Why Does American Airlines’ Food Have To Be So Unhealthy?

Filed Under: American

I remember when I first started flying American many moons ago, their catering was really good, significantly better than what Delta and United were serving. However, over the years that has changed. American’s catering has gotten worse, and it has gotten to the point where it’s generally worth skipping whenever possible, at least in domestic first class.

The good news is that earlier this year American made the single biggest improvement to their domestic catering that they’ve made in quite a while. Specifically, they now let you order special meals on any flight where a meal is served, including domestic first class flights. This is great news because Asian vegetarian meals are consistently quite good, even if just in domestic first class. Of equal importance is that they’re typically healthier.

Almost every time I’ve ordered one of these, a flight attendant or seatmate commented “that looks really good.”

But this brings me to another point about American’s catering that I can’t wrap my head around. This applies primarily to their domestic first class catering. For example, I have an upcoming roundtrip transcon in first class, and I just looked at the options to pre-order meals.

For the outbound lunch flight, here are the options:

Poblano Peppers
Stuffed with manchego, queso fresco, Monterey Jack and Cotija cheese with piquillo pepper sauce and cilantro rice

New School Niçoise Salad
With fingerling potatoes, asparagus, cherry tomatoes, hard boiled eggs and a side of chilled, grilled chicken

Meanwhile for the return breakfast flight, here are the two options:

Fresh Seasonal Fruit Plate
Fresh Seasonal Fruit Plate

Split Buttermilk Biscuit
Topped with scrambled eggs and chicken chorizo cream gravy

The salad and fruit plate sound healthy enough, though the part I can’t wrap my head around is how consistently unhealthy American’s hot meal options are on domestic flights.

Seriously, a stuffed pepper with queso fresco and several types of cheese? Keep in mind that in addition to this they’ll serve warm mixed nuts, a selection of bread, and ice cream for dessert. And on the return, a buttermilk biscuit with creamy gravy? Really?

Is American Airlines trying to give their passengers heart attacks? Now, you might say “well, if you don’t like it just order the fruit plate.” True, though those fruit plates are tiny, and we’re talking about a flight that is blocked at over six hours, meaning that realistically this is all you’ll be eating over an eight hour period. They should have a healthier, warm, filling option.

Look, I’m not saying American should be serving super healthy food, but at least serve a meal that has fewer than 2,000 calories (which I’d be willing to bet the above meals have, when all is said and done).

Fortunately I’ll avoid all of this by just ordering the Asian vegetarian meal.

However, as a general topic I’m curious how you guys feel about this. Do you like airlines serving “comfort food?” In this case warm nuts, then a stuffed pepper with cheese, more cheese, sauce, bread, and then ice cream? Do you want creamy gravy on a buttermilk biscuit for breakfast, and then a warm cookie before landing?

I’m guessing this largely comes down to their really low catering budget. Serving junk food is typically cheaper than serving higher quality food with protein.

If anyone is as disgusted by American’s domestic food as I am, don’t forget to order those Asian vegetarian meals, which are consistently quite good, filling and healthy (at least by comparison).

  1. You’ve already identified the reason. It’s the same reason they serve junky food in school cafeterias and prisons.

    It’s cheaper than serving healthy food.

  2. In general adding fats and sugars is the easiest (cheapest) way to add flavour. It’s also the least likely to get a ngeative reaction in terms of flavour (unlike spice). It might be easier to prepare in the galley?

    In truth I gave up on in flight food a while ago and tend to bring my own. Only one’s I’ve ever enjoyed are by Turkish, TAP long haul and Air India when I was younger.

  3. My problem with airline and airline lounge food in general (and AA is one of the worst) is why does it have to be so weird. Don’t get me wrong I don’t want a choice between hot dog and bologna. They can’t have something fairly normal like say a club sandwich and normal soup, or a chicken breast on normal rice? Instead we get couscous asian infused spring rolls on a bed of lima beans or something weird. The lounges are a bit better but instead of say chicken noodle soup or vegetable soup we get tortilla soup or whatever. Now I know all these things have fans. I might even agree that these are more interesting but as a regular business traveler I really need something straight forward. Traveling can be hard on your stomach in general. To add on weird foods is a recipe for problems in the long run. We know your “chef” is awesome and won some awards or something but can we just get some normal food once in awhile and make it a healthy if possible. United lounges seem a bit better than American lounges on this front in my opinion.

  4. As an adult in charge of feeding people who don’t get a say (kids), I’m constantly struggling when traveling. And airlines are not the only ones to blame, walk through airport concessions and you get an amazing pick between Cinnabon/pizza/hotdog/unrecognizable brown mush. While I look for green and red, all I ever get offered is yellow and brown. Or pay 17.95 for an ounce of fruit salad that is not going to last me 4-hour flight + embarking/disembarking/bag waiting. I understand that airlines are transport option, not a restaurant, but similar to all-inclusive – some thought should be given to what is “included”. Heck, even McDonald’s has something that sounds like a reasonable option, why not the airline? I don’t travel often, so having artery-cloggers is not going to blow my heart tomorrow, but why there is NO option?

  5. It’s simple. If you expect a bad inflight meal. Bring your own food, carry something out of the Flagship Lounge or make a concession stop. Billionaire Barbara Corcoran flies economy and bring her own gourmet meal. Problem solved !

  6. I find that Delta consistently has decent healthy options, especially out of Atlanta. Whether its baked oatmeal, spiced chicken and quinoa salad, or great breakfast sandwiches, they seem to provide filling yet moderately healthy options which I appreciate. Disappointing American cant provide something similar without having to pre-order.

  7. Contrary to popular opinion, eating healthy doesn’t have to be expensive; especially when you’re an airline mass-producing meals on a daily basis. You can do a lot with rice, beans, cheese, tomato sauce, and some veggies.

    I hate to bring up politics, but it is relevant to the discussion: I blame the flyover states. It would be nice if their transcon routes catered specifically to the coastal elites. (For the record, I’m a Republican from Pennsylvania).

  8. Rather than whine about the current offerings, which sound perfectly reasonable for a mainstream audience (at least in concept, if not execution), why not suggest alternatives? What “healthier, warm, filling option” would you like to see on a breakfast flight?

  9. I stopped eating on planes a while ago. I eat something healthy before boarding and do not bother to eat during the flight. That includes international business class n US airlines. Not worthy to be awake to eat and drink what they offer.

  10. That’s what reheats well while tasting okay to the majority of the population.

    You might as well ask yourself why there are thousands of restaurants that make good money serving dishes that are just as unhealthy. In fact, the vast majority of restaurant meals are going to be in the same calorie range, even seemingly ‘healthy’ options.

    For people who are eating healthy, there are lots of ways to eat healthy. Someone who’s keto is would object to the rice and the biscuit portions, not the cheese or gravy, while someone who’s low fat would agree with you that the cheese and gravy are the problems. They can’t cater to everyone when they have a choice of two dishes.

    If calories are your only objection, that’s super easy, just eat half of it, no one is making you eat the whole thing 🙂

  11. American cuisine is all about low-quality, highly-caloric food. Want good food? Move to France. 😉

  12. I had an absolutely nasty meal on AA in transcon first last week. My own fault for knowing their lobster roll was no good beforehand but I had to try it. It was like eating tuna fish paste with lobster flavor. Really disgusting stuff.

    What gets me is when you fly enough that you’ve had the meal options they’re offering already.

  13. Well, what would the majority of passengers possibly want? Especially on a US carrier?
    This, plus the price point probably answers the question.
    Personally I also prefer not so healthy food. Portions in economy are small anyway, so I want something that keeps me saturated for the next hours. I’d prefer not to get hangry on a long flight just to satisfy the Whole Foods hipsters. Staying hungry is worse than getting “too much / too heavy” food…

  14. This was a GREAT article! A lot of it resonated with me, really enjoyed it! Thanks and keep up the good work!

  15. Airplane food is unhealthy period. If they do offer a healthy option, then it’s perceived as a cutback.

    If you have seen how food is handled at large hotel for special events or buffets, imagine how food is handled at large catering kitchens. You wouldn’t eat that food.

    Those omelettes inflight? You think those caterers are cracking those eggs individually? They cut open a bag with eggs and they’re dumped into large vats. You would never touch an omelette again inflight.

  16. I would strongly prefer smaller portions and higher quality. It’s much more satisfying that way, and much healthier.

  17. Lucky, you have an American president who eats Big Macs and drinks diet cokes all day. So it should be no surprise that American Airlines serves similar crap to Americans who gobble it up.

  18. I was presented with these same breakfast options a few weeks ago when I attempted to pre-order my meal. I went with the kosher option instead, and it was delicious. A plain omelette with potatoes, a nice big bowl of fruit, and a cinnamon roll. It was far better than anything they were offering as a regular meal.

  19. I’d be happy with a plain, old club sandwich or a sliced chicken or ham sandwich instead of this faux fancy swill they pass around.

  20. I always decline breakfast on AA Transcons. They are “Cholesterol Specials” not to mention the salt content being extreme. As for the dinner offerings, I’m usually connecting so I eat a snack in the lounge and when the inflight meal arrives I avoid most of it and try to eat the more healthy elements. And I always pack a carryon snack just in case the meal is a total bust.

    More to the point, I hear more people complain that airline food is boring and bland and not filling rather than the opposite that it’s not healthy. Maybe the airlines are giving passengers what they want and we healthy eaters are the minority.

  21. I travel enough to hit mid-tier status, and it’s a real challenge to stay healthy when on the road. For those very frequent flyers, I can’t even imagine – between crappy lounge, airport, and airplane food plus typically limited time to hunt down an alternative – how you manage to eat with even a reasonable semblance of healthiness.

    Eating healthy while traveling could make a fascinating post topic and comment discussion, Lucky.

  22. @Tony: “Airplane food is unhealthy period. If they do offer a healthy option, then it’s perceived as a cutback.”

    That’s not true. I’ve consistently had good meals on Lufthansa’s intra-Europe flights in business class (and on some other airlines as well). They’re small but very tasty and filling. There’s really no reason why domestic carriers can’t do that, but with an eye towards American tastes instead. This really isn’t that difficult. For instance, a nice salad with greens, tomatoes, roasted peppers etc topped with grilled chicken strips (or shrimp, or even skirt steak or the like), a dinner roll on the side, and fresh fruit (and maybe a small cookie or chocolate) for dessert.

    This is NOT rocket science. The only reason for crappy fat-loaded meals is that they’re cheap and people will eat anything fatty.

  23. What someone thinks is healthy is subjective. An omelette with cheese sounds like the healthiest option possible.

    But ever leaving your own nutrition to the mercy of an airline catering crew is a bad choice.

    Bring your own. If you’re on a transpacific flight or something, pack extra food and pick selectivity from what the carrier offers.

  24. @DaninMCI – I couldn’t agree with you more. Delta leads the industry in totally bizarre meals, but AA is close behind. The carriers attempts to out do each other with their “celebrity” chefs has only lead to plethora of strange meals that few would likely ever order in a restaurant. All I ask is to be served recognizable food, and more of it.

  25. Why is healthy food in the US so expensive? It’s the complete opposite in most parts of the world.

  26. I am finding Delta is offering a much better and well rounded selection of meals now. Even on non trans-con flights. American has truly relegated their domestic first class meals to be basically coach meals (at best) of the past. The Asian salad is the most laughable. I find most to be barely edible. It’s reached the point that I now bring my own on board to avoid as airport options are getting better. Same with the Admirals Clubs. And again, at least Delta is doing a worthy job with lounge food now in contrast. Healthy would be a dream. Just edible at this point would be acceptable on American.

  27. Qantas international is worse. For any ‘regional’ flight, eg Hong Kong , Singapore, Bangkok to Sydney or Melbourne, departing after 1800, they only offer ‘supper service’ in J, ie grilled ham/cheese sandwich or tarted-up instant noodles. The expectation appears to be that people will eat in the lounge prior to the flight.
    I often skip full meals on planes but sometimes I want it, eg I’m connecting off another flight in Y or have arrived at the airport too late to use the lounge.

  28. Luck, why don’t you do a deep dive into airline catering? Like actually publish which airlines use which catering. There is an interesting series on Netflix where they show the commercial kitchen in Zurich that services Singapore Airlines. The logistics are actually very impressive. Really all the flight attendants are doing is heating up the food in the plane. It seems like this is a big blind spot on your blog considering how critical you are of the food. It’s like you’re blaming the waiter for the quality of the food instead of the actual chef. Or maybe it would pull back the curtain a little bit too far for you?

  29. @Lucky; you should try SAS short haul in Plus. They call it New Nordic, and they use locally farmed products that are ecological. It takes the form of cold salad with a sous vide cooked chicken or smoked salmon etc. Lot of pearl barley and couscous. They also a declaration of content, and a meal is usually around 300 kcal. I’m sure they have the healthiest food out there

  30. I’m with @Raj (March 19, 2018 at 12:14 pm) – “healthy” is in the eye of the beholder. I focus on insulin management so a stuffed poblano pepper (even with rice) is much more “healthier” to me than low fat, high starch meal.

  31. Having worked in airline catering for 20+ years I can give you the definitive answer to this question…. Customers always ask for healthier options during surveys but when it comes to ordering on the plane -they almost always go for comfort food.

    Over the years we have tried various combinations of offering healthy versus non-healthy food and the non-healthy sells out fastest every time. This has been true across about 3 dozen airlines with whom I have worked – from all over the globe.

  32. They can’t even get close to serving my medically prescribed ketogenic diet. So don’t get me started on it!

  33. The stuffed pepper and “New School” Niçoise salad seem fine to me as does the cheese omelet! Most customers would be more satisfied with a cheese omelet than with a veggie frittata.

  34. PREACH Lucky. I switched to United and my jaw nearly dropped to the floor when I was offered a Salmon Salad in first class – meanwhile AA was serving lobster mac and cheese with a “filet” – keeping it simple is key and I am so confused why it doesn’t happen.

  35. @ADP Totally agree except in my case I want a low-carb meal. Essentially a big pile of greens with some tomatoes, maybe some beans and a little lean meat or fish followed by a modest portion of cheese.

    Generally I carry a bag of nuts with me an sumplement it with picking out the bits I choose to eat from the most promising choice.

  36. I agree 100% with David Farriss. Having worked for 3 airlines that was the bottom line. “We should say we want salads” but “we really dont want to eat rabbit food”.
    You are probably too young to remember this but back in the old days you could order special meals in Y on AA. That’s what started my lifelong love affair with Reuben sandwiches – AA used to serve the best.

  37. As ever a very good point. it seems to be American food per se.
    I’m British and went to California last year for a few days. The health food capital of the US, I had expected.
    No, glutenous stodgy crap, even at the expensive restaurants, with efforts at originality stretch to ‘how many version of chicken, turkey, ham and bacon can we put on one plate’.
    One restaurant had the calories listed for breakfast meals. The smallest was 1,500 – which is the amount an adult male should eat for a day. the rest were up to 3,000. No surprise about the obesity epidemic.

  38. I guess there will always be some disagreement on what constitutes a healthful meal.

    As a low-carb eater, an omelette with cheese is a healthful meal, but a croissant/bowl of fruit is to be avoided. I’ve tried the GF meals a few times on UA/AA but you usually end up getting more carbs such as GF bread and rice, and flavorless chicken.

    Personally, I wish airlines would take the Jetblue Mint approach and allow for a customizable meal where you can select your protein/sides/salad, etc.

  39. This is the same menu I had recently on the CLT-PHX and return flights. I can’t imagine anyone ordering these items in a restaurant. The highlight on the return flight was seeing the reaction of the lady sitting across the aisle from me as she was served her breakfast. It may be an exaggeration to say she was horrified but but she clearly was stunned and saddened. C’mon American Airlines! Serve something that people actually want to eat!

  40. How about burrito bowls? Rice, beans, and shredded lettuce, with the option of ground meat, cheese, and sour cream on the side. Cheap and filling. And you can make it as healthy or unhealthy as you like.

  41. Why? Are you surprised? You and your rest of Americans are seen as fat and unhealthy, doesn’t matter how much first class you have flown or how many countries you have been to… you will be seen as the same as that white grandpa from Alabama looking for McDonald’s in Paris and ordering in English.

  42. Honestly if they had those $4 wraps from Trader Joes id be as happy as one can be. Theyre delicious, healthy, and filling.

  43. I mean lobster thermidor isn’t exactly healthy but if AA served that I bet nobody would complain. had it on a 2 hour SQ flight, the grease made me feel so much shame.

  44. @Jeff Cline

    Have you been to the south? Biscuits and gravy is everywhere. And delicious, might I add.

    I found Delta One catering to be tasty and not too rich, but at the end of the day they’re catering to American tastes, and trying to do it cheaply. It’s the same reason conference sandwiches are always 2 slices of processed meat and cheese between half a loaf of bread. People who really care will find workarounds like you do.

  45. Yuk – that’s all I can say to the meal description being served. On many flights I will bring a homemade sandwich to eat instead. It’s better than getting sick or having stomach cramps.

  46. Katz’ Pastrami on rye with a pickle. Worth the calories? You bet !!

    800 calories

    Side of chopped liver? Why not – 216 additional calories.

    Healthy enough for me.

    Hold the cheesecake.

  47. I never eat in the plane, tiny healthy portions, cafeteria meals, never taste good. I always eat at the airport, now there are better healthier choices in almost all airports or I bring my own food if I know is a long flight, no more drama!.

  48. Complaint after complaint about AA domestic (rightly so), but yet refusal to actually change airlines or give someone else your business.

  49. This is premium airline (AA is not ULCC, right?)
    and their premium offering (First Class, right?)
    on their main market (American domestic, right?)
    discussed on premium-oriented blog (all those biz/first class reviews)

    … and yet, more than 80% of comments are “I bring/buy my own”.
    That is the answer if ever was one.
    And a sad commentary on how we all collectively gave up on “premium” label for domestic anything.

  50. the trick to all of this is be something you are not.for instance i order the kosher meals ite of being jewish and it is a lot better than standard meals,or a vegetarian.i even am lactose intolerant which is genuine and that often gets me a better meal than what the person next to me gets.

  51. Ditto, LAXJeff: I had an absolutely nasty meal on AA in transcon first last week. My own fault for knowing their lobster roll was no good beforehand but I had to try it. It was like eating tuna fish paste with lobster flavor. Really disgusting stuff.

    our @Lucky has also complained about the AA lobster roll.

  52. United seems to have been improving on this front as well – generally in the mornings they have an option for a large fruit plate and meusli which I quite like. And on later flights I actually enjoy (rare word for domestic first class catering) the lentil and polenta dish. Not sure on the calorie count but it feels much lighter than a meat dish and is simple.

  53. I think it is a first world problem, but not in an ironic sense. I often travel in Latin America, Asia and Africa – and I’m really pleased by what I get served (sometimes even in Y). Also Southern Europe is great. But both North America and Central Europe are mostly difficult, to say the least. North America’s calory and other health issue has been discussed by others.

    In Central Europe, it’s rather the opposite – which then also leads to health issues in a different way. E.g. on LX in J a full dinner (intra EU) usually includes one slice (12 grams) of cold cut plus a not so healthy desert. Period. Now obviously, 12 grams of meat are not enough for a full meal. “Fortunately”, in addition, you get an unlimited number of bread rolls, an unlimited number of chocolates and free flow of alcohol. So guess what happens?

  54. Actually I think that salad is the healthiest and tastiest thing AA is serving right now. I’m thrilled when i see it as a choice for my flight. But, personally, I’m excited by the changes AS is making to up their game in the meld with VA. I’ll be looking for more opportunities to fly Alaska. I can live without executive platinum.

    And @lucky, I scored one of the single seats for a trip on Jet Blue to Boston in June. I’m excited about trying that!

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