Making The Best Of Airline Food

Making The Best Of Airline Food
AirlineFoodFood served on a plane is never going to win major culinary awards, but there are some strategies you can adopt to maximise the airline meal experience.

For the sake of this discussion, I’ll assume we’re all crammed together in economy. The food in the pointy end of the plane is much more varied and appealing, but the associated price tag means it’s still out of reach for most of us.

Do you need to eat at all?

On an international journey, eating meals helps pass the time, and for any destination further away than Auckland, will be a necessity for reasons of health. (Starving yourself for 24 hours will add a whole extra dimension to jet lag.)

However, on domestic flights, there’s no essential reason why you should have to eat a meal or snack just because it’s an option. If you’re flying when you’d normally be having a meal, eating can be a good time management trick. But if not, skipping the can of soft drink and the cupcake is something your waistline might thank you for later.

PCFoodTrainIf you’ve got your PC on board, not eating also dramatically expands the time you can use your machine. (I often balance my ultra-portable next to a snack, a trick you can also use on a train as the picture shows, but this doesn’t work with bigger models.)

Check if you get food at all

The growth of budget airlines means that it’s no longer safe to presume you’ll get free food on board in the first place. Fly Virgin Blue or Jetstar and you’ll have to pay for any food or drink you want—and at inflated prices that reflect the captive nature of the audience.

Overseas, this is even more common. Even allegedly “full service” airlines in America will frequently only offer soft drinks to passengers for free, with food available for a fee. You might be more than happy to trade off iffy food for a cheaper ticket—just make sure you know what you’re getting into. If you’re flying overseas with an unfamiliar airline, check its web site to find out what (if any) food service it offers.

Contemplate bringing your own

Under those circumstances, one obvious response is to pack your own food instead. This can be a sensible strategy, and there are plenty of ways to make that meal more appealing. For simple snacks and drinks, the price of bringing your own will almost certainly be lower than what you’ll pay on board (does your drink really need to be chilled?)

The main nuisance value in packing food is that it necessarily takes up space in your hand luggage and around your seat, which can be a nuisance if you’re aiming for minimum baggage or maximum comfort. Good manners also suggest that you should leave the tuna sandwich behind, while carrying carbonated soft drinks risks mess for you and the surrounding seats.

The pre-pack tactic can be trickier when you’re overseas. The biggest restriction is that in many countries, liquids bigger than 100ml are banned from going security, so you can’t pack advance drinks. You can generally take an empty bottle and fill it with drinking water airside, however.

Order in advance for faster service

On international flights (and longer domestic flights) you can specify special meal requests (such as vegetarian, diabetic, and so forth). One advantage of this approach is you’ll get your meals before anyone else—though you’ll have to wait for the main service before drinks become available. Note that special meal requests need to be lodged well in advance of the flight (do it when you book the ticket).

Seat yourself for maximum choice

Most long-haul flights will offer a choice of main courses. The further towards the front of the plane you’re sitting, the better the odds that both choices will still be available. (I favour sitting near the front in order to make a speedy exit at the other end anyway, though popular lore often suggests that the back section of the plane is safer if there’s a crash. Big if, it has to be said.)

Got your own on-board food wrangling strategies? Share them in the comments.

Lifehacker Australia editor Angus Kidman wishes that on-board snacks tended towards the savoury rather than the sweet. His Road Worrier column, looking at technology and organising tips for travellers, appears each week on Lifehacker.


  • Ha! Eat and enjoy is my tactic. Passes the time, makes you feel at one with the community, gives me something to practice my critical faculties on, stories to tell after the event, be amazed at what they can do with everyday items of food, allow reflection on what they are getting in first-class, practice organisational skills (the bread roll goes here, the wrapping peels off this way etc).

  • Some of AirAsia’s operations (they are a number of different airlines based in a variety of Asian countries) say you can’t bring your own food on board (how they would enforce this, I don’t know). They otherwise provide a fantastic service, and the food served on the planes is actually quite good (at least the vegeratian option is), and reasonably priced too, considering how ridiculously cheap the tickets are, but it’s a little gotcha all the same.

    On another note, I read recently that fasting/starving is a great way to re-set your body clock. So not eating on the plane may actually prevent jetlag. Though the conventional advice is to set your clock to your destination time as soon as you board the plane, and the eat, sleep, work as if you were at your destination. A little bit trickier to do if your flight leaves at 1am, and you get fed at around 2am (as happened on a recent flight from Melbourne to Malaysia).

  • My suggestion is to request vegetarian meals when booking your flights. I do this all the time, even though I am not strictly vegetarian. You get served your meal first, so it is guaranteed to be hot. And I’ve found that they often taste better than the mass-produced alternative meat dishes.

  • I thought you were going to offer tips like:

    – as soon as you get your food, find the butter portion and put it between your leg and the seat (so you’re sitting on it with your leg), give it a few minutes and you have smooth butter to spread rather than something at -5C that you can’t even get out of the container.

    – before ordering hot drinks (especially on long haul flights) check out the window for clouds (sometimes a sign of turbulence). It’s a good idea to skip the coffee instead of having to manage it when you get shaky through the clouds.

    – only peel the top off the cold drinks (water, OJ, etc) to minimise spillages that way as well.

    – learn how to open the cheese. There is a dead-simple way, and the other way means that you’ll never get it opened.

    – if you can stay awake on long haul overnight flights, the ice creams usually come out after the movie and lights-out. I had 2 Magnums and refused a third on my last red-eye Perth-Sydney.

    The list goes on …. :p

  • I’ve had no quarrels with airline food as of this year (travelled to england and back, and travelled to NZ and back). As for the food itself, I had semi-low expectations, but I appreciated how eatable it was.
    I flew British Airways to England, flew QANTAS back, food was still good, the timing not so great for one of the meals.

    For NZ, we flew Jetsar there, Emirates back, Jetstar served no food as expected, so a mere 4 hour starve (includes waiting time)

    Can’t think of anything else to say.

  • We’ve always found BA to be the best with infants. When travelling with both parents, they’ve always offered one parent their meal at the start of the run and the other parent theirs at the end. That way one parent can feed the infant on their lap leaving the other parent to enjoy their meal.

    It may not just be BA, but if you’re ever flying with young kids it’s worth asking whether the staff can stagger your meals. It makes all the difference on a long-haul flight.

  • I always find if you order your alcohol before, and a couple of drinks after, the meal; then a quick tipple between meals — the time/discomfort/turbulence/etc passes much more quickly.

    Sing/Silk/Malay/Emir/BA/NZ/KLM are all pretty good at keeping you well stocked, whilst Qantas and many of the smaller and budget carriers ensure that everything except the water will run out shortly after take off.

    Which brings me to my next point — on board water tanks are far from safe for drinking in the overwhelming majority of cases — wide studies show that Salmonella, Staphylococcus, E.Coli, and even Legionnaires and insect eggs commonly turn up in samples. It’s suggested to always use hand sanitiser after washing when travelling, and avoid ingesting the water at all costs — if you must drink it, make sure it’s boiled first.

    Remember that few people make the connection between their travel sickness and the source; however the good news is that water rarely finds it’s way to your in-flight meals — the only problem with those is the frequency and timing that’s always ill-considered.

    • This works for me. I don’t eat anything (drink water only) up to a few hours before the flight, pop a sleeping pill and wake up fresh as a daisy at the destination.

  • Stab the foil (fork/knife) on the hot bit of your meal to let some steam out before you peel it back to prevent burning your fingers.

    open yoghurt away from you (not towards your neighbour, either!

    nibble everything at the beginning of the meal so you know what flavour you want to finish off on- so many times the dessert is disappointing, or appearances are deceiving.

    Stick with non-carbonated drinks, less chance of upset tummy or painful gas.

    open all your utensils and fiddly wrapped food before you unpack the main meal.

    stash utensils you don’t need any more (fork) in the main meal dish, if you can fit it in.

  • oh, and also. Smile nicely and ask the staff for peanuts, some airlines no longer give these out to cattle class, but I’ve found that a nice smile and a hungry tummy pat is a sure way of getting sympathy and a few bags of nuts to nibble.

  • I have a couple of food allergies which makes in-flight meals a double pain. (No wheat & no dairy usually equals no luck) On domestic flights I request a fruit platter, which is actually quite tasty – and comes out ahead of everybody else’s meals.

    On international flights, Singapore Air is the best I’ve found for coping with my oh-so-picky eating. Im about to try qantas international for the first time is years, and have little faith. Needless to say my carry-on will be a mini-smorgasboard.

  • Not to forget the the airline food industry is an own industry & with an very own taste. The food is just made a special way that it’s tasty up there. Your home made sandwich will taste different than in your kitchen.
    For Travelers, By Travelers!

  • In fact, it’s best to steer clear of such salty snacks, along with sugary drinks like colas and also alcohol, which can all trigger headaches and upset energy levels. Try to drink a couple of small glasses of water every hour of your flight, be it still or sparkling, whichever suits your body best. Because other dehydrators include tea and coffee, I suggest carrying a stash of herbal teabags in your hand luggage and asking the cabin staff to provide you with cups of hot water to dunk them in.

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