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34 things you need to know about in-flight meals

Is aeroplane food really that bad? Here's everything you need to know about dining in the sky, whether you're after budget bites or Michelin-starred meals.

It's fair to say aeroplane food has a bad rep. But as our taste buds become increasingly more sophisticated – not to mention the fact we're a generation obsessed with sharing everything on social media – the pressure is on airlines to serve up something a little more appetising and Instagram-friendly.

Read on to see what you can expect from your next in-flight meal, if you should skip your aeroplane food or stock up on snacks in an airport lounge.

The lowdown on airline food

1. Nearly 100 years of airline snacks

The first in-flight meal was served in 1919 on the Handley-Page London to Paris route. It was very exotic – a packed lunch consisting of a sandwich and some fruit. Yum.

2. Food poisoning from in-flight meals is no joke

The prospect of mass food poisoning on a flight is pretty hair-raising. Fortunately, airline meals are prepared by specialist catering companies with strict guidelines governing the industry.

3. What you get in an airline meal

The old saying 'you get what you pay for' generally rings true when it comes to aeroplane food. The more money you pay, and the longer the flight, the better the food usually is.

4. In-flight meals vary

You guessed it – in-flight meals vary in quality, size and cost across airlines, classes and length of flight.

5. It's in the packaging

Depending on who you're flying with, you could expect anything from small snacks in plastic packaging to seven-course gourmet dinners presented on fine china.

Food tastes different on a plane

Airline meal tray

6. Your senses get a bit confused

Flying in cramped cabins at high altitude changes your sense of taste and smell. The dry air and pressure change makes food taste less salty and sweet and blocks and dries out your nose, making your meal less smelly and therefore less tasty.

7. Taste buds in your ears?

OK, not quite, but weirdly your ears seem to play a part too. Studies have found that people eating to the backdrop of constant loud noise find food to be less salty and sweet and more crunchy.

8. The science behind making airplane food taste like real food

Fortunately, airlines these days claim to have developed menus that take into account the peculiarities of dining at 30,000 feet, opting for tomato-based dishes that seem to intensify in taste up in the air.

9. Cooking in the sky isn't easy

The meals have to be able to withstand cooking, cooling and reheating and still be tasty and fit for human consumption, so a lot of time and money goes into getting this right.

10. If in doubt, ask a celeb

One thing airlines have done to shake off the image problem of cabin food is get celebrity and Michelin-starred chefs to sort out their menu. Back in 2012, British Airways tasked Heston Blumenthal with creating an in-flight menu for the London Olympics, and more recently Tom Kerridge curated a gourmet range for their short-haul flights.

Airplane food on low-cost airlines

11. In-flight meals on budget airlines

Short-haul European budget carriers, like easyJet and Ryanair don't provide any free food or drinks.

12. Our advice

Once you've passed security, stock up on snacks from the restaurants and shops in departures. You could even bring food from home as long as you take note of baggage restrictions. Either way, they're much better value than the in-flight menu.

13. Up in the air

If you do purchase from the airline menu during your flight you can pay in sterling or euros, which is good for getting rid of loose holiday change. Prepare to pay up to €3 for a cup of tea and €10 for a meal deal consisting of a sandwich, water or hot drink and a packet of crisps with Ryanair (from their 2023 menu).

14. Our guide to flying budget

Find out more about what you can expect with our guide to flying budget airlines.

In it for the long haul

15. Meals on mid-range long-haul flights

The good news is that mid-range airlines like TUI provide free meals on their long-haul flights.

16. Top-end airline providers with in-flight meals

Airlines like British Airways, Virgin Atlantic and Singapore Airlines usually provide at least one hot meal, snacks and drinks included in the price of your ticket on a long-haul flight. They usually provide free snacks, tea and coffee on most short-haul flights too.

17. Time to eat!

The time of your flight will dictate whether you're offered breakfast, lunch or dinner. Note that domestic flights with some US airlines can be particularly light on complimentary food and drink.

What's on the menu?

First-class airline meal

18. Economy airline meals

The classic airline meal consists of meat or fish, vegetables or salad, a bread roll and a pudding neatly packaged and positioned on a plastic tray. Today, those in economy seats on longer full-service flights can expect exactly this, with modest complimentary snacks and drinks suited to the time of day and length of flight.

19. Is there an in-flight meal upgrade?

Some airlines do offer the option to upgrade your meal online in advance. For example, with British Airways you'll receive a free standard meal on an economy flight, but you can also order and pay for a more tempting dish from a larger menu from between 30 days and 24 hours before your flight.

20. Airline food for high flyers

Move up to the next level of airline seating, often premium economy, and you're more likely to find menus designed by big name chefs, three-course meals, and drinks included in the cost of your flight with a full-service carrier.

21. Meals in business class

Business seats provide quality seasonal dishes designed by leading chefs with wines to complement the food. You'll sometimes have a choice of lighter cold meals and snacks, as well as full bar service as part of the deal. Cheers!

22. First-class aeroplane food

The first class treatment means indulgent meals and lighter bites designed by top chefs and the complete fine dining experience with bar service included in the ticket price.

23. It's the little touches

First and business class passengers get to use full-size salt and pepper shakers (rather than those silly little sachets), proper crockery, real cutlery and hot towels. Many airlines have returned to metal cutlery in the higher echelons of air travel, after removing it for a time following the September 11 attacks.

24. What about in economy?

The rest of us will have to make do with plastic cutlery, sachets, paper napkins and wet wipes if you're lucky.

25. Is alcohol served on airlines?

Most airlines offer alcoholic drinks on their journeys. Whether you have to pay for them on the likes of Ryanair and easyJet, or they're complimentary with your first-class ticket or offered on your long-haul business flight, many services will keep you topped up.

26. Which airlines don't serve alcohol?

If you're partial to a mid-air tipple then it's worth noting that the following airlines all operate a strict no-alcohol policy during flights and don't serve any booze:

  • Air Arabia
  • Eygptair
  • Iran Air
  • Iraqi Airways
  • Kuwait Airways
  • Pakistan International Airlines
  • Royal Brunei Airways
  • Saudia

27. Can I bring my own alcohol on a plane?

You're more than welcome to take advantage and stock up in duty free, but it's generally accepted that you can't bring your own alcohol on board and drink it. There are whispers that an airline not offering alcohol may let you drink your own at their discretion if they serve it to you.

Dietary requirements and restrictions

Airline meal for children

28. Do airlines offer food alternatives for special diets?

Today more than ever, we're conscious about the food we eat, be it for health, religious or personal reasons. Airlines recognise this and most cater for allergies, intolerances, religious beliefs, medical issues, vegetarian and vegan diets and the fussiest of all travellers – children.

Alternative meals usually have to be ordered online before your flight. Check with your airline for their specific offering for passengers with special dietary requirements.

29. Top tip about dietary requirements

Most airlines serve special meals first – ordering ahead of time will get you fed quicker, which is especially convenient for those travelling with children.

30. Speaking of travelling with children...

Airline meals for babies are rarely provided so you'll need to pack your own baby food, milk and equipment in your hand luggage, following current baggage guidelines.

31. What about sterilising bottles?

Airlines can't sterilise bottles for you. Some may heat up your baby's milk in hot water if necessary but check with your airline before you travel so you can be prepared.

32. Halal in-flight meals

If you're flying on an airline from an Islamic country, the aeroplane food will usually be halal, meaning that it's free from pork and alcohol and made using ritually slaughtered animals.

33. Kosher in-flight meals

The same goes for kosher in-flight meals on the Israeli airline El Al.

34. And finally, who does the world's best airline food?

According to chef and food blogger Dennis Littley, airlines consistently serving up the best in-flight meals across economy and first class include:

  • ANA (All Nippon Airways)
  • Cathay Pacific
  • Emirates
  • Etihad Airways
  • EVA Air
  • Lufthansa
  • Qantas
  • Qatar Airways
  • Singapore Airlines
  • Turkish Airlines