34 Things You Need To Know About In-Flight Meals
Cast your minds back to a time when complimentary food and drink on airplanes was free-flowing and plentiful. Nowadays, it's a bit more hit and miss.
Love them or hate them, you have to admit that in-flight meals are well and truly in a league of their own.
Our taste buds are becoming increasingly more sophisticated and we're a generation obsessed with sharing everything on social media, so the pressure is on airlines to serve up something more appetising and Instagram-friendly.
We're here to help you travel better and be prepared for your next trip. Read on to see what you can expect from your next in-flight meal, if you should skip your airplane food or stock up on snacks in an airport lounge.
The Low-down on Airline Food
1. Nearly 100 years of airline snacks
The first in-flight meals were 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 and something to be avoided at all costs. Fortunately, airline meals are prepared by specialist airline catering companies with strict guidelines governing the industry.
3. What you get in an airline meal
The old adage "you get what you pay for" generally rings true when it comes to aeroplane food, especially the budget carriers... The more money you pay and length of flight are good indicators for what to expect.
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
Expect small snacks in plastic packaging to seven-course gourmet dinners presented on fine china.
Food tastes different on a plane
6. Your senses get a bit confused
Flying at high altitude alters your sense of taste and smell.
7. Taste buds in your ears?
OK, not quite, but weirdly, your ears seem to play a part too. Recent studies have found that people eating to the backdrop of constant loud noise find food to be less sweet and less salty.
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 as their taste seems to intensify in the sky.
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
Yep, celebrities have all the answers! It's very common for airlines to consult celebrity and top-class chefs about their food.
- British Airways Heston Blumenthal
- Thomas Cook Airlines James Martin
- Air France A string of Michelin-starred chefs have helped perfect their business class menu
Airplane food on low-cost airlines
Gone are the days of free peanuts, booze and a full meal on every flight.
11. In-flight meals on budget airlines
Short-haul European budget carriers, like easyJet, Ryanair and Monarch do not provide any free airplane food or drinks.
12. Our advice
Once you've passed security, smuggle some snacks from the restaurants or shops in Departures.
You could even bring your own snacks from home so 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 purchase from the airline menus 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 £3.00 for a cup of tea and £10.00 for a meal deal consisting of a sandwich, water or hot drink and a packet of crisps with Ryanair (from their 2016 menu).
14. Our guide to flying budget
Find out more about what you can expect with our guide to flying budget airlines.
15. In-flight meals on long-haul flights only
The good news is that mid-range airlines such as Thomas Cook Airlines and Thomson Airways provide free meals on their long-haul flights only.
In it for the long-haul
16. Top-end airline providers with in-flight meals
Full-service 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.
You'll be pleased to know that they usually provide free snacks, tea and coffee on most short-haul flights too.
17. Time to eat!
It goes without saying that 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 airplane food and drink.
What's on the menu?
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 a longer full-service flight 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 airline meal online in advance.
For example, with British Airways you will 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
Moving up to the next level of airline seating, often premium economy, and you are 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. Let's get down to business...
Business seats provide quality seasonal dishes designed by leading chefs with wines to complement the food, sometimes a choice of lighter cold meals and snacks throughout, as well as full bar service as part of the deal.
22. First-class airplane 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
Just like real humans, first and business class passengers get to use:
- Full-sized salt and pepper shakers
- Proper crockery
- Real cutlery
- 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 make do with plastic cutlery, sachets of condiments, and a paper napkin or even wet wipe if you're lucky.
Aeroplane food for dietary requirements
25. 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 the following:
- Allergies in-flight meals for coeliacs
- Intolerances dairy free airline food
- Religious beliefs see halal and kosher below
- Medical issues low calorie/fat/salt or diabetic meals on the plane
- Individual preferences vegetarians and vegans
- Children the fussiest of all travellers
Alternative meals must be ordered online at least 48 hours before your flight. Check with your airline for their specific offering for passengers with special dietary requirements.
26. Top tip about special dietary requirements!
Most airlines serve special meals first order ahead of time will get you fed quicker, which is especially convenient for those travelling with children.
27. Speaking of travelling with children...
Airline meals for babies are rarely provided so you will need to pack your own baby food/milk and equipment in your hand luggage, following current baggage guidelines.
28. What about sterilising bottles?
Airlines are not able to sterilise bottles for you. Some may heat up your baby's milk in hot water if necessary but investigate with your airline before you travel so you can be prepared.
29. Halal in-flight meals
If you're flying on an airline from an Islamic country, the airplane food will usually be halal, meaning that is free from pork and alcohol and made using ritually slaughtered animals.
30. Kosher in-flight meals
The same goes for kosher in-flight meals on the Israeli airline El Al.
31. 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 or easyJet, or they're complimentary with your first class ticket or offered on your long-haul business flight, a lot of carriers will keep you topped up.
32. 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:
- Iran Air
- Kuwait Airways
- Rayani Air
- Royal Brunei Airlines
- Saudi Arabian Airlines
33. Can I bring my own alcohol on a plane?
Of course, you're more than welcome to take advantage and stock up in duty free however, it's generally accepted that you cannot 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.
34. The World's Best Airline Food
According to The Daily Meal, airlines consistently serving up the best airline meals across economy and first class include:
- Air France
- Austrian Airlines
- Cathay Pacific
- Qatar Airways
- Singapore Airlines
- Thai Airways
- Turkish Airlines
Have you had a memorable (or nightmare) experience with airline meals? Share your stories in the comments below!
If this post about airline meals facts was helpful, read more of our Before You Go articles. Also check out our travel blog for additional inspiration and travel tips to make the most of your holiday and travel better!