The Definitive ABC of How to Eat an Airline Meal

I’m too young to remember the Golden Age of airline meals, although I have seen photographs from those halcyon times.  Pan Am flights, where the stewardesses actually cooked the food fresh on board the plane, and where the chef would wheel a side of roast beef to your seat and carve off as many slices as you desired.

pan am 707 meat carved

Things are a little different now.  However, I still find an airline meal a strangely thrilling experience.

It is such a bizarrely ritualistic event.  Like a holy communion, it is necessary to wait expectantly, as the food trolley slowly approaches along the airplane aisle.  Eternally unhurried.  The closer the trolley’s advance, the more distinctly audible is the repetitive chant, which is uttered with mindless devotion by the trolley’s attendant acolytes:

“Chicken or pasta?  Chicken or pasta?  Chicken or pasta?”

It is the kind of rallying war-cry, which might once have inflamed a berserker army into battle.  Now it is used as a pacifier for a nervous-flyer generation.

My meal before me––chair-front table pulled down; plastic cup of red wine safely installed in its holder; second, unopened, small bottle of red wine securely stowed in the string-mesh pocket meant for airline mags, safety info and sick bags, ready for later consumption––I am ready to begin.  Or am I?  Not quite.  To truly enjoy an airline meal, a modest plan of campaign is first required.

The key ingredient to success when enjoying an airline meal is tidiness.  Rush in too recklessly, and you are piloting a route to disaster.  A mis-forked creamy pasta twirl landing in the lap of the only change of clothes you have at your disposal for the next fourteen hours is a potential sartorial catastrophe.  Take your time.  Plan your strategy.  Navigate your path through the range of plastic-encased dishes and shrink-wrapped cutlery.

For what it’s worth, here’s my generic, one-shop, solve-all approach.

First, locate the cutlery.  It is most usually to be found sealed in a loose plastic wrapper along with a serviette (American flight?  Substitute: napkin).  Extricate this package and place it on your lap.  From now on, this is your ‘lap-station’.  Crucially now: only remove the items of cutlery from your ‘lap-station’ as you require them.  Start with the fork.  You can get a long way with a fork.  Plus, make use of your serviette/napkin.  Turbulent skies: even with the best laid plans, the potential for spillages is both ever-present and entirely unpredictable.

Take the courses in meticulous order.  Don’t be tempted to jump straight to the bread roll just because you are hungry.  The bread roll may look like the easy option, but don’t be fooled.  The bread roll requires the knife; it requires the butter; sometimes it may even require the cheese.  You have only just mastered the fork; you are not ready for the bread roll yet.

The salad starter has an accompanying vinaigrette sachet.  You can manage this.  Take your time.  Deep breath if necessary.  Remember to place the plastic lid of the salad starter beneath––and I mean directly beneath––the plastic salad dish.  Keep thinking tidy.  Apply this rule to all the other dishes.  Tear the top off the vinaigrette and squeeze its contents over the salad.  You are left with the empty sachet.  You are beginning to collect detritus at a rate of knots.  Don’t let this situation overwhelm you.  Tackle it before it becomes a problem.  Identify a ‘dirty place’: a small area of your airline meal tray in which to stow all your excess baggage.  Make sure that you allocate this area early in your meal, otherwise you run the risk of allowing overflowing refuse to inhibit the enjoyment of your repast.  Salad is easy.  Fork only.  You are ready to move on.

Now here a warning: the main dish of your airline meal is usually contained beneath a foil covering, which is both fiery hot and fiendishly difficult to remove.  Some perseverance, plus scolded fingers, will usually be required to circumnavigate this hurdle.  But don’t be disheartened: the reward will justify your efforts.  It is at this same time, that you will be pleased that you have pre-allocated your ‘dirty place’.  The foil lid of your main meal is usually the largest of the pieces of debris with which you will need to contend.  Fold it as many times as is necessary in order to fit the dimensions of your ‘dirty place’; never submit to the lazy urge to keep it whole and unfolded.  Be assured, laziness is the enemy of tidiness, and where airline meals are concerned, any short-cuts that you attempt to take will come back to bite you.

400 airline meal

“Chicken or pasta?”.  You’ve made your choice.  Chicken may need the knife; pasta most likely won’t.  But you are cooking on all cylinders now.  You are beginning to oscillate cutlery from your ‘lap-station’ to your tray without difficulty.  You are even ready for the bread roll.  You place the wrappers for your butter and your cheese neatly in your ‘dirty place’ almost on auto-pilot.  Pudding?  It’s a piece of cake.  Often quite literally.

The meal is almost complete.  But this is no time to get complacent.  There is still one hazard remaining.  And, arguably, it is the most perilous that you will face during the entire culinary experience: the plastic milk carton.

The attendant acolytes have just completed a second round of devotional chanting:

“Coffee or tea?  Coffee or tea?  Coffee or tea?”

The small, plastic milk carton remains the single, solitary item of condimentaria, which you are yet to open.  How hard can it be?  Let me tell you: frigging hard.

Frankly, there is no way that you are going to get this small container open without spilling some of its contents.  Your only choice is in which direction you decide to spill its contents.  Like a plaster over a scab, it is human nature to prolong the experience; you ease the cover back with careful precision, teasing one corner slowly.  Let me tell you, it doesn’t matter how carefully you attempt to complete this operation; at some point, normally when you least expect it, the white stuff is going to come out with a spurt.  Aim for the seat in front of you; aim for your neighbour beside you; just make sure that that beauty is not pointing directly at you when it is time for it to blow.

The acolytes are back––sans chanting; your tray is collected.  No prizes are awarded for tidiness, but I still believe that the acolytes privately acknowledge the merits of the experienced airline meal connoisseur over the tardy litterbug novices.  And, best of all, you’ve kept back your plastic cup.

That second small bottle of red wine is calling.

Best airline meal ever?  It was on a Lauda Air flight from Bangkok to Vienna.  A sympathetically Thai-themed meal: subtle, exotic flavours; good fresh ingredients; and Niki Lauda, himself, there to greet every passenger on disembarkation.  Class.

© E. C. Glendenny


Travel writer E. C. Glendenny gives a thumbs-up to airline meals.

E. C. Glendenny’s latest book of travel writing Easy Come, Easy Go is available on Amazon.

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