Things Flight Attendants Probably Won’t Tell You About Airplane Food

flight attendant serving a meal

Flight attendants know some insider tips to airplane food. | Paul J. Richards/AFP/Getty Images

If you want to enjoy your meal the next time you order lunch or dinner on an airplane, you might want to stop reading right now. As with the other unnerving facts about airplanes and airlines, there are plenty of things you don’t know about airplane food — and may not want to. In fact, flight attendants probably won’t tell you these surprising facts, perhaps for your own good.

Below, discover some of the more surprising things you didn’t know about airplane food.

1. Food often gets overcooked

As USA Today reports, not every meal that an airline serves arrives frozen. Yet almost everything needs to be reheated. However, on the plane, options are limited. Typically, airplane galleys have no microwaves, just convection ovens. USA Today learned that variations in the reheating process in the air — and the varying oven temperatures on different aircraft — can sometimes result in food staying in the oven a little too long. Plus, what happens if the flight attendants turn the ovens on, and then the plane hits turbulence? As you might imagine, things get a little overcooked.

Next: Flight attendants don’t actually cook anything on board.

2. But your food is always prepared on the ground

Friendly chef preparing vegetables

Airlines prepare their food at facilities near the airport. | iStock.com/Minerva Studio

Contrary to what you might expect, flight attendants don’t do much more than heating up your food in the galley. Thrillist notes that thanks to both safety standards and space constraints, airlines prepare their food on the ground, at a facility near the airport. (No matter what promises the airline makes, they don’t have a gourmet chef on board to prepare your meal.) Caterers usually prepare the food 10 hours or so before you eat it. Chicken gets cooked 60% of the way and steak to about 30% done. Then, the food gets blast-chilled — not quite frozen, but not exactly refrigerated, either.

Next: You’re not the only one who’s made this observation.

3. Passengers in coach and economy don’t get the good food

airplane with passengers on seats waiting to take off

Most good food is reserved for business and first class. | AwaylGl/iStock/Getty Images

Many airlines are stepping up their game in what they serve to passengers. But you’d never know that if you always fly coach or economy. As USA Today reports, you can find a few exceptions. For instance, Turkish Airlines serves delicious regional fare to passengers in all cabins. Korean Air serves bibimbap, even in economy. Aegean airlines serves Greek dishes inspired by the country’s traditional cuisine to all passengers. And Swiss International Airlines offers its “Taste of Switzerland” menu to everyone, wherever you sit. Nonetheless, most domestic airlines reserve the good stuff for first and business class.

Next: You may have a chance to upgrade.

4. But sometimes, you can pay to upgrade your meal

money, budget, spending

Check with the airline or flight attendant to see whether you can pay for a meal. | Paramount Pictures

Just as you can sometimes pay to upgrade your seat, many airlines will let you order a business-class meal from the economy cabin, for a fee. You may need to ask a flight attendant to see if your airline even offers that option. And you should definitely check out the menu to make sure the fee is worth it. But keep in mind this caveat. There’s no guarantee that the first class or business class meal will be “fresh.” You may get stuck with a frozen, reheated meal, whether you pay extra or not.

Next: Meals get planned far in advance.

5. Airlines plan their meals up to a year in advance

They need to factor the meals into their annual budgets. | Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images

Thrillist learned that airlines meticulously plan their meals. In fact, they may have their menus in place up to a year in advance. Caterers plan everything precisely so that they can purchase exactly the right amount of ingredients. After all, they can’t exactly run to the market the morning of your flight to see what’s in season. As Thrillist explains, “That’s because every ingredient counts — American Airlines saved $40,000/yr by removing a single olive from each of their in-flight salads.”

Next: Airlines test their meals before adding them to the menu.

6. Many airlines actually test their foods in-flight

View from airplance window

Some food doesn’t travel well. | esinesra/iStock/Getty Images

Figuring out which foods will travel well — and reheat without getting gross — sounds like a daunting task. But Thrillist reports that airlines have a smart way of accounting for that. Many of them actually test their foods in-flight to see how they taste at 36,000 feet. As you’ll learn on the next page, cabin pressure affects your palate. The lack of humidity dries out your nose and mouth. And the change in pressure as the plane takes off actually numbs about a third of your tastebuds. The only way that airlines can account for those effects is to test foods in-flight.

Next: Flight attendants won’t admit it, but airlines don’t prioritize flavor.

7. Airlines’ top priority is food safety, not taste

Stewardess talking to passenger

Airlines can’t afford to have passengers get sick. | Ruben Ramos/iStock/Getty Images

Think airlines should place a priority on serving food that tastes good? They don’t quite see it the same way. As CNN reports, airlines prioritize food safety, not flavor. The network spoke to Fritz Gross, director of culinary excellence at the caterer that supplies 30,000 meals daily for DragonAir, United Airlines, and British Airways. Gross explained, “Because we do such a large volume, we cannot afford to have things in there that are not right. You can imagine how easily an airline can get sued.” Airlines won’t serve medium-rare steaks. And they have to cook fish and chicken to exactly the right temperature, even if that compromises taste or texture.

Next: Nothing will taste very good.

8. Nothing you eat on a plane will taste great

child eating in the airplane

Food tastes different up in the air. | Vsurkov/iStock/Getty Images

Flight attendants probably won’t bring it up, but nothing you eat on a plane will taste all that great. The reason why involves the fact that the cabin pressure drops during your flight. As The Conversation explains, reduced atmospheric pressure and lower oxygen levels dull your appetite. And even the changes in altitude can change your sensitivity to some tastes. Plus, the dry atmosphere in the cabin also dries out your mouth. That, in turn, changes the composition of your saliva and leaves an unpleasant taste in your mouth. All of these factors make it that much harder to enjoy whatever meal your airline has decided to serve.

Next: Even this basic beverage won’t taste like you expect.

9. Your tea won’t taste good right away

Cup of tea on a blue stone background

The water isn’t hot enough to steep the tea quickly. | Anna Pustynnikova/iStock/Getty Images

So the food won’t taste great. But can’t you enjoy your caffeinated beverage of choice? Perhaps not. When you order a cup of tea anywhere on the ground, the water is probably boiling hot. But Traveller learned that flight attendants don’t boil water for tea on the airplane. Since the water is cooler than you’re used to, the flavor of your tea won’t start out as strong as you’d expect. Fortunately, if you just let it steep a little while longer, it’ll probably taste a lot better.

Next: Here’s what happens to the food if your flight gets delayed.

10. If your flight gets delayed, the airline probably has to throw away all the food

woman in international airport near the flight information board

Delays sometimes mean the food goes to waste. | encrier/iStock/Getty Images

Flight delays affect everybody, including the caterers. Thrillist explains that as you wait to board your plane, the food that the airline plans to serve is also waiting. If the flight gets delayed and the food has already been loaded onto the plane, the airline may have to throw it all away in order to prevent everybody from getting food poisoning. They just order a replacement from the catering company instead of serving a suspect meal. But flight attendants probably won’t tell you that — at least not if they don’t want you to grumble about more delays.

Next: It’s not just your imagination.

11. The airplane food may actually give you flatulence

Occupied bathroom sign

The altitude might affect your digestion. | frontpoint/iStock/Getty Images

You may have thought it was just your imagination. But Traveller reports that there may be some merit to the theory that airplane food may be to blame if you suffer flatulence during your flight. As the publication explains, “A study published in the the New Zealand Medical Journal in 2013 surmised that it was possible more intestinal gas was produced at cruising altitude than on the ground because of limitations in cabin pressure.” Who knew? Flight attendants, most likely.

Next: This is the safest thing to order on a plane.

12. If curry is on the menu, you should probably choose it

chicken and pea curry with steamed rice

Passengers tend to like curry dishes. | iStock/Getty Images

Ask the flight attendant what you should order and you probably won’t really get an answer. (After all, they just want you to choose so that they can serve the rest of the passengers, too.) But USA Today learned from one frequent flyer that curry is usually a good choice. Nikos Loukos explains, “If there is a curry on offer in the economy-class cabin definitely choose it. Studies have shown that curry dishes perform very well in-flight, and are full of great-tasting flavor.” Stews also reheat well and make a good choice from the airline’s menu.

Next: Think twice before ordering this.

13. But think about steering clear of seafood

Fish dish

It’s hard to get fish right on an airplane. | iStock.com/gbh007

Frequent travelers and flight attendants alike often think twice before ordering seafood while flying. Most caterers have figured out which foods work well in-flight, and which don’t. But seafood seems to be one of the more difficult categories of meals to get right. Most of the time, you don’t want to eat something with a smell that’s likely to hang around after you’ve finished your meal. Seafood seems pretty unlikely to fit that bill. Additionally, Thrillist recommends skipping pasta and chicken dishes, “where proteins go to die and starches break down.”

Next: If the menu seems a little boring, the airline did that on purpose. 

14. Airplane food often seems a little boring

passenger sleeping covered with blanket

Airlines want to keep food recognizable. | iStock.com/Anze_Bizjan

As CNN learned, airlines want to serve food that will seem instantly familiar to most passengers. So on your next flight, the menu probably won’t look very adventurous. As CNN explains, “Food in economy class in particular must be instantly recognizable. This means going for middle-of-the-line comfort food that may not satiate your particular cravings, but won’t offend anyone either.” Flight attendants don’t have time to answer passengers’ questions about the menu. So in order to serve lots of people in a short amount of time, airlines keep it simple. (And a little boring.)

Next: Flight attendants usually don’t eat airplane food. 

15. Many flight attendants try not to depend on the airline for food

Flight Attendant

Many flight attendants pack their own food. | Alexander Hassenstein/Getty Images

Though airlines don’t want you to know this, you can pack your own food to eat on the flight. Many flight attendants try to do the same. And that often doesn’t mean preparing a meal at home and stowing it in their carry-on. One flight attendant tells USA Today, “Unless I’m running late, I try not to depend on the airline for food when I’m traveling, even when I’m the one working the flight. There are so many great places to eat (at airports) now.” You can just pick up a meal at your favorite airport restaurant instead of ordering whatever the airline offers.

Next: Flight attendants also don’t drink this on board the plane.

16. The plane’s drinking water isn’t really safe to drink

unopened bottle of water on a tray table in airplane

Flight attendants drink bottled instead of tap water. | tzam/iStock/Getty Images

Flight attendants usually avoid drinking the tap water on a plane for a very good reason. It usually isn’t safe to drink. As Business Insider reports, an EPA study found that 1 in every 8 planes fails the agency’s standards for water safety. Yikes! Not only do flight attendants drink bottled water instead of tap water, but they often won’t drink the hot water on the plane either. That means no coffee and no tea unless they bring it on board themselves.

Read more: This Is the Smart Way You Can Get a Whole Row to Yourself on the Plane

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