Thought Process On Ordering Airplane Food?

Filed Under: Advice

Reader Oops asked an interesting question on a post I wrote yesterday comparing Cathay Pacific’s first & business class products:

Do you have a sort of procedure or mental thought process for ordering airplane food? I know this depends on the airline and route, but you always mention how you don’t usually end up liking your American first class food, for example. Do you think that what you order is the best option given your knowledge of the airline? Or do you just hope for the best? Thanks.

As someone who eats about half of their food on planes, I do indeed have a “process” for ordering meals. And it’s actually quite straightforward.

My food “likes”

Something a lot of people don’t know about me is that I was a vegetarian for eight years. I was just kind of grossed out when I thought about what “meat” really is.

I’m not a vegetarian anymore, though I am still a bit grossed out by meat in general. Make fun of me all you will, but my general approach to food is:

  • I think of myself mostly as a lazy pescetarian; I far prefer fish to steak/chicken, so whenever there’s a decent sounding fish option on the menu, I’ll go for it (it’s usually healthier as well)
  • Certainly people will make fun of me for this, but I don’t eat “cute” animals — this includes pork, lamb, duck, veal, etc.
  • When I eat meat I like it to be good “quality” — in other words, I’ll avoid a bad steak at almost all costs, while I do love a good (lean) filet; it’s also why I rarely eat burgers

My airplane meal ordering process

So when it comes time to order food on planes, what’s my process?

Always go with the airline’s signature dish first

All else being equal, I’ll always order an airline’s signature dish. In premium cabins these are typically the best, and will rarely disappoint.

On Singapore Airlines that’s the lobster thermidor (though I will say the one they cater out of New York isn’t very good).

Singapore Airlines first class lobster thermidor

On Asiana and Korean Air that’s the bibimbap.

Korean Air first class bibimbap

Asiana first class bibimbap

On Malaysia Airlines that’s the satay.

Malaysia first class satay

On Emirates that’s the mezze.

Emirates first class mezze

Main courses are typically the most underwhelming

I have a tendency to eat way too much on planes. Combine a six course meal with a bottle or two of champagne, and it makes for a very bad stomach ache.

With that in mind, I actually find that in most cases the main courses are the most underwhelming part of a premium cabin meal service. That’s why on many airlines I’ll just order the appetizer, soup, salad, and then dessert. That way I get to try more dishes without being quite as stuffed.

Fish is always my first choice

As explained above, if I’m not going to be a vegetarian then my preference is to eat fish. So as long as it sounds decent, that will always be my meal of choice, after the “signature” dish.

Etihad first class fish biryani

If there isn’t a fish dish or it doesn’t sound good, I’ll go with the chicken/steak option only if it’s a good airline and they’re known for good meat dishes. For example, while I like Cathay Pacific’s catering on the whole, I’ve never had a good steak on them. Generally speaking you can count on a steak being good on a plane when they asked you how you want it prepared.

I’ve had some great steak on Etihad, for example.

Etihad first class steak

If none of the above sound good and I’m still hungry, then I go with the pasta.

Alitalia business class pasta

Which I think answers Oops‘ question as to why I often order pasta on domestic American flights. 😉

Bottom line

While perhaps not that exciting, it’s all signature dishes and fish for me, whenever possible. However, sometimes on non-premium airlines there’s not a fish option and the meat dishes are so bad that I figure I’m best off just going with the pasta. After all, you can’t go that wrong with a pasta dish.

How about you — what’s your strategy when it comes to ordering airplane food?

  1. When I was a teenager, flying Pakistan International Airlines from JFK to France for a class trip, someone gave me a tip: ask for a foreign airline’s home cuisine when that’s an option. Many foreign-flag airlines will have both their own style and a more typically American style of food available, and in pretty much every imaginable circumstance, their home cuisine will be better. The Pakistani meals offered on that flight were recognizably airplane food, don’t get me wrong, but they were flavorful and delicious without being too salty.

    I’ve often done well asking flight attendants if they have a personal preference among the options being offered, and they’ve never steered me wrong. In a couple of cases, I haven’t had a preference, and I’ve told them to give me whichever one they know they’re not going to run out of! Might as well leave that option open to someone who cares more.

  2. Ok, it’s not a comment, per se, but the “why I often order pasta on domestic American flights” throw-away line wins my Best Comment of the Day prize.

    And the funny thing is, on the very rare occasion when we get to fly F on AA, we order the pasta for the same reason, namely, it’s more important to control the down side than it is to obtain the possible benefits of some not-likely-to-happen upside.

    For the same reason, and depending on how much I’m planning to drink, we’ll stay clear of AA’s white wine. The worst red can be is not very good; white can be undrinkable.

  3. Lobster thermidor please 🙂

    P.S. The caption under the Malaysia Airlines photo is incorrect.

  4. On all airlines, but particularly the middle eastern & south asian carriers, the curry’s are often a really good choice. The home court advantage means they’re really spiced well and never bland. Also, unlike a steak, they hold up really well after being refrigerated and reheated again.

  5. I couldn’t help but think of “bacon wrapped fried chicken” while reading this entire post…

  6. I agree with ordering the signature dish. If the airline has special dishes prepared by a Michelin chef, I always choose that too.
    For ANA/JAL, there will always be a Japanese Omakase meal that I always get, especially if it’s departing from Japan.
    If ice cream or ice coffee is offered, I always order that in the first half of the flight. If I order it past the 4-5 hour mark, most will be gone or melted.
    Oh and if you are on CX F, order the egg tarts first! Whenever I have flown CX F, they always ALWAYS run out of egg tarts! Ahhh! 😉

  7. I’ve been vegetarian almost my entire life, so my strategy always used to be to pre-order the vgml. Special meals always get better care in economy. Then, once I started reading your blog, I started using the now familiar strategies to fly up front and discovered, to my horror, that American serves the exact same vgml meal to F as Y. Granted, F gets it served with real silverware, but I began to really appreciate the ability to pre-order whatever veggie pasta dish was part of regular service. Ex-Japan I always sleep through mid flight “snack” and ask for the soba before landing.

  8. Aren’t Airlines catered by a select number of companies I.e. Gate gourmet etc. How come there is still such a large difference in (perceived) quality between Airlines?

  9. I’m also mostly pescatarian, but I’ve never had chicken on an AA flight that was as bad as some of the pastas I’ve been served on Aa High fat, high carbs, high sodium over-cooked pre-mush.

    My vegetarian seat mate went hungry instead of eating hers. (They ran out of fruit and cheese plates so I gave her mine (last one)

  10. Etihad doesn’t have a signature dish, but I will say, I have found that the best strategy with them is to order the thing that you read on the menu and either sounds weird / overly complicated or like it couldn’t possibly be executed well on an airplane — they are the rare airline that really rises to the challenge of executing on difficult dishes.

    I once had a main that came with a side of some sort of savory bread pudding, which sounded questionably appetizing on the ground and very hard to do in a plane, but it was superb. Similarly they often have some unusual / obscure fish, like they once had a Nile Perch dish, that is very good.

  11. Hi Ben, what are your thoughts on the Boston Thermidor vs. the traditional Thermidor on Singapore…not really sure if one is better than the other and will be flying Singapore Suites and First later this year.

  12. Gotta disagree with you about the cute animals. As a general rule of thumb, I find the cuter the animal, the better they taste! Veal, tasty! Lamb, even better! Bunny rabbits, delicious! Not sure what is cute about a duck or a pig.

  13. “it’s all signature dishes and fish for me, whenever possible”
    Can’t remember one single occasion when you opt for Kaiseki on JAL or ANA=p

  14. I have gone from being a huge fan of airline catering (indeed, a former job of mine involved developing menus and service delivery processes for premium class catering), to simply skipping the meal 9 times out of 10. I find that it’s much better to eat at the airport before/after the flight – you enjoy the food more on the ground, but more importantly the entire rigmarole and production of inflight service has gotten grating and just drags the experience out longer than it should.

    I had to eat on an Emirates flight last week (meetings ran late so I didn’t have a chance to grab a bite in the lounge before boarding) for the first time in months, and it reminded me just how little I enjoy the inflight dining experience anymore.

  15. But cows are cute tooo! Don’t give up your morals for your tastebuds Ben… I know you’re still a veggie at heart 😉

    But I know why it’s hard given how appaling vegetarian plane food can sometimes be!

  16. Eating during flight helps relief pressure that builds inside the ears. The catering supplier will only deliver the quality and seasoning paid for by the airline. The perception of flavor will vary depending on level of dehydration of nasal passages.

    Given the extensive explanation of how you try to avoid gross items in food, my question is: don’t you feel equally upset by the industrial amounts of diet soda you consume? Caramel coloring is a carcinogen. I’ve never met a dentist that doesn’t give me a speech about the evils of sodas on gum health.

    Drink to your health!

  17. Sean M. says: “I have gone from being a huge fan of airline catering … to simply skipping the meal 9 times out of 10. I find that it’s much better to eat at the airport before/after the flight – you enjoy the food more on the ground, but more importantly the entire rigmarole and production of inflight service has gotten grating and just drags the experience out longer than it should.”

    Agreed. In my view airline food never comes close to living up to the description regardless of airline or cabin. In any other situation we’d call airline meals leftovers. Same thing with the redneck picnic spread they put out in most lounges these days. Either serve good food or stop serving food at all. That’s my opinion anyway.

  18. The cost of the air ticket or miles, is sunk cost. The decision to eat, is a variable I control thereafter. I only eat if the timing of the food served will sync with my appetite cycle in the local time zone of my destination. Because why eat for the sake of eating, when you can eat much better stuff outside of the airplane. I think of my gut as having limited capacity, and I wish to only fill it with things that will satisfy my tastebuds. Not looking to stuff it with something just for the sake of it.

    And if I decide to eat, I will choose the food that will least likely make me use an airplane bathroom, or airport bathroom upon arrival (especially if 3rd world airport e.g. JFK, LGA, Mumbai etc).

  19. @ AJ — Not sure I know what the difference is in practice, sorry. Have only ordered one.

  20. @ Johan — Correct, but the quality is determined entirely by the budgets of the airlines. So the microwavable economy meals are catered in the same kitchen as caviar and filet mignon.

  21. Hmmm? Pot belly pigs are cuter than regular pigs, wonder if they taste better? I assume they probably do!

  22. @farnorthtrader Last week, someone asked me, “Lamb? How can you eat something so cute? ” I said, “I will eat all your cute and fuzzy baby animals. And then watch adorable YouTube videos of the same animal. No problem.” I think she was appalled.

  23. @AJ, the difference between Boston lobster thermidor vs traditional Thermidor is the Boston is a full lobster whereas the other is just the lobster tail meat. The Singapore airlines book the cook section explains it more clearly. Having been fortunate enough to sample it quite a few times from various departure ports I would only suggest having it ex Singapore. I did try on one of my last flights the Singapore laksa and it was AMAZING. (But spicy). Hope this helps

  24. Kudos on your ethical food choices! Even if you mix in the occasional meat dish, you are already making a big difference just by being aware of what you eat.

  25. @Farnorthtrader

    Not sure if you would call them cute, but whale meat does not taste that good.

    Chewe and with a strange taste, will take a good Angus steak any day of the week.

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