Eating airplane food can feel unavoidable. We are on long flights, sometimes encompassing entire days — and eventually, we have to eat. But is the food we are offered anything we actually want to put in our bodies?
Yes and no. Airlines increasingly market their on-board food offerings with menus designed by celebrity chefs — which sounds fancy and appetizing. But if you're still skeptical about what's on your coach-class tray table... well, you're right to be.
Here are nine things you didn't know — and maybe didn't want to know — about standard airline food.
1. Food is made to adapt to your dulled senses in flight.
The meal you are eating inflight would probably actually taste very different on land. "In cruise flight, your sense of smell and therefore your sense of taste will also be slightly dulled due to the higher altitude and lower humidity in the cabin. The chefs do a pretty good job of working around this," says Eddie Jorge, who logged three years of flight attendant experience before becoming a pilot.
2. Beware the water.
"What I will definitely recommend staying away from is water that has been in contact with the aircraft's water storage tanks. Those tanks are very difficult and costly to access and can usually only be cleaned with chemicals. There is periodic testing of the tanks performed and whenever E. coli or some other serious pathogen is detected, maintenance personnel are required to deactivate the associated water system," says Jorge. "That may mean that there's no coffee or tea available onboard that day, and that water isn't running in the lavatory to wash your hands. Airlines only use bottled water for passenger and crew consumption and you usually see it poured right in front of you when they have the cart in the aisle. Older long-haul aircraft may have a water spigot built into some cabin walls, however because this water comes from the tank I wouldn't risk drinking it even if water is available from it."
3. No food is actually cooked on board.
"Food is prepared in airport kitchens that are elsewhere on the airfield at major airports and then trucked over and loaded into the aircraft galley by the trucks on stilts that you see pulled up to the other doors on an aircraft," says Jorge. If you're concerned about the cleanliness of the kitchen, just know that they're subject to the same health inspections that any restaurant would be accountable to.
4. Timing is everything.
Because it's not practical to have kitchens at every airport, most airlines cater for a round-trip (out-and-back from the hub airport) or "through" flight (say, from NYC through Columbus, Ohio to Chicago). "When you leave New York, you normally have a freshly prepared, within the last few hours, meal at your seat, while the second flight's crew is serving you food that has ridden along from New York on your flight between Columbus and Chicago," says Jorge. Catering for multiple flights is common and as long as food that needs refrigeration stays chilled, it isn't a problem.
5. Cold food is pre-prepared just the same as hot food.Cold-served food such as salads, cheesecakes, and sandwiches are always pre-plated and wrapped in clear plastic wrap when they leave the airport kitchen. They're left in galley carts where integral galley chillers circulate cold air throughout the cart via the cart's vents. "Dry ice is also usually used to help keep food and beer and white wines cold. Hot dishes are either pre-plated and sealed with foil or combined in tins of say, four or six steaks to each. They're heated in convection ovens which most airliners have. You won't usually find ovens on regional jets due to space considerations, so you'll likely see mostly cold meals served," says Jorge.
6. There are literally no substitutions.
This isn't a steakhouse, or even Burger King. So no, you can't have it your way... or even customized at all. "Again, food isn't actually cooked onboard — it's just reheated, so you won't be able to ask for your steak rare," Jorge says.
7. Flight attendants aren't cooks.
Flight attendants simply don't have the time inflight for anything but set-it-and-forget-it meal prep. Most good flight attendants set the ovens to start heating right after take-off since [heat] times are almost universally 20 to 25 minutes. "By the time they bring you your first drink with warm nuts [in upper-class cabins] and lay out table linens, it's usually time to pull the meals out and set the tray for delivery. Hopefully the flight attendants didn't forget to throw the bread rolls in during the last 10 minutes of the cycle so that your butter can melt right in!" says Jorge.
He adds that cooking skills are irrelevant to the job, even though flight attendants serve food. "I can barely manage to cook chicken at home without it becoming bone dry or burned. If my former flight attendant job depended on adequately cooking meals for dozens of people, I'd have been fired at the start as would many others," Jorge says.
8. You often have to take what you can get.
"There are only ever usually two meal choices that are loaded at a 50/50 or 60/40 ratio depending on estimated appeal (chicken of beef, beef or pasta, sandwich or salad, et cetera)," says Jorge. So if your top choice is out — it's simply not on the plane.
9. Drink booze with caution.
The low humidity inflight will dehydrate you faster than normal. "It's recommended to drink a glass of water for each hour of flight. Alcohol also has a greater effect aloft since the lower pressure in the cabin means there's less oxygen in the air. People can become affected by hypoxia more easily inflight, so flight attendants are required to monitor the crowd and cut people off from liquor if they become belligerent or seem to be going downhill fast in terms of responsiveness," says Jorge.
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