As a food writer and a self-described hedonist, I eat a lot. Like, probably too much. And that means my only real reliable form of happiness is food—especially when I’m traveling. I love the rushed croissant at a random French bakery, the long, drawn-out afternoon meal on a sunny sidewalk with the dripping bottle(s) of wine, the post-bar street food hot dog passed between new friends before walking home in a tipsy stupor.
But if there’s one travel meal I value above all else, it has to be the foil and plastic-wrapped entrée that makes its appearance soon after settling into a long-haul flight. To be clear, I hate flying. Nothing triggers my anxiety more than stepping into a long metal tube destined for the very unnatural act of traveling thousands of miles in a matter of hours above the clouds as I find myself crammed in between a snoring man and a stressed mother with a lap baby.
But the airplane meal in the midst of this chaos is a welcome distraction from the unhinged reality of commercial flight. Admittedly, the quality of the food is largely determined by the airline—you can’t expect a Delta experience from a Frontier carrier—but it’s not really about how good the food is, per se. It’s more about the presentation. The best airlines send around hot towels before your meal, offering a sensory experience that’s almost more enjoyable than the meal itself. Then, depending on the time of day, there’s the complimentary wine, beer or coffee. I usually pass up the alcohol because I once suffered a nasty hangover at the Heathrow airport that could only be partially quelled by a £5 bottle of sparkling water, but I digress.
Unless you opt for the vegan or vegetarian option ahead of time (and I’ve been there too—don’t get me started on my vegan phase), fliers usually get to choose between a few different entrees. Within the Western world, I’ve mostly encountered chicken and pasta dishes, though I hear that Korean Air serves up other fantastic options that are probably far more enjoyable than a soggy chicken cutlet. Most of the dishes I’ve encountered are nothing special, but they do come with a ton of sides: bread, cheese, salad and usually a small dessert. Despite the fact that these meals look absolutely tiny, they somehow always fill me up, and I usually have extras that I can stash in my bag to enjoy later if I get hungry mid-flight.
These meals should not be confused with the paltry snacks offered on shorter domestic flights. Back in the day, super-salted peanuts were the snack of choice, but since seemingly every child has a peanut allergy now, I’ve mostly just gotten sad, dry Biscoff cookies and almost-flat 7-Up. A lot of the time, I pass up this sad excuse of a snack entirely and just binge on airport fast food before boarding. I think there’s something about the inherent discomfort of a long-haul flight that convinces airlines to treat their customers better when they’re traveling a few thousand miles: There may just be an uprising if all the passengers weren’t sedated by microwaved pasta and free Pinot Grigio.
Along with the now nearly ubiquitous screen you find on long-haul flights, airplane meals have worked to keep me sane in what I consider to be one of the most stress-inducing forms of travel. Say what you will about the quality, but the act of looking forward to a meal—regardless of how delicious it actually ends up being—makes a bumpy takeoff just slightly more bearable.
Of course, I know I’m lucky to be able to take international trips at all. It’s a huge privilege, and it’s one that I’m endlessly grateful for. But that’s not just because I’m looking forward to what I’ll get to eat when I finally arrive at my destination… it’s because, even in the midst of my raging travel anxiety, even bland, unremarkable food has the ability to completely change my mood for the better. Moral of the story? Long live the airplane meal.
Samantha Maxwell is a food writer and editor based in Boston. Follow her on Twitter at @samseating.