8 Tips and Tricks for Making the Most of Your Meal on the Plane

May 6, 2016

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After logging nearly 200,000 flight miles last year, TPG Contributor Amber Gibson, who also writes about food for Saveur, Plate, Departures, Hemispheres and American Way, shares some of her tips for navigating the treacherous world of airline food. Follow her adventures on Instagram. (All photos by the author).

1. BYO Tea Bag

If you are a tea drinker, always have a couple of tea sachets from your favorite brand on hand and just ask for hot water. The tea they serve on airlines is atrocious and there never seems to be a good selection, but at least they can usually get the hot water part right. Tea bags weigh next to nothing (a mere two grams!) and won’t get confiscated when you go through security. They don’t go bad either —the flavor just decreases over time — so even if you forget that it’s in your carry-on for months, you’ll get a pleasant surprise when you do rediscover your favorite tea. Mine is Rishi by the way.

2. Order the Hindu Vegetarian Meal in United Airlines Economy 

A Hindu vegetarian dinner on a United Airlines flight from Chicago to London in June 2015.
A Hindu vegetarian dinner on a United Airlines flight from Chicago to London in June 2015.

On international flights that are long enough, United Airlines serves all passengers a hot meal, but the selections can be unappetizing at best. If you view your reservation online, you can request one of nine special meals up to 24 hours before departure. In the last couple of years, I’ve requested everything from gluten-free and vegan meals to Muslim and Kosher meals in the search for a lesser evil. For my taste, Hindu vegetarian meals are the best choice, mostly because chana masala, aloo gobi and mattar paneer have an inherently mushy consistency that stands up to reheating. The airline versions aren’t as tasty as your favorite Indian takeout place, but they tone down the spice, too, so the meal isn’t so pungent that you’re sweating spices from your pores and your neighbors give you dirty looks — at least I haven’t received any yet.

3. Order a Special Meal to be Served First

Even if Indian food isn’t your thing, if you request any kind of special meal, you’ll be served before anyone else in the economy cabin since flight attendants prepare and deliver all the special meals before continuing with regular meal service. It’s a good choice if you fear you’ll be starving and sitting at the very back of the plane. You know they won’t run out of the option you’re after by the time they get to you, plus these meals are made in smaller quantities and tend to be fresher.

4. The “Champagne” Might be a Sham

One of the nicest perks of flying in a premium cabin is the unlimited free bubbly starting from before you even take off. On many domestic carriers, flight attendants offer Champagne, water or orange juice already poured in small glasses as you’re settling in. While plenty of airlines do serve great Champagne, especially on international flights, I’ve caught both American Airlines and United Airlines passing off cheap Prosecco instead. Not that there’s anything wrong with Prosecco, but Champagne must be made in the Champagne region of France. Don’t be afraid to ask to see the bottle or politely inquire if it’s Champagne, Prosecco or a domestic sparkling wine if you’re suspicious.

5. On Cathay Pacific, Stay Awake for Coffee Service

A slice of sacher torte with a trio of chocolate bonbons — hazelnut, sesame and raspberry — in Cathay Pacific business class.
A slice of Sachertorte chocolate cake with a trio of chocolate bonbons — hazelnut, sesame and raspberry — in Cathay Pacific business class.

If you’re flying in business class or first class on Cathay Pacific, don’t lay your chair flat and go to sleep immediately after dinner. Even if you don’t drink coffee, it’s worth waiting for coffee service if you like chocolate. Along with coffee and tea, Cathay Pacific offers premium cabin passengers a selection of custom-made chocolate bonbons produced by a local company in Hong Kong that are wicked good. On a recent flight from Hong Kong to Chicago, I had a choice of hazelnut, sesame praline, raspberry and salted caramel — you guessed it, I tried one of each.

6. BYO Nut Butter

If peanut butter is a comfort food, bring a single-serve packet of nut butter with you for a long flight when you think the meal served will be questionable. If the options (chicken or pasta?) don’t sound too appetizing but you’re hungry and don’t want to pay for food, you can at least take whatever warm bread they have — they’ll almost always offer seconds, too — and add nut butter. There are so many kinds available today, from cashew, almond, pecan and walnut to regular peanut butter — Justin’s squeeze packs are my favorite. The ratio of protein and healthy fats is good for keeping you sated without feeling bloated. Even in a worst-case scenario with inedible bread, you can always eat the nut butter straight from the packet. Guilty as charged.

7. Don’t Order Seafood 

Prawns, salmon tartare and eggplant dolma on Turkish Airlines, one of the only airlines where I'll consume seafood.
Prawns, salmon tartare and eggplant dolma on Turkish Airlines, one of the only airlines where I’ll consume seafood.

Unless you are flying first class on a top-notch airline known for good food, I would stay away from seafood as it tends to be dodgy at best. Based on my experience and from speaking with many friends and colleagues about the matter, we all agree that this is your best bet for getting sick. And a tiny airplane bathroom on a long-haul international flight is definitely not the place to go through that.

8. Bring a Gift for the Flight Attendant 

Pick up a cool souvenir from your travels, or maybe a box of chocolates from the duty-free store to give to your flight attendant. If you can befriend a crew member, there’s a small chance that you may be able to get food from business or first class even if you’re stuck sitting in economy. There’s almost always extra food on board and while it’s not technically allowed, there have been a few times where this has worked for me. There are no guarantees, but it never hurts to try.

Bottom Line

With a little preparation and imagination, you too can have a decent meal on the plane, whether you’re flying in first, business or economy. If all else fails, stick to these guidelines and hope for the best!

What’s your best trick for enhancing plane food when you travel? Share your tips with us, below.

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