United First Class Meals — How Are They?

Nowadays I don’t actually fly domestically that much. A majority of my travel is international, and then most of my domestic travel is either on premium transcontinental routes or on shorthaul flights without meals (this is thanks to me planning travel more strategically, rather than constantly criss-crossing the country). I don’t experience “average” domestic first class catering as much as I used do.

It’s also not something I place that much value on. I’ve talked about how American’s domestic first class catering is quite bad, though fortunately they let you order special meals, and the Asian vegetarian meal is a significant upgrade over the standard domestic food.

Yesterday I flew from Los Angeles to Houston on United on a dinner flight, so wanted to share my impressions of the food on this 2hr50min flight.

Service began with drinks and mixed nuts. United only has almonds and cashews, so the nut mix isn’t quite as varied as American’s (which is perhaps one of the few areas where American is a leader).

Dinner choices were between a paella with chicken sausage and shrimp, and a cobb salad with chicken. I selected the former.

I believe the paella is one of United’s most popular dinner dishes, and it was… fine. I picked at the shrimp and chicken sausage, but I found the rice and accompaniments to be fairly bland.

The meal came with a side salad, as well as a pretzel roll and chocolate cheesecake. Obviously the pretzel roll and chocolate cheesecake were delicious, but those also aren’t things I need to be eating while sitting for hours on end.

Based on this flight (and many others) I find that United flight attendants are generally pretty attentive when it comes to offering pre-departure beverages of choice and constant drink refills. The same is true on Delta, but less so on American.

So yeah, usually if I’m going to write a post like this it’s going to be because something was really good or really bad. But sometimes I think it’s worth reporting that something was just fine, and that was the case here.

Personally I haven’t noticed a huge difference between catering on American, Delta, and United, at least on domestic flights. My meal on United was alright for a domestic airline meal, which is to say that it’s not inedible if you’re hungry, but it’s worth eating before or after the flight (both from a taste and health perspective).

I still think special meals are the best kept secret for getting a genuinely decent meal on a domestic flight, though not all airlines let you pre-order those.

To those who mix it up between US carriers, is there one that you find is significantly better than the others when it comes to catering?

Comments

  1. Same two choices LGA-ORD-LGA this week. The Tandoori chicken which IMO is one of the better options (better than my SNA-EWR tcon a few weeks ago for sure) but poor form to have the same meal in both directions.

    Also, UA basically never changes its meals anymore…you will see the same thing for years on end, repeated endlessly…CO pork chop anyone?

  2. We flew SFO-ABQ earlier this month, on United Express. First time on a United flight in a decade. It was pretty decent, actually. It was a snack flight and they served a decent cheese plate. Better than what AA would serve on a similar flight.

  3. UA HNL-SFO F morning flight about a month ago. Surly FA offered PDB, nothing else. I had pre-selected the Asian Vegetarian meal, FA came around to verify that I really wanted that, said it sounded awful, asked again if that’s what I wanted, made me feel like a total jackaxx for even thinking about it. FA returned with the same oatmeal plate they served everyone else (choice of oatmeal or omelet) with a piece of paper on top of the food with my name on it and Asian Veg meal. Other than getting a flat bed on the flight there was little else to appreciate there, all F FAs were clearly not happy with their jobs.

  4. Would a Cobb Salad also come with a salad? It looks like the tray is pre-set regardless of main course.

  5. I second the comment about never changing the meals, they must have a heck of deal on Tandoori chicken.

    Jet Blue’s Mint Business class is the stand-out on domestic meals. I just few UA transcend twice this week and feel like they’re really phoning it in.

  6. I’ve had a mixed bag on United First with meals. Some outstanding and some meh. The breakfast option I liked the best was a french toast souffle kind of thing. Better than most international business class breakfasts which seem to be egg, egg or egg these days for breakfast. Which is not ideal on a plane. Dinner wise, I’ve had some excellent and creative salads on United with delicious salad dressing. But I’ve also had some bland dishes. Most recently I had a good option from Denver to Kona, a vegetable paneer that was one of the two options for dinner. I have not found that domestic First has the same meals but I also fly varied routes. It may be they don’t change things up much on a certain route due to catering constraints.

  7. How spicy was the paella? I find that United has a very heavy hand with the hot and spicy spices. I do not like that. I remember having this overly hot and spicy omelet for breakfast a few times. It was utterly disgusting. Who wants hot and spicy in the morning. Other dishes – that I am drawing a blank right now – were equally as spicy.

  8. I wish there was a US airline that combined the US domestic seat with a simple but good intra-European business class meal.

  9. Most domestic travrl professionals, regardless of cabin, bring their own food or eat on the ground. Most OMAAT readers just continue the path to perpetually disappointed. JetBlue Mint clearly is a lone differentiator.

  10. @ Robert J Fahr — I’m not sure I agree with that. If by “regardless of cabin” you mean in economy then maybe that’s true, but I only very rarely see people bring food onto meal flights in first class. I’d say maybe 10% of people on average, if that. Maybe we’re taking radically different flights.

  11. I once ordered a Hindu meal on a random United business class flight from Osaka Kansai to Guam. My meal consisted of salad, stir fry vegetables, rice pilaf and salmon, served with store bought naan. Not what I was expecting, but really nice nonetheless.

  12. @ colleen — Hah, nope, that didn’t come with the side salad based on the one I saw the person near me order.

  13. @Lucky – I will still bring some onto UA flights in F as they seem to change the meal “level” as well increase or decrease the quality every quarter or two. Just can’t trust the quality or quantity level unless you are on a legacy PS route.

  14. That “paella” is also called Jambalaya, Shrimp with Rice, Spanish Rice, and any number of other names that the flight attendants decide to give it. Basically United serves only 5-6 meals on most domestic flights and they NEVER change. These include:
    1. Jambalaya (like you had)
    2. Tandoori Chicken
    3. Asian Noodle Salad with Beef or Chicken
    4. A bastardized Cobb Salad that is basically olives and tomatoes with hard boiled eggs and chicken
    5. A Burger on a Pretzel Bun
    6. Ravioli (usually Butternut Squash but occasionally Four Cheese)

    That’s about it and has been for years now. I fly these meal flights 2-3 times a week and stopped eating the food years ago. I think the side salads are vile and the cheesecake does not take the place of fresh cookies. It just gives the flight attendants more time to chat or sit around. As a GS I’m given my choice of meals and it is almost always none.

  15. Just off UA1597 YVR to SFO and was surprised at the improvement over the last year. Dinner options were Pasta ( why is that an attractive option in mid Summer?) or chicken salad. The latter was excellent. Spinach, strawberries and mandarin segments. The chicken breast was moist, although a little spice wouldn’t have gone amiss. The fruit bowl was on par with the best I’ve had in international F or C. Heading back to the pre 9/11 catering quality. One off? I hope not.

  16. Flew EWR-PLS quite recently in United F. The food was decent, it was a breakfast which consisted of a delicious french toast. The flight attendant who served me was also pretty good, she was friendly and asked me a lot if she can do anything more for me or refill drinks. Thumbs up UA!

  17. European airlines serve good meals on domestic flights (Lufthansa on a 40-min flight FRA to HAM) in business class but American carriers say the time is too short for anything less than two hours. The FAs hustle but they get it done. Go figure.

  18. @Anthony — You ought to try different routes, like ORD-HNL, which served last month, when I flew it in F, a decent glazed Salmon with steamed veggies over quinoa for lunch. It did not make your list 😉

  19. I was on IAD-DEN two days ago. Options were chicken salad or mac & cheese with chicken. I had the mac & cheese. It was OK but the portion was small. My seat mate who had requested a special meal did not get to eat because his meal was not loaded onto the flight.

  20. I found their p.s. lunch on SFO => BOS absolutely fantastic, my best business class meal so far (besides longhaul Virgin Australia). Well done steak with tabouleh, yam and garbanzo bean garnishes, and their pretzel rolls and salad with ahi tuna were both delicious as well

  21. Hey Lucky, have you ever considered doing a post called “Debit’s greatest hits”? It would be kind of funny to see all of those posts in one spot.

  22. Jet Blue has great food! We fly from SFO to NYC often. The sad thing is Jet Blue has raised their fares for Mint and there are no more $599 fares. So United has been the one we have been using lately. On the last EWR-SFO flight the food was inedible. Trying American in December but not hopeful.

  23. Lucky, thanks for the article. The two meals choices on your flight are typical of what USA airlines have been offering since the Great Recession or even since 2001. Chicken and Chicken … or maybe Chicken and Turkey. That is fine in itself and could even be generally healthy for most people. Unfortunately for me, I am highly allergic to poultry. While I could complain about what ever happened to having two different meat categories choices, I understand why the airlines have gone to Poultry and Poultry. It’s popular, healthier, and most important it is usually less expensive. Therefore, I simply make sure I eat at the airport. I may sigh here and there about missing the good old days of better choices, but, no serious complaints overall.

  24. Flew UA “business first” (purser used that term repeatedly even though I thought they cut that out years ago) from ORD to OGG earlier this week. 772 domestic config with 28 dorm style seats up front. I requested kosher, wife requested Hindu. We were both very pleasantly surprised. We both got 2 very full square meals on the 8.5 hr day flight, and all food was actually enjoyable. Both kosher meals came with hefty plate of dill smoked salmon, a meat entree and a non dairy desert. Hindu meals was 2 different assortments of veg curry / paneer, with Polaris-level salads. The standard choices for first meal were a rough looking short rib, pork chop (the consensus winner) and pumpkin ravioli. The second meal was the United burger or a ham wrap with no sides. Special meals were overwhelming winners on that flight.

  25. I do realize that this is not a gastro blog, but this post – while clearly dedicated to a food toppic – does merely discribe the entree als “fine”, dessert and roll as “delicious” and the salad not at all. A little more info would have been appriciated.
    BTW if this Paella is served to a group of Spanish tourists, it will probably set off an air rage incident 😉

  26. I actually had a pretty delicious Kale & Egg White Croisant pastry on MSP-SFO a couple weeks ago. Have to say UA’s breakfasts are much better than lunch/dinner I’ve had in the past. Frankly the seat and leg room is all that I look forward to in F.

  27. At least you got something hot. I flew United first class (ORD to California) recently (paid actual money for the upgrade as a treat for myself). By the time they got to my second-row seat, the only thing left was the “Cobb salad”. As a salad, it was merely okay, but as a meal, it was atrocious.

    According to the flight attendant, United stocked 6 of each, so I was out of luck. Oddly, the man behind me also got one of hot chicken meals. I’m not sure how he managed that. But at the very least, United could stock a few extra of each, or keep track of the popularity of each entree and stock accordingly (8 and 4 or 9 and 3 might have worked).

    I was underwhelmed with the service. In the future, I’ll go back to coach and bring my own meal on board. Not sure why they want to alienate paying customers.

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