Everything You’ve Wanted to Know About Airplane Food

Last Update: September 28, 2022

Ah, yes, travel season. That time of year when everyone is frantically searching the Internet to find the cheapest flights to see their loved ones for the holidays. It’s a magical time, but it’s not always so cheerful getting where you need to go—especially on an airplane.

After hearing your Uber driver’s life story on the way to the airport, waiting in never-ending lines just to get through security, dodging children throwing tantrums, and finally getting to the podium to scan your ticket, you are golden. Except one thing—you forgot to grab a meal before the hours-long flight.

But the airplane has food, right? Wrong! Well, technically you’re right—but you probably don’t want to eat it.

Airplane food can be kind of a mystery with looming questions about where it was made, what ingredients are in it, and most importantly, how long ago it was prepared. These hard, fast truths about airplane food will probably have you packing snacks next time, and for good reason.

Salt and sugar packed meals

Airplane food has never been known for its, um, gourmet quality. But it’s not just because they hire inexperienced caterers. The issue is more to do with the cabin environment. Anytime you fly, cabin humidity drops by 10 to 15 percent. With less humidity and moisture in your passageways, taste and smell actually become dulled.

In fact, it’s estimated that the power of these senses actually decreases 20 to 25 percent in-flight, which is equivalent to having a bad cold. Airline catering companies are aware of this scientific information and how it hinders taste buds, so they fill up your meals with salt and sugar—and a lot of it—to help extract the flavors (as well as chemical ingredients to help hold its form). Not only do these seasonings not provide enough flavor, but too much salt and sugar is just bad for the body.

That’s why bringing your own pre-packed foods in a carry-on is a much better idea. It allows you to self regulate your intake of salt and sugar, and know exactly where your food is coming from, because, let’s be real, most of the time flight attendants don’t have a clue where your food is sourced and how it’s made.

So, how is airplane food prepared?

Not very well, according to Fritz Gross, director of culinary excellence at LSG Sky Chefs Asia Pacific, who says that “the fundamental formula of airline food is simple—cook, chill, reheat.” Generally, he says, chicken is cooked 12 hours prior to boarding the plane (and only done so 60 percent of the way), while steak is only cooked 30 percent of the way. Once cooked, meat gets blast-chilled in special fridges in a not-quite-frozen-but-not-edible state. The food then awaits transfer to the tarmac, and the final phase of cooking occurs onboard in mini ovens.

In this scenario, meals may be forced to sit in the ovens for too long and dry out, or they can be simmered and reheated over and over until they’re ready to be served. With all that heating, cooling, and reheating, any nutritional content is basically gone by the time your fork hits the plate. All you’re getting is processed, overcooked, over-salted food.

The FDA finds health code violations

Even more unsettling are the conclusions made about the safety of airplane food after an investigation by the ABC program “20/20.” They exposed that, in the past four years, researchers from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration discovered more than 1,500 health code violations by companies involved in catering for airlines. This exceeds the rate of problems the FDA found investigated in any other industry, according to Roy Costa, a food-industry consultant and former health inspector.

Problems areas were found mostly in the catering firms’ kitchens, which were often filled with dirty, moldy food, instances of cooks not washing their hands before preparing meals, and even sightings of bugs and rodents.

What’s your safest bet when traveling?

The best idea is to eat a good meal before your flight and pack your own snacks in a carry-on where you can easily access them (pack extra for those nearly day-long flights). And be sure to drink up and stay hydrated, which can make you feel fuller, longer.

Here are some ideas for how you can load up your bag. All of these tasty products are free of processed chemicals, artificial flavors, and GMOs, and most are completely organic. They’re also full of flavor, so your taste buds can still enjoy these bites 45,000 feet up in the air.

Go Raw Organic Sprouted Banana Bread Bites

These little banana bread squares are gluten-free, certified organic, non-GMO verified, and perfect for a plane. Not only are they a great compact size that you can pop in your mouth, but they’re made up of a medley of banana, coconut, and dates that are held together with sprouted flaxseed.

They are great to have during a morning flight as a breakfast bite, and they also pair well with a handful of dry roasted, salted cashews for a mix of sweet and savory flavors. Not to mention the combination of flaxseed and nuts will help keep you full during the flight.

The New Primal Turkey Jerky

Odds are you’ll need a dose of protein during that cross-country flight. Throw in a bag of this mouthwatering turkey jerky. With its resealable pouch, it’s easy to bring on-the-go—and it’s mess-free. Packed inside each bag is thinly-sliced, juicy turkey breast.

If you want to try other flavor combinations and different cuts of jerky, check out EPIC’s wide selection and bring a couple of options to snack on. Additionally, if you’re vegetarian or vegan and need a dose of protein, explore these Louisville Vegan Jerky Co. meat-free snacks that have great flavor and texture just like the real thing.

Vigilant Eats Superfood Cereal, Goji Cacao

This is a wholesome and hearty breakfast that’s easy to have on your flight—the spoon is included and all you have to do is add cold water. Certified organic, gluten-free, vegan, and non-GMO, this oat-based cereal includes raw goji berries, raw cacao nibs, and hemp powder. Is also has low glycemic, whole food sweeteners like coconut palm sugar, yacon powder, and maple powder. It’s like an energy bar, but more substantial, and kids love it, too!

Stretch Island All-Natural Summer Strawberry Fruit Strips

Get your daily recommended intake of fruit in one bar. These aren’t the typical snacks with artificial flavoring; instead, the fruit that goes into Stretch Island All-Natural Summer Strawberry Fruit Strips is real and pure. The result is a low-fat, cholesterol-free snack that can be enjoyed, and easily taken on the go.

Calbee Snapea Crisps Snacks

Calbee starts by mashing up non-GMO peas and then blends them with rice, salt, and a combination of canola, sunflower, and/or safflower oils before forming into the familiar peapod shape. They are then baked to crispy perfection for a savory, protein-rich treat that comes in a resealable bag. Pair them with some dried mango for a full range of flavor.

Mission Meats Original Graze Sticks, 12-Pack

Throw a couple of these bad boys into your bag and snack on without the guilt—they’re actually good for you! To make these tasty beef sticks, Mission Meats secures top quality grass-fed cattle, and processes the meat with no nitrates, nitrites, chemical impurities, or artificial colors of any kind. The result is a snack that people love to eat and can feel good about, too. Especially since it has seven grams of protein per stick and is completely gluten-free, as well as Paleo-friendly.

Newman’s Own High Protein Pretzels

One popular airline staple is pretzels. But do you know where those pretzels come from or how long they’ve been stored? Pass them up for these organic, high protein snacks guaranteed to fill you up. Not to mention, they’re vegan, kosher, and low in fat, allowing almost everyone to enjoy them.

Illustration credit: Karley Koenig

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Emily Murphy

Emily lived most of her life in Orange County before relocating to Chicago, followed by NYC. She recently made her way back to the West Coast and now lives in Los Angeles with her adorable cat, Charlie Murphy. Her background is in Copywriting & SEO for Fortune 500 companies, and also worked as an assistant editor and blogger for different brands in the fashion industry during her time in NYC. Aside from her love of writing and eye for style, Emily likes to travel, read anything Anthony Bourdain related, and go on spontaneous adventures.

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