always include cheese, avocado, seeds to help satiety. For later in the flight takes nuts, whole avocado, hard cheese like Parmesan that will be fine without refrigeration and beef jerky. It’s definitely do-able. I haven’t eaten an airline provided meal in more than 18 months and I do an average of two 12-14 hours flights every week. And my body is so grateful

    [Reply]

    Sharon Hall Reply:

    Rob, any info in the quality of the boiling water on board?? Have heard it can be pre dodgy. And thanks for your share above, v interesting.

    [Reply]

    Rob Hood Reply:

    Boiled water-I can’t speak to the quality but we get water from all over the world I would imagine that there’s a fair amount of chemicals to render it safe to drink. That doesn’t equate to being ideal to drink though. I drink at least 3-4 cups of peppermint tea per flight and don’t suffer any I’ll effects. For travellers that fly just a few times a year I wouldn’t worry. Besides-there’s no other option!

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  • Leah

    I usually book red eye flights for international destinations (between Australia and Asia). No one should be eating during sleeping hours so this stops me from eating airline food. If i can, i also go the low cost carrier airline because food comes as an added cost. I’ll usually pack fruit or a muffin to munch on in the morning before the plane lands.

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  • Deb Chandler

    just curious, you say to avoid soy – I started having soy milk as an alternative to normal milk cos my body doesn’t like too much ‘normal’ milk (especially full cream) is that incorrect? is soy just as bad?

    [Reply]

    Sharon Hall Reply:

    Deb google ‘soy estrogen’ and get comfy. I use oat milk as a safer alternative. Also rice & almond are other options. I’m guessing this is what Sarah was meaning and possibly the GMO too.

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    Kelly Reply:

    I am dairy free and will opt for almond milk over soy if possible. Too much soy isn’t great as Sharon mentions below. When I first went diary free I stocked up on soy – after 6 weeks my hormones/cycle were all over the place so most often now I just go without!

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  • Astrid

    When travelling with my 9yo daughter, either long drives or flights, I take a couple of organic granny smiths and carrots. Combined they are fresh, juicy and full of fiber. With that we have a pick of the airplane food but yes even what seems okay still has so many more perservatives and other nasties than you can imagine. At her young age and loving all sorts of (wrong) foods it is on the planes that she makes good choices luckily. As her other parent lives on a different continent we do 28 hours travelling every couple of years. What I haven’t found is a way to have okay water on board, tap water is generally pretty foul, full of chlorine. Any tips for that would be welcome.

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  • Lewis

    That’s where the Intermittent Fasting is worth it’s weight in gold – very liberating to be able to avoid most of the ‘cr@p” – and as Sarah suggests just pick the healthiest “bits” out of the main meals every now and again if/when hunger strikes….

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  • Vix

    I haven’t been on an international flight between the UK and Australia that allows more than 100mls liquid, how the hell do you get through with a smoothie?!x

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  • Sharon Hall

    Some great tips & reassurance I can go flight-food free on my upcoming OS trip.
    I’m thinking boiled eggs, baked small sweet pots, hommus, cheese, cherry toms & cucumbers, biscuits, nuts & maybe some frozen baked salmon (inspired by the frozen chicken)
    I’m gonna blog about it on my site so think the accountability from that will be great. Have read from a few sources that the boiling water on flights is pretty dodgy so am gonna get my insulated keep-cup filled up from a coffee shop after security. Also bringing my own blanket on-board to save the plastic from the airlines one, and cause of the rumour they don’t get washed after each use, just re-bagged.
    Thanks for the article Sarah and the great tips in comments. Xx

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  • Tiffany

    When we came back to Sydney last year from Denpasar, they would not allow us to take a bottle of water (which was bought after we had gone through the security checks) onto the plane. They did one last security check at the boarding gate where they took water from passengers. I questioned them about it and they told me it was “the policy of Virgin Airlines”. I said no, it’s your policy as I can take a bottle of water onto the plane in Sydney.

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  • Ailsa

    The low fat meal is usually a piece of steamed fish with vegies no sauces etc, a few slices of fruit and cheese/water crackers. I order this for long haul flights – I have even been served this for breakfast on flights, so much better than the gluten free meal which is usually cornflakes and soy milk!

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  • Harley

    The best plane meals I’ve had are always the vegetarian options (possibly because they have to put more consideration into it?). From experience it’s usually some sort of lentil curry with fruit and bread/butter on the side. I think because they can’t use any meat stock they usually avoid the “saucy” type of meals. Also, as these options usually coincide with the kosher/halal meals, I have found they are often of higher quality. But yes definitely recommend taking your own teabags! I also do squats in the bathroom – there’s just enough room!

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  • connie Curtis

    I take ear sets, a reusable water bottle, my pillow and blanket. even food and a cup for hot tea. I try to not eat things in the handy plastic single use things. straws are one of my biggest pet peeves. I dont want one and dont bring it when I ask you not to. I want less waste on the planet. We can live great without all of it. We would be healthier and so would the ocean. I want to educate more people on this. Sarah I think it makes difference when you dont take food somewhere. If we arent hungry then we dont need to. I believe the same thing and it creates a clearing for others to do things differently.

    [Reply]

    Sarah Wilson Reply:

    Yes, a clearing…I like that!

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  • http://www.therogueginger.com Erin Rhoads

    I have been living a plastic free life for the last year and recently committed myself to zero waste. Travelling is so doable all you have to do is plan…and then plan some more.

    This is what happened on my last flight since going zero waste. I had a five hour flight from Melbourne to Fiji. I called the airline ahead of time to cancel all my meals. They told me that a note has been made but to tell the staff at the check in desk. I did that then the check in crew told me to tell the cabin crew when I board. They did not bring me any food – I am not sure if it was ever thrown out or they stocked accordingly. They did check on me throughout the flight to make sure my refillable water bottle was filled from their main supply. I did not take any food on board instead i just ate a large meal before jumping on the plane.

    Before I became zero waste enthusiast I took my own cutlery (a bamboo knife, fork and spoon) and napkin for the meals which i carry with me everywhere.

    I also take my own blanket (a shawl), earphones, socks….basically everything that comes wrapped in plastic I take on myself.

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  • Becki

    Hi Sarah, I always take Miso with me when travelling. It comes in handy foil sachets (a bit of waste) or you can get creative with reusable small tubs filled up with paste from the home fridge. Just add hot water after security or once boarded. Miso with seaweed is especially good for countering all the radiation we’re exposed to while up in the air.
    Also, try dried ginger pieces steeped in hot water as a tea. Ginger is a well known digestion aid in Chinese Medicine, and will help with mid-air bloating or other digestive discomfort (the stress/excitement of travel is disruptive to digestion).

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  • lynette

    sarah
    I want to purchase the slow cooker book in hardcover is this available.
    I do not want an ebook as the computer is the last thing I want in the kitchen when I am cooking

    [Reply]

  • Suzanne

    I’m wondering if you or anyone else has tried doing a 24 hour clear lliquids fast before a longish flight of say, 7 hours. Might that result in less headache and intestinal discomfort, or more? Does it help to reset one’s digestive clock while staying in a different time zone? Pros and cons of that fast?

    [Reply]

    Sarah Reply:

    This is a bit late, sorry. When doing a long haul flight (e.g. NZ to UK) I don’t eat anything and only drink water for the second half of the trip, so about 12-14hrs. I then have a meal when I arrive. It really does help with jetlag. I am pretty tired the first night but then good to go for the rest of my holiday. :)

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  • Anne-Marie

    I wish when booking you had the option to tick no food. It is really annoying to me that they then will turf what I do not want

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  • megswalms

    Long haul hostie here… BYO WATER BOTTLES! And YES! Less demand will equal less supply. Airlines are always trying to cut costs and if we leave food unused on the plane, it is noted and the supply is adjusted.
    I will also say one thing on behalf of the other hosties (and other customer service folk on here). We will do anything to make our passengers happy (within reason – no mile high jokes please!). Ask nicely and I will happily refill your water bottle and fetch you some nuts or an extra cheese and crackers (ask really nicely and I’ll sling you some lemon slices to spruce up your water!). 14 hour journeys are hard for us too and if we can get a passenger say at the end of the flight ‘thanks for making that a bit easier for me’, you’ve actually made our day. Don’t be afraid to ask us for something random and out of the way, you’d be surprised what we can offer you! Happy travelling x

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  • Isabelita

    Travelling from Dublin to Auckland next weekend and I think if I would bring a sandwich, they’ll tell me to bin it :( the hard boiled idea is good. i might give it a go, actually. Great tips

    [Reply]

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  • San

    I went through security in Stansted recently (European flight) with paleo bread (okay, defrosted and untoasted it is not as good), blackbread sandwiches, cheese, bananas, nuts. Nothing was taken away, not even by the looks of other travellers ;)

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  • Hannah Benhariz

    I’m a flight attendant and take all my own food. If I’m away on a long layover and don’t have a fridge in my room. I tend to just stick to protein on board.. Good cheese… and salad with no dressing. I always bring raw chocolate.. nuts.. rye crackers etc for night flights when I need extra sustenance. I’m actually in nyc right now (from london) and brought with me IQS’s Zuchhini Brownies :-)

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  • Brenda H

    I can’t believe they let the smoothies thru security.

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  • Skye

    Be careful with chamomile tea. After dosing myself with it daily for sleep issues for years, I just read that it increases your estrogen levels and if you have any problems in that area, don’t drink it. Now, having issues going on, feeling like I unknowingly may have sabotaged myself thinking I was doing something healthy.

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