As a food writer and self-proclaimed hedonist, I eat a lot. Like, probably too much. Which means my only reliable form of happiness is food, especially when I travel. I love a hurried croissant at a random French bakery, a long, drawn-out afternoon on a sunny sidewalk with a dripping bottle(s) of wine, an after-bar street food hot dog swapped by new friends before heading home in a drunken stupor.
But if there’s one thing I appreciate most about traveling, it’s the foil-wrapped, plastic-wrapped first meal that arrives shortly after landing on a long-haul flight. To be clear, I hate flying. Nothing makes me more anxious than stepping into a long metal tube designed for the very unnatural act of traveling thousands of miles, hours, above the clouds while I find myself sandwiched between a snoring man and a tense mother with a baby in her lap.
But eating on an airplane in the midst of all this chaos is a welcome distraction from the crazy reality of commercial flights. Admittedly, the quality of food is largely determined by the airline – you can’t expect a Delta experience from a Frontier carrier – but it’s really not about how good the food itself is. It’s more about presentation. The best airlines send out hot towels before meals, offering sensory experiences that are almost as good as the food itself. Then, depending on the time of day, complimentary wine, beer or coffee is offered. I usually forego alcohol because I once had a terrible hangover at Heathrow Airport that could only be partially quelled with a £5 bottle of sparkling water, but I digress.
Unless you choose a vegan or vegetarian option ahead of time (and I’ve been there too – don’t make me start my vegan leg), passengers can usually choose between several different meals. In the western world, I’ve mostly come across chicken and pasta dishes, though I’ve heard that Korean Air has other fantastic dishes that are probably much more palatable than raw chicken cutlet. Most of the dishes I’ve come across are nothing special, but they have plenty of side dishes: bread, cheese, salad, and usually a small dessert. Even though these meals look tiny, they somehow always fill me up, and I usually have extras that I can stash in my bag to snack on later if I get hungry on a flight.
These meals should not be confused with the meager snacks offered on shorter domestic flights. Once upon a time, super-salty peanuts were the snack of choice, but since it looks like every kid has a peanut allergy now, I basically just got sad, dry Biscoffs and near-flat 7-Up cookies. Most of the time, I forego that sad excuse for snacking entirely and just grab a junk food meal at the airport before boarding. I think there’s something about the inherent discomfort of long-haul travel that convinces airlines to treat their customers better when they’re traveling several thousand miles: there could just be an uprising if all passengers aren’t sedated with microwaved pasta and free Pinot. Grigio.
Along with the now near-ubiquitous screen you see on long-haul flights, in-flight meals help me stay sane in what I consider to be one of the most stressful types of travel. Whatever you say about quality, the anticipation of food—no matter how delicious it actually turns out—makes the bumpy takeoff a little more bearable.
Of course, I know that I am lucky that I can travel abroad at all. This is a huge privilege for which I am eternally grateful. But it’s not just because I’m looking forward to what I’ll be eating when I finally arrive at my destination… it’s because even in the midst of my raging travel anxiety, even bland, unremarkable food can change completely. my mood is better. Moral of the story? Long live airplane food.
Samantha Maxwell is a food writer and editor based in Boston. Follow her on Twitter at @samseating.