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May 19, 2014 07:58 AM

Why Airplane Food is so Bad

This article has an interesting breakdown on airplane food, and what happens to taste/smell in the air.

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  1. That article doesn't say the food tastes bad, just that a lot of flavor is lost so they went to sauces. This is a situation where food is fuel and I wish people would lower their expectations.

    27 Replies
    1. re: c oliver

      I posted the article title - but I think the more accurate title is why the food tastes bad (i.e. how our taste buds work in that situation).

      Personally, I'm in agreement with you. Any international flight I've ever been on had fed me enough where I've never been hungry (and in some cases during the 'overnight' portion of the flight extra snacks were made available if anyone wanted).

      1. re: c oliver

        Well...Someone better teach Varig Airlines about sauce making and what goes with what. My flight from Miami to Manaus a few years ago featured a hyper-baked, practically mummified chicken breast in beef gravy.
        I think it ranks as my worst ever. I can't adjust my expectations much lower than that.

        1. re: c oliver

          This is a situation where food is fuel and I wish people would lower their expectations

          That's not exactly right. For the most part, airlines provide food -- esp. free food -- less as a means to fuel the body, and more as a means of distraction for the passenger -- i.e., as a way to pass time for long haul flights.

          As an aside, a flight attendant once confided in me that all coffee served on an airplane is decaf. Even if the little pouches of preground coffee beans are labeled "regular" and "decaffeinated" -- both are still decaf.

          1. re: ipsedixit

            I'm talking about from the passenger's standpoint. It's fuel.

            1. re: c oliver

              What passenger needs fuel for a 6-hour flight while sitting on her ass 99% of that time?

              Does getting up and going to the lavatory burn so many calories that without an additional reheated plate of salisbury steak masquerading as "steak" the passenger will faint of calorie deprivation?

              Or without fuel during those 6 hours the passenger will be so weak as to be unable to remove their belongings from the overhead compartment?

              Fuel? The plane needs fuel.

              The passengers need something to pass their time. Moving their hands and mindlessly eating food a mere hour into the flight constitutes the "national past time" for airline passengers.

              1. re: ipsedixit

                for me, it's as much mental as anything (although with some of the odd flight times, yeah, I've been pretty hungry when the mystery dish arrived)

                Eating as you take off = mentally, that's dinner. Watch a little tv or a movie, doze off.

                Wake up, have a lousy cup of body-temperature substance, visit the loo and wash my face = it's morning.

                It's like changing your watch when you take off -- it's purely faking yourself out, and you know it as you're doing it....but it works, and I'm not going to screw with what works.

                1. re: ipsedixit

                  I'm talking about ten to twelve hour flights. Those "baby" flights I could do standing on my head.

                  1. re: ipsedixit

                    You realize it's not healthy to go 6 hours between meals? Not everyone is 100% super healthy like you.

                    1. re: smoledman

                      Really? I usually eat lunch around noon and dinner between 730 and 8. What's the problem with that please?

                      1. re: c oliver

                        Some of us have to eat every two hours (like an infant) or we get cranky!

                      2. re: smoledman

                        You realize it's not healthy to go 6 hours between meals?

                        So I should get up at around 4 am to grab a bite to eat and then go back to bed? Or just forgo the recommended 7-8 hours of shut eye?

                        Choices choices.

                        Sir Hobson where are you?

                        1. re: ipsedixit

                          well which is it? sleep or food? why don't we just toddle over to and we can share ideas about pillows and thread count there. (smirk)

                      3. re: ipsedixit

                        The problem is that it isn't just a 6 hour flight. It's 2 hours security + travel to airport on each end. Sometimes it can be 10 hours of airport and airplane time, excluding travel to the airport. And a 6 hour flight could be connecting from a longer flight. If you don't have a lot of turn around time in the airport your only option might be to eat on the plane.

                        1. re: PotatoPuff

                          Skip a meal.

                          Most people (not you necessarily) could use to skip a meal every once in a while.

                          1. re: PotatoPuff

                            The food isn't going to make you sick. The food isn't going to make you gag. The food is generally boring and overcooked. It's one meal out of your life. I rarely remember ANY 'meh' meal 24 hours later.

                            1. re: c oliver

                              Hey, I hear ya.

                              I actually think airline food is just fine -- esp. given the constraints flight attendants have to deal with to prepare, "cook," and serve the food.

                              1. re: ipsedixit

                                As the Valley Girls say "TOTES" :) As I wrote here I recently (in the last year?) had something that I'd have served to guests. But I'm fine with chicken, gravy, a starch. Forget the vegetables and the salad. Save the cheese and dessert for if you're hungry later. I've never understood why transportation on an airplane is held to a different standard than, say, a bus or a train.

                                1. re: c oliver

                                  exactly -- and what's available on trains (even in France) is pretty dire.

                                  1. re: sunshine842

                                    My grandparents still remembered the old Pullman cars that served proper hot meals with real china and glasses and tablecloths. After WWII the standard of food on trains declined and, yep, people complained :)

                                    Those were the days, eh?

                                    1. re: Roland Parker

                                      I remember my first flight at age five on an American Airlines Lockheed Super Constellation. Trays had an "A.A." logo embroidered linen place mat, the shrimp cocktail was served in a clear glass sorbet cup with crushed ice, real china, real flatware with "A.A." logos on all. I don't remember the meal other than the shrimp but I'm sure it was on par with the rest of the presentation.*sigh*

                                  2. re: c oliver

                                    We pay a lot more for flight tickets than for bus tickets.

                                    The flights that still serve hot meals are the long haul, international flights, and those tickets aren't cheap. When you think about it, those meals are probably the most expensive meals most people will ever have ;)

                                    The tradition emerged to serve hot meals on flights and it's now a long established tradition. Chipping away at it is always going to cause controversy, which is what happens when something taken for granted is slowly removed. In the last decade or so we've gone from having hot meals on short haul flights to just free drinks to now no free meals or drinks. People remember things like that (although I'm also aware that flight ticket costs have also declined for domestic flights in the US, adjusting for inflation).

                                    While I'm indifferent to the lack of food on short haul flights, as someone who flies 14+ hour flights multiple times yearly I do pay attention to the food served. When you're strapped to a seat for hours on a cramped plane and thousands of feet up in the air, the food does have an impact on ensuring a happy cabin. That's one reason why so many people are willing to pay a premium to fly Emirates over the other airlines.

                            2. re: ipsedixit

                              i may be a corner case, but - while i hear you - i have to stay on a scheduled, dietitian-ordered meal plan. it's important for me to be fed at appropriate intervals.

                              i usually brown-bag it, though!

                              1. re: chartreauxx

                                So, again, we're talking international, right? I find the meals to be too large and put away parts of it for snacks later...which I then never have. But for you, wouldn't that work? Or if it's the content of those meals, then you need to bring it anyway, right?

                                1. re: c oliver

                                  it's not diabetes or anything like that; i'm in recovery from an eating disorder that nearly killed me. i was just countering the "who needs to eat a meal that often" thing. as i said, i usually brown bag just because i don't like restaurant food. :-) it's more about not missing meals and having a balanced meal. i'm just saying depending on the case, it can be helpful for me to have a meal on offer.

                        2. re: c oliver

                          with two exceptions:

                          a) airline coffee -- especially on transatlantics, it's watered-down, lukewarm sludge. If Southwest can manage drinkable (not great, but drinkable) coffee on a 2-hour flight, there's not much excuse as to how the long-hauls can serve that shit with a straight face. (And tea? You can't make tea with piss-warm water)

                          b) airline "croissants" -- steamed, limp, chewy little wads of some unidentifiable dough "warmed" in their plastic coffin.

                          Mostly, yeah, I skip the breakfast -- I have the oj, I eat the yogurt, and I hightail it to the first coffee bar I find when I clear customs.

                          1. re: sunshine842

                            On trans Pacific flights I get the Chinese breakfast - rice porridge, some fruit and piping hot oolong tea makes a much better breakfast that soggy scrambled eggs, and I find black tea does a better job of getting rid of dry sleep mouth than coffee.

                            I honestly don't mind airline food in general (although I haven't travelled a North American airline in years, so I can't comment there). No, it's not a fantastic meal, but it's edible, breaks up the monotony, and keeps me from getting hungry. I've definitely had worse meals on business trips than what I get on the plane. (Meals cooked and served at 9000 ft, trying to find a meal in a smallish Chilean city at 7 pm on a Sunday evening)

                            1. re: tastesgoodwhatisit

                              I'm with you -- other than the "coffee" and the "croissants", most of it's not too awful. Desserts tend to be sugar bombs, though, so I don't usually eat them - just too sweet.

                        3. I've had Pringles on a flight. I've had soft drinks. I've had granola bars. They all taste just the same as they do on the ground. The airline food though? Horrifying mush.

                          1. I've actually had really good airplane food, and I've had really bad airplane food.

                            Sort of like when I'm on the ground.

                            1 Reply
                            1. re: ipsedixit

                              Exactly. Some time in the last year I had something (don't remember now) that I thought "sheesh, I'd serve that to guests." I almost always eat the "protein" components. Maybe not the vegs as they're guaranteed overdone, some cheese, leave the salad, put the dessert thingie away if I want a snack later. Gets me from point A to point B. I have no other expectation.

                              1. re: mwhitmore

                                Not always possible or practical, although I do always have a few snack bars/meal bars in my bag.
                                My last 4 flights were 14+ hours, plus the 2 hr pre-flight check in, plus the 1hr commute to the airport. So... packing food for 17 hours/2 or 3 meals, into my one 22" bag and the "personal item" bag (i.e. laptop tote), seemed impractical. Also, when arriving at the airport at 9pm, and not knowing until 11pm whether or not my flight would depart, none of the food outlets was open, except the coffee bar.

                                1. re: KarenDW

                                  Not to mention figuring out what will get through security, and the risk of having your lunch confiscated at customs half way through the trip. I do always pack a couple of soy joys and some nuts in the bottom of my bag for unexpected delays.

                                  The worst I do on a regular basis involves a short connector flight, followed by an 8 hour layover before a 12 hour flight. The last five hours (9pm - 2am) the food source is the coffee bar at the newspaper shop. The airline provides urns of coffee, tea, water and either ginger tea (winter) or iced tea (summer) for the last few hours before the flight.

                                  1. re: tastesgoodwhatisit

                                    well that sounds miserable. what sort of Itinerary requires 2+8+12? you must be more remote than I.

                                  2. re: KarenDW

                                    the US, I'd try to pick up some snacks at Trader Joe's or Whole Foods. Can't rely on US airports to get satisified.

                                    In Europe, a bunch of airports have supermarkets, which is good not only for snacks but also for souvenirs.

                                    East Asia, the region I might know best, is another story. Some Chinese airports have local produce -albeit unsurprisingly marked up- stalls. Longan from Guangzhou, anyone? Moreover, KL, Hong Kong and Singapore, among others, have places open 24 hours.


                                    1. re: BuildingMyBento


                                      Do you have recs for Hanoi via Taipei to LAX? TIA

                                      1. re: c oliver

                                        Does it have to be through TPE (Taipei)? Or are you looking to fly with a specific airline alliance? China Airlines is partners with Delta/SkyTeam, and Eva with United/Star Alliance. Neither Taiwanese airline offers anything terribly good- I've generally been served rice with "fish" and bok choy and carrots. I'm not a fan of standard airline fare from China/Taiwan - though you might not those staples - and always request a Hindu meal where possible.

                                        Regarding TPE, if you have enough time to pass through immigration for your layover, there is definitely a convenience store in the arrivals hall. Can't recall if there's one post-security.

                                        If you'd be willing to fly through NRT (Tokyo)/HKG, I know those airports better.

                                        1. re: BuildingMyBento

                                          We're booked on a tour for next year and will be flying EVA (glad to see that they're part of Star Alliance). We have about 2-1/2 hour layover in TPE which I dont consider time enough to have to go through security anywhere :) Thanks for your reply.

                                          1. re: c oliver

                                            if you're on EVA, they generally have an Asian meal option and that tends to be ok. Especially for breakfast, its a simple congee with some side dishes. Actually not a bad meal in the middle of a long flight. I'd also avoid the vegetarian options. My wife ordered those on our recent China Airlines flight and those were atrociously disgusting.

                                            TPE has pretty good food options where you can pick up any assortment of traditional Taiwanese fare, such as beef noodle soup. Is it the best Taiwan has to offer? No, but its more than passable.

                                            1. re: FattyDumplin

                                              Thanks for the advice. I think congee sounds just right.

                                              1. re: c oliver

                                                Enjoy your trip! And someday, be sure to find sometime to spend in Taiwan. The food scene in Taipei is ridiculously good for a wide range of cuisines and it's a fun place to boot.

                                                1. re: FattyDumplin

                                                  So much world and so little time. Thanks always.

                                2. it also depends on the airline. when I was flying TWA to Spain, it sorta sucked, and then due to terrorism (mid 1980's) the company switched us over to Air Iberia and wow it was better, still some douche across the aisle wanted to know his wine's pedigree as he was afraid he'd puke (dude, you're in economy and you're getting picky?) so to ease the load on the mostly Castilian speaking attendants even though the flight was only just half-full, I leaned across the aisle and offered 'just think of it as table wine and it's ok' that shut him up for a while and if memory serves somebody on the crew dropped off an extra port for me that flight. I knew the wine served and it wasn't a stellar wine, but not gargle.

                                  the point of it being food or drink service on a flight as diversion is right. if it manages to be good, so much the better and unexpected.