Airline food: Special meals on planes have advantages

I'm 10,000 metres in the air, on a British Airways flight over Europe, and the food can only be described as, what's the word? Ah yes, bland.

I know what you're thinking. British cuisine: isn't that an oxymoron? What was I expecting?

Well, exactly what I pre-ordered, frankly. 

"Bland" – a term designed for meals destined to be eaten by those whose metabolism cannot deal with spices, herbs, sauces or exotic flavourings – is just one of the many options most airlines offer if you bother going to the trouble of pre-ordering your meal. 

On this flight, from Istanbul to Heathrow, "bland" means  plain grilled chicken and potatoes, followed by fresh fruit. Somehow I not only survived, but also found it a welcome palliative from the spicy food I'd been enjoying for the past few days in Singapore and Turkey.

Let me make an embarrassing confession: I'm a fan of economy airline food. Unless someone else is paying, I'm always to be found in economy (it helps, being poor).

But when I was suddenly confronted with the prospect of around 20 international flights in just two or three months, I decided to spice up my economy diet a little.

Why not explore the meals you can pre-order on international flights, I thought? Some are governed by religious rules, others by dietary considerations, still more by lifestyle choices, or even mere preference for seafood over chicken or pasta. But at least they give you an option, a choice, a feeling you are in control.

The most important thing to remember when you are pre-ordering meals is that you don't actually have to be Jewish to order the kosher meal, or a Hindu to devour the Hindu vegetation option.


However, be prepared for some suspicious minds. On a recent Singapore Airlines flight word had obviously spread among the flight crew that there must be something dodgy about the passenger in seat 48C. 

Why had he ordered a kosher meal on the way to Singapore, and a Muslim meal on the second leg?

I also got some strange looks from the flight attendants on different flights who served me the Jain Vegetarian Meal, the Hindu Non-Vegetarian Meal and the Vegetarian Lacto-Ovo Meal. 

But my funniest experience was on the Emirates flight back from Dubai to Sydney.

"Excuse me, sir," said the befuddled stewardess, eyeing the Bloody Mary she had just served me a few minutes earlier with tabasco, Worcestershire sauce and salt and pepper on the side. "It says you ordered a special meal?":"

Yes, that's me, I said. 

"Really? You asked for the Low Fat, Low Cholesterol option?"

I had barely nodded, before she burst into laughter. "Oh well, Mr Low Fat, Low Cholesterol Option, enjoy your meal. And when you are ready for another Bloody Mary, let me know."

So is there any difference between "Bland" and "LFLC"? Not that I  could tell. Both were plain grilled chicken, no sauce, with boiled potatoes, followed by an understandably insipid desert. 

But I certainly recommend trying some of the other options. The best meal? The seafood option on a flight to Ho Chi Minh City with Vietnam Airlines. But the Asian dishes, vegetarian and non-vegetarian, are definitely worth exploring.

All airlines offer a range of meals which have to be pre-booked (usually at least 24 hours in advance), but the choices vary from flight to flight. 

Why would you bother if you don't have a religious or dietary requirement? Because it's fun and means you're never stuck with the chicken pasta if they've run out of the other choice.

More importantly, because you will get served your meal earlier. Most airlines hand out the special meals before the main cabin service because it is easier that way. 

And this is particularly advantageous at night. On a recent 10pm flight out of Sydney, I was served my meal up to 45 minutes before the other passengers in my row.

Joost Heymeijer, who is the senior vice president of Catering at Emirates, confirmed that his airline, like its rivals, is constantly monitoring which pre-booked options work best in different parts of the world (so kosher, for example, might not be an option on some Asian routes).

"We not only differentiate from region to region, but also from city to city," he say.  "For example, in our Indian routes, we have enhanced our menus across our  10 destinations in India that reflect the tastes and customer preferences of that particular city. Having said that, we do this all around the world.

"We keep a record of the most popular dishes. We analyse our consumption and uptake every day and we use that to plan our next cycle of menus."

My advice? Go to the airline's website when you've made your booking and see the range of pre-ordered meals on offer. Then sit back and enjoy.

See also: Airline orders pizza delivery on board to keep delayed passengers happy
See also: How airlines are improving the taste of plane food