Food 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.
If 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.