Airplanes are picky eaters. Boeing jets tend to be carnivorous, but won't touch seafood. McDonnell Douglas manufactures vegan planes. And a Northrup Grumman won't even take jet fuel unless you first give it peas on a knife.
For simplicity's sake, most airlines these days resort to Purina Airplane Chow.
Having eaten way too many servings of airplane food, I can only conclude that the quality of food on airlines depends on which one you fly with. I'll now sum up my experiences with several different airlines (and I mean several). Keep in mind that first class will always kick economy class in food quality and service, but I don't think it's worth the extra money unless you fly under a corporate account.

Good Food

Decent Food Utter Junk Of course, food isn't all that is important. If you're in first class, expect three course meals with a wine list. Very nice. In coach, you get a tray shoved onto your lap with drinks coming afterwards. If the bread is cold, expect the rest of the food to utterly suck. Once, I got an uncooked chicken drumstick on Chinese Eastern. Yech.
A true cautionary tale about airplane food.

Picture our hero, a vegetarian, as he checks in with a French airline. Struggling with an unfamiliar language he lets the girl at the checkout desk know that he wants a vegetarian meal. He wonders vaguely why she asks him (in French) "Do you want vegetarian or vegetarian?". He feels a slight sense of unease but dismisses it as mere angst.

Cut to an airplane interior. Our hero's food has arrived. Everyone else seems to have some kind of meat and cheese sandwich. What does OH have? Close-up. He has a roll (unbuttered) and a tomato. Hmmm...

Cut to OH at his ancestral home studying his copy of Larousse (a French-English dictionary) looking hungry. He is examining the definitions of végétarien and végétalien. These words mean vegetarian and vegan. Suddenly our hero understands what the girl at the check out was asking...He is still hungry but a little wiser.

Serving a meal on an airplane has two purposes, one nutritional, one psychological. The nutritional purpose is fairly obvious - it's the psychological side I want to talk about.

Flying sucks. It's stressful for a lot of people (me included) and excruciatingly boring. It messes with ones sense of time, makes legs hurt and strains neck muscles from the whiplash incurred by looking for the drinks trolley.

In order to alleviate this, airplane food is specifically designed to take as much time to eat as possible. Everything in the meal comes individually (and diabolically) wrapped. A certain amount of high level thought is necessary to decide whether to eat the roll by itself, with the cheese or to dip it in the gravy. The tray it is served on is not quite big enough for one to eat comfortably, and is certainly not big enough to hold all the wrappers from the things to be eaten. The meal arrives in stages - first food, then drink, then coffee. It keeps you waiting for the next treat and keeps your mind off of your mortality. It's quite a good trick, really.

- - -

Zerotime says re Airplane food: Plus, there's that feeling you get three bites into the chicken cordon bleu: "is this food, or cunningly extruded plastic?" Personally, I like airplane food and I was trying to avoid the whole chicken vs. cardboard comparison, but I suppose figuring out your dinner's base materials, radioactive or not, could occupy a few extra seconds.

Apart from the standard food on most airplanes, you can usually order special meals as well. Most airlines will be able to supply some or all of the following.

Health-related

  • Bland meals for people with gastric problems such as ulcers, hiatus hernia, gastric reflux
  • Diabetic meals for Type I and II diabetics, or even individuals suffering from hypoglycaemia
  • Gluten-free meals for patients with gluten and wheat allergies, or coeliac disease
  • High-fibre meals for anyone who requires an increased dietary fibre intake
  • Low-calorie meals for people who need to restrict their energy intake or those who are slimming
  • Low-fat meals for slimmers or patients suffering from raised blood fat levels
  • Low-protein meals for patients with kidney problems
  • Low-sodium meals for individuals with hypertension or kidney problems, and anyone on a low-sodium diet
  • Lactose-free meals for patients with lactose or milk allergy
  • Purine-reduced meals for persons suffering from gout

Preference (eg religion) related

  • Asian vegetarian or vegan meals for Hindus and other individuals who do not eat meat, fish or flesh of any kind, or milk, dairy products and eggs
  • Lacto-ovo-vegetarian meals which exclude meat and fish, but still make use of eggs, milk and dairy products
  • Fruit meals for those individuals who prefer to only eat fruit
  • Kosher meals, which are prepared according to Jewish religious restrictions (and see comments below concerning Glatt Kosher)
  • Halal meals for Muslim passengers
  • Fish meals for passengers who eat only fish and no meat

Age related

  • Child meals
  • Baby meals

Who makes them

Most of these meals are made by the airline, and are therefore likely to be just as good or as bad as the regular airline food. Kosher food is almost always made by an external supplier, as the rules are so strict (the exception is on El Al, the Israeli national airline, where all food is Kosher). This may be the case with Halal food as well.

Of course, the airlines don't check that you're Jewish and religious when you order a Kosher meal. So if you know the airline you're flying on has bad food, try ordering a Kosher meal! The ones I've had out of London are pretty good, the ones out of the USA are variable.

Ordering them

Most airlines require 48 hours notice for special meals, although they can probably deal with things like vegetarian at check in. If you're flying first class, you should receive an appropriate special meal as well. Some airlines apparently won't give you an upgrade at check in if you've got a special meal.

Footnote

Don't try ordering a Kosher meal on Iranian or Syrian airlines!

SharQ asks what would you do instead? Order vegetarian? Well, firstly, most Jews won't be admitted to the likes of Syria, Iran, Saudi Arabia etc and most people won't be admitted if you have an Israel stamp in your passport. This is one of the reasons the UK passport office will allow for a person to have two passports! I suppose vegetarian or a fruit plate would be the best option.


DejaMorgana says On airplane food, don't forget you can also order glatt kosher. Maybe not on all airlines, but on many of them. Also, it might be worth noting that there are almost always a couple of extra kosher meals and vegetarian meals on the plane to serve people who have forgotten to order specially. Several times i've had an airline screw up my rabbit food order, but there has always been an extra one on hand. Oh, and since most Iranian and Syrian airlines will have halal food automatically, the kosher traveller is probably covered in all meaningful aspects of kashrut. Of course, i haven't kept kosher since 1984, so i may be overlooking something.

Glatt Kosher is "special Kosher" which some religious Jews keep to. El Al can certainly supply this, and some others may be able to. It's certainly the case that there are often extra vegetarian meals, hence you can often order one at check in or perhaps even on board (but they'll go round for those who have pre-ordered first). Kosher is less likely, I've been caught out once or twice when forgetting to pre-order them and they haven't had any.

The Kosher vs Halal debate is a long one. My opinion is this. For a religious Jew, starving to death, Halal is better than nothing, no doubt about that (and if Halal isn't available, if it's a matter of life and death, you can eat anything). For example, it's never been near pork or other pig products. On the other hand, Halal has no prohibition about mixing milk and meat - and according to the laws of Kashrut, having a piece of Kosher meat with a milk-based sauce is actually worse than having a piece of pork. So given that there is a 3rd option on board a plane - you can have vegetarian (which some very religious Jews wouldn't have either), or even a "fruit plate", this would be the best thing for a religious Jew on board a plane where no Kosher food is available.

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