Do You Eat Domestic First Class Airplane Food?

Filed Under: Travel

As any road warrior can relate to, staying healthy while on the road can be a struggle. And unfortunately it only gets worse when you live on the road… or in the air, as the case may be. 😉

This post isn’t about eating healthy, but rather just about how I’ve personally reached a turning point with domestic airline food.

For all the time I’ve been involved in this hobby (about a decade), domestic airline food hasn’t exactly been gourmet. That being said, the quality has varied substantially over time and by carrier.

But no matter how bad first class food was domestically, in the past I’ve always found myself eating it. Why?

  • My inner six year old is still amazed by the miracle which is flight, and in a really weird way there’s something exciting about eating in the sky. You’re in an airplane, flying 500 miles per hour, six miles above the earth’s surface… and you’re eating food. It’s not really different than how showering in the air is exponentially more exciting than showering on the ground.
  • Eating is a way to pass time. This is less of an issue nowadays with wifi and more ways to stay entertained. But as exciting as flying is, it can also be a bit boring, and having a 1-2 hour meal service is a nice time to pass time.
  • There’s something special about airline food. Yes, sometimes it’s especially bad, but there’s still something sort of exciting about being fed hot nuts and freshly baked cookies. Like, where else do you get that?

But in a very backhanded way, American has done me a favor. American’s domestic first class catering has become so bad that I’ve just stopped eating it. And frankly I feel so much better thanks to it.

For example, yesterday I flew from Orange County to Dallas to Tampa. The first flight was a lunch flight, while the second flight was a dinner flight. That’s two sets of nuts, two sets of salads, two sets of bread rolls, two sets of cheesy pasta or horribly processed meat, and two sets of chocolate chip cookies.

I don’t even want to think about how many calories each meal has, let alone two. Which I might be willing to selectively ignore if the food actually tasted decent… but it doesn’t.


Yes, I had some nuts and a Diet Coke on the first flight, but that was it. Then I had an actually edible meal in the American Express Centurion Lounge in Dallas, and then I just had water to drink on my flight to Tampa. I felt so much better upon arriving in Tampa than I’d feel if I had eaten both meals.


Bottom line

To be clear, I’m not saying I’ll never eat another domestic airline meal again. But on a day like yesterday where I had two slightly over two hour flights, skipping meals on both flights was the right move.

I’ll probably still eat on flights that are longer and during meal windows, and regrettably will go with the pasta option (since the meat served domestically is just horrible).

But after over four million butt in seat miles, I think I’ve finally been cured of the “eating airplane food out of boredom” curse. And I owe it all to American!

What’s your strategy when it comes to domestic first class airline food? Do you eat it, skip it, or what goes into your decision making process?

  1. If you haven’t had the french toast in the SFO Centurion Lounge you’re missing out! It’s amazing. I may have had seconds. I wanted thirds but knew I would regret it. 😉

  2. It totally depends on the circumstances. I usually try to eat before or after the flight but sometimes it is not possible and I have to eat on the plane. I find the food very heavy and try to grab a salad or fruits if possible.

  3. The food is, indeed, penitentary level. Why can’t we simply have a Wolfgang Puck Express Salad or Sandwich? I know why: because American spends less than $3 per F pax and the above items would cost them $5. It’s amazing.

    I’m like you, Ben: I bring on food when I’m in domestic F and just order a drink.

  4. I’m indifferent. Sometimes yes, sometimes no. Having said that, it’s truly astounding what a huge deal people put on domestic F food – it is by far the most overblown issue in the entirety of the frequent flyer space. I’ve never seen so many presumably well educated adults fighting with each other tooth and nail about $5 meals (and I mean that in general, across a number of online spaces, over the years).

  5. To be frank there is little difference between domestic or international; while there is a small difference between economy and first or business (beside the presentation) they are likely processed food fill with preservatives and prepared in poor hygiene… I always dine before and after the flight. Eat a little, drink a little on the plane. There is no such thing as dining “experience” in a plane, period. Drinks are probably the most comparable thing u can consume on a plane

  6. First, the food in First on Delta is not nearly that gross. It’s usually tasty and served at the right temperature. But yeah, I wouldn’t eat two of those meals on a single day.

  7. I’d be interested in seeing data points on what pax where served when preselecteting meals such as gluten-free or vegan. I can’t imagine them tasting better but hopefully they would be healthier.

  8. The last (and only) domestic F trip I’ve done was on AA, and 3 of the 4 flights had meals served. The first one I skipped because I wasn’t hungry. The second two, I had the meals, and I thought they were decent. It wasn’t anything to write home about, but the taste was tolerable, and they kept me full. I really wasn’t expecting much else, and frankly, I think anyone who does is setting themselves up for disappointment.

  9. You’re flying the wrong airline.

    United and Delta beat American on food these days. I can count on something healthy if I want it on either. Don’t always want it.

    Amex lounge food is overrated though. Rarely changes up and it’s a buffet after all.

  10. I always try to get to the airport in time to eat before getting on the plane for domestic flights. If flying economy internationally, I do the same in hopes that I won’t feel the need to eat very much in the air because the food is horrible.

    The times I’ve gotten to the airport too late to grab something other than random fast food on my way to the gate are the only times I attempt to partake in the “food” they serve aboard and that’s only to keep my blood sugar up because I have issues with that.

  11. Anthony Bourdain put it quite well:

    “There’s almost never a good reason to eat on a plane. You’ll never feel better after airplane food than before it. I don’t understand people who will accept every single meal on a long flight. I’m convinced it’s about breaking up the boredom. You’re much better off avoiding it. Much better to show up in a new place and be hungry and eat at even a little street stall than arrive gassy and bloated, full, flatulent, hungover. So I just avoid airplane food. It’s in no way helpful”

  12. Also, the food on JetBlue Mint is delicious. Posting a link to some of my pictures usually gets my post flagged for removal, so I won’t do it. But yes, their Saxon and Parole catering is actually great. I also like that you pick 3 out of six choices and I’ve been happily offered more than 3 items by the crew if I’m still hungry. You should try them sometime. Also, the food I had on Virgin America First beats anything I’ve had domestically (and I’ve flown in F on DL/AA/United’s premium transcon products).

  13. I think their first error is in attempting to serve hot food, especially for breakfast or lunch – It just translates very poorly to a 737’s convection oven, and folks who are paying for a premium product basically get a school lunch.

    I’d be far happier with a decent sized salad or a good (read good, not what you have shown us before) deli sandwich. On domestic first I do not need mediocre food which is presented with flair far beyond its quality. What I want is something to keep me fed during ordinary meal times.

  14. @dd: I would probably agree with you if you are talking about the 3 big and cheap US airlines. Their food is disgusting no matter where you are sitting on the plane because they are cheap. They serve cheap wines and champagne but charge equal or more than other better airlines. On the other hand, I had very decent meals flying business or first on Cathay, Singapore, Air France. There is no way to compare quality and service between Delta, AA and United and the big Asian or ME airlines. That is why the big 3 hate these foreign airlines because they are a threat to their business.

  15. I also find that UA and DL have better food in First class. In my experience UA (on mainline flights that is) even a bit better than DL. For example I really like UA’s snack plate, with prosciutto, mozzarella balls, artichoke, asparagus and crackers. Have had good pastas and decent omelettes on UA. Soups and salads are hit-or-miss and I try to stay away from meaty stuff.
    DL is similar quality. Although I recently had the worst salad I’ve had in years on a Delta flight (with some avocado that had turned… yuck!)
    Internationally both are very decent.

  16. Why stop at domestic first class food? What about international business and first class? A lot of times the food is not that great either and if this is a restaurant I would not return to it :-).

  17. I’m new to the hobby, with the goal of earning EXP by this summer. I chuckled when I saw your pic of AA’s First Class Enchilada because that was one of the options served on my flight from DFW-DCA two weeks ago. Ah, the memories. It’s cool to eat a meal the first few flights in domestic First – the wonders of eating a meal 35,000 feet in the air – but now I’m wondering if they can serve me up a double portion of salad that’s not being consumed. Truth be told, now, I try to eat something substantial prior to a flight. Thanks!

  18. For domestic first, the clear winners for food service would be JetBlue and Virgin America. The food presentations looked and tasted great. This is followed by Delta and then United and American. There is something to be said about plating. The burrito in the picture shown tasted decent but did not look good at all.

  19. Does anyone else think that one of the reasons so many people eat airplane food is because they feel bad for turning down “free” food and/or don’t want it to go to waste?

  20. I know you probably don’t want to hear this but I rather like the Qantas economy offering. A generous portion of a more than edible salad and a reasonable little bottle of domestic Australian sparkling wine is pretty welcome when I make my frequent dinner time SYD-MEL return. Not bad for a 1hr35 min flight.

  21. Admittedly, I eat the food to pass the time. (More importantly, we’re waiting for you to weigh in on the departure of Zayn Malik from One Direction.) 😉

  22. @Lucky…I think it would be an interesting post if your wrote about this topic regarding international flights as well. I travel a lot domestic and internationally for business and many times just bring my own food. I am that guy who has the protein shakes and canned chicken/tuna…it definitely looks weird but it makes me feel much better throughout all the travel

  23. DL’s domestic F meals have been decent, some have actually been enjoyable. I learned a long time ago to chat up and be friendly with the stewardesses as soon as I set foot on the plane, whether I’m on a rev or no rev ticket and irregardless of how tired/cranky/whatever I might be feeling. When the meal service begins, I ask them what they’d recommend. They’ve not led me astray. I’ve had a couple of times where they recommended I don’t get one of the offered items or they’d say one dish looked good or otherwise. I’m not in the air anywhere near as much as they (or Ben) are, so I’ll trust their experience on it.

    Re: cost of meals, you’d be stunned at how expensive it is for airlines to get food onto a plane. Granted, it’s nothing compared to the four-figures ticket prices for F are, but it still is far more than it should be.

    I DO wish the airlines would have more salads. I know delays & such make this difficult, but it can’t be much worse than the processed meat.

    I also wonder why Pret a Manger hasn’t caught on in airports. Put one of those near the gate and there’s a good chance I’d probably pick something up there for the plane every time.

  24. I eat only the salad and dessert in domestic F. Never partake in booze. I’m with tony Bourdain; better to eat and drink quality stuff on the ground.

    On international F or J I’ll eat more but only on CX where I really go to town. The pasta I had last week HKG to JFK in F was fantastic.

  25. In the past, I would always eat the F meal. Then I went about five years flying WN so there were no F meals. Now, I’ll rarely eat lunch or dinner leaving home (ORD) to start a trip, but if it’s an AA breakfast flight, the oatmeal is fine (although I wish they had some maple syrup). Otherwise I’m leaving at 3pm and have had a good lunch, so I bring on a couple of pieces of fruit, and maybe a protein bar (I like Clif Builder Bars) if I’m flying for 3+ hours.

    On the flight home, it really depends on the airport. I tend to have 9-11pm arrivals home, so dinner afterward really isn’t an option. SFO has Cat Cora, BOS/DCA have Legal Seafoods. LAX, I’m usually rushed or connecting, and T4 is meh, and the same goes for PHX. LGA, I’m tired of the same damned fried chicken at the AMEX lounge, change it for God’s sake. That’s generally it in terms of airports I fly to frequently with a full meal service.

    The bigger issue for me is not to eat 1000 calories of junk food from the snack basket on the 600-mile-ish flights. I really like the raspberry fig cookies, and it’s just too easy to take 400 calories’ worth of food once every 45 minutes out of boredom. So now I have a drink instead, as that’s only about 150!

  26. I seriously relate to this.
    Heard an interview with Anthony Bourdain where his number 1 travel tip was never to eat on a plane. 😀

  27. I used to fly AeroMexico and the late lamented Mexicana de Aviación regularly a few years back. There were always free bags, stewardesses that could speak Spanish and English fluently instead of just one or the other, and tasty food — even in short haul Y, and charming crew (not SQ charming, but charming).

    It was spicy food with reasonably fresh tortillas and veggies and plenty of hot chilis and mole sauces to cover up the sins of institutional meat.

    Yes, I miss that. Now I just make or buy something for myself before boarding; it often comes aboard in recycled produce boxes or yogurt containers since I don’t have real bento boxes.

  28. @ Andrew — food is the basic human need, the foundation of Maslow’s pyramid of needs.

    Business people are busy. Very busy. Incredible busy. We don’t have the time to have a meal before a flight, unless it’s a business meeting. We skip hotel breakfast so we can have 10-20 more minutes of needed sleep. We schedule tight connections, because time is money. And we don’t want to eat bring-on-board cold airport-terminal food all the time, often made with low-grade processed meats full of preservatives.

    Of all the flights I’ve taken, the most vivid one I remember was a trip on AA where on a paid ticket (several $k) I left SEA at ~7am and arrived in DCA at ~6pm local (3pm S.F. time). Because I connected in ORD, AA (at the time) decided that both of my flights were too short for food; the flight was late and almost missed my connection in DFW, so had literally no time to buy anything there.

    Do you think I cared how much legroom I had when I arrived DCA? I couldn’t give a damn about it. I was famished, cranky, in a terrible mood, and pissed off. My body was telling me I needed calories, stat.

    Food is TERRIBLY important to the non-leisure flyer. And it’s like safety (another basic human need, along with sustenance): people don’t choose a carrier based on safety, but they shun away from those who are deemed unsafe.

    Incidentally, AA reinstated meals rather quickly.

  29. I live in Asia and most flights here normally have a decent meal, though Singapore always does have the best food.

  30. Well in Aus there IS NO domestic first from QF or VA, so its not an issue! Jokes aside, the Business offerings from QF have improved as they were more than somewhat shoddy. VA seems to have some good tucker ATM…

  31. I don’t really get it, as I almost never fly in the US domestically… But year and 1/2 (maybe 2) I flew UA IAH-ORD on a 737. I got a very nice steak with huge beautiful prawns, delicious asparagus, the salad with boconccini cheese that tasted fresh and separate tasty croutons. What was that then? pure luck?

  32. I’ve traveled F, J and Y domestically and internationally with numerous airlines. I eat when I’m hungry whether it’s on the ground or in the air. No strategy. However, the best airplane food I’ve had is on ANA F from NRT to JFK. IMO, it’s the best…better than CX F, SQ F. My second favorite is the food on Austrian J. It was great. So, for those of you who haven’t experienced it, I highly recommend ANA F and Austrian J’s food.

  33. I agree with @Good service. Many people are busy and sometimes plane food is the only thing they get to eat. I think it’s essential for airlines to cater hot meals for F pax regardless of time of the flight. I will take economy class quality food over being hungry.

  34. Southwest’s peanuts and pretzels, complimentary for all their first class passengers, are actually pretty good (and you can always count on consistent quality).

  35. @Nick — next time you pass thru T4 at LAX, you simply must try Kogi BBQ. Killer tacos and cheap!

  36. A few years ago, Qantas overhauled its domestic economy class menu (yes, outside the U.S., you still get fed in coach even on short-hauls), by abolishing hot meals. Cynics thought it was an excuse to cut costs and downgrade the product, but in fact QF invested the same funds into fresher, “lighter” fare. It’s been a real hit. Delicious salads, fresh wraps, healthy muffins, and free booze. What more do Aussies want?

    I wish American Airlines would do the same in its premium cabins. Alas, I fear there’s a cultural hurdle: more Americans are acclimated to salty, fatty, sweet food. Would an average midwestern salesman actually prefer a light, cold, SoCal Wolfgang Puck-style dish to that greasy enchilada? I dunno. But it’d be nice to have the option.

  37. Airplane food is full of sodium and defintely not using organic meats no matter what class of service you are flying. I wouldn’t put something in my body that I wouldn’t eat back on the ground. I bring my own home cooked meal on to the plane whenever possible, including international business and first. And when not, a quick stop at Whole Foods to get something takeaway for the plane journey. Whenever I am in Narita Star Alliance terminal I grab a sushi plate to go from that great sushi restaurant near to gate 34. However the last time I indulged fully was SQ First Class Suite from SIN-JFK. How can you not?

  38. My breakfast on AA in domestic F yesterday was actually pretty darn good. It had some sort of egg dish I had never experienced before and thought about asking the flight attendant the actual name of the dish so I could look in to making it at home (she said we had the option of “an egg thing or a crepe thing” :roll eyes: If she hadn’t been so young and innocently cute I would have complained about presenting our choices this way but she was great otherwise).

  39. I rolled my eyes at United’s heavily marketed “improvements” to domestic F catering, but I have to admit the chicken on my SFO-DCA flight last Sunday was surprisingly decent, a definitely improvement over what I’ve had in domestic F on United over the past couple of years. There was also a pretzel roll (mediocre, but still I was excited to get a pretzel roll at all) and a decent salad, which was a big improvement over previous pathetic slices of lettuce.

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