On She Goes

Appetite for Travel: Making the Most of Airplane Food

Your stomach says “feed me,” but your brain is skeptical of what’s in the silver tray.

Amber Gibson
Amber Gibson
October 24, 2017
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You ever been on a long-haul international flight with a grumbling stomach when food service is about to begin? Your stomach says “feed me,” but your brain is skeptical of what may be on the silver tray hiding beneath the tinfoil.

I get it. As a food and travel writer who flies 200,000 miles a year, I’ve encountered my share of questionable airplane food, like lasagna with the faintly acidic tinge of vomit, eggplant parmesan that was 80 percent breading and 20 percent flabby gray eggplant, and beef short ribs as chewy as rubber. But it doesn’t have to be like that! Here are a few of my favorite tips and tricks to make airplane food work for you.

First course for dinner on Air France in business class.
photo by Amber Gibson

Order a special meal
Prior to your flight, airlines that serve a meal allow you the opportunity to make a meal request based on dietary restrictions, allergies, and preferences. Most of these requests must be made 24 to 48 hours in advance, so take a look at your reservation online or call the customer service number to inquire about your options. I’ve found that special meals are often prepared with fresher ingredients. The best part: no matter what type of meal you elect to try—Hindu vegetarian, vegan, low fat, low salt, gluten-free—you’ll be served first.

A plate of grilled vegetables, special request vegetarian meal, on Air Dolomiti.
photo by Amber Gibson

Warm up your butter on tinfoil
You wouldn’t think such a small thing would make your meal experience so much better. Sure, you could try to cut through the freezing-cold chunk of butter and stick it in your bread roll, which is usually at least lukewarm. But it’s much quicker to set the little square of Land O’Lakes on the tinfoil of your heated entree to get it spreadable and melty. Pro tip: you can also set the roll on top of the meal to collect a little heat as well.

BYO sea salt and tea bags
If you have any favorite culinary accoutrements that will make your food taste better, pack them in your carry-on and bring them on board yourself. A little black lava salt or sea salt for the bland omelet will certainly taste better than the kosher salt from the miniature shaker. Perhaps your favorite herbal tea will help you sleep. These small items can make a big difference.

Pasta for dinner on Qantas.
photo by Amber Gibson

When the going gets tough—there’s nut butter
There are times when nothing on the food menu or in the snack basket is appealing. I often travel with an emergency single-serve packet of almond butter (Justin’s is a great brand with tasty flavors) to spread on warm bread just in case. There’s almond, cashew, walnut, or regular old peanut butter. The healthy fats and protein will tide you over on a lengthy flight, and there’s not too much sodium so you won’t feel bloated. In a truly worst-case scenario, when the bread is hard as a rock or tastes like cardboard, you can always just eat the nut butter straight from the packet.

Maybe pass on the seafood
As tempting as the tuna tartare, shrimp linguini, or salmon in saffron sauce might sound under ordinary circumstances, in my personal experience and through far too many unsavory stories, I’ve learned that seafood on planes can be scary.

Feeling queasy in a cramped airplane bathroom or getting a bout of food poisoning upon landing will put a damper on the start of any travel adventure. If you’re going to risk getting sick, do it for the street food, not airplane food.

Turkish Airlines offers passengers in business and first class Turkish delight as soon as you board.
photo by Amber Gibson

Staying awake might get you a treat
On long flights with two meal services, flight attendants may come by between meals with a sweet or savory snack. When I hear rustling plastic wrappers on KLM, I perk right up and remove my eye mask. I know they’re coming through with ice cream as a mid-flight snack. Just know that if you snooze right after the main meal service, you risk missing the sweetest bite of all.