The words alone are enough to strike fear into the hearts of anyone with functioning taste buds. Being fed rubbery mystery meat from a two-item menu while locked in a flying metal tube is about as far from fine dining as one can get.

The entire process is a guessing game. Will it be chicken or beef? Will I even have the choice by the time the cart arrives at the last row?

You’d be forgiven for thinking that the airlines are taking advantage of the fact that you have no escape and therefore no other choice; that they could season some flaming rubbish and put it on your tray table and you’d be more or less forced to eat it. But the truth is, they try.

That might be hard to believe as you stare down at the brownish pile they’re calling “stew,” but it’s true. So what’s the problem? Whose fault is this?

Blame it on the Plane

The science and logistics behind serving “good” food on an airplane makes it nearly impossible. First off, it’s important to remember that planes don’t have real kitchens. It’s hard to cook for a few hundred people at the best of times, and if you have nowhere to cook, the standards will inevitably slip that much further.

Kitchen in Plane

Photo: Flickr.com

Dinner is prepared on the ground, heated, and kept at a high temperature until it’s served. On longer flights, the second meal (usually breakfast) is cooked in the plane’s limited kitchen facilities. A formula for haute cuisine this is not.

It’s Kind of Your Fault

Or rather, your taste buds. In 2010, a Lufthansa-backed study showed that during a flight, your taste buds operate at the same level as they do when you have a cold.

Passengers’ perception of saltiness decreased by 20 to 30 percent, and sugar by 15 to 20 percent. Another study, paid for by British Airways, showed that meals taste much bitterer at a heightened altitude. (But in very British fashion, the airline has partnered with Twinings Tea and designed a brew that tastes perfect when served at high altitude.)

Of course they did.

Air-Hostess Food Service

Additionally, people are picky. The guy in 15A can’t eat cheese. The woman in 35D doesn’t like her food too spicy. That kid kicking the back of your chair is allergic to literally everything. Plus, the airline is trying to keep the cost of your ticket down, and skimping on dinner ingredients is a quick and easy way to do so.

Can I Blame Someone Else Instead?

Who makes it all happen? Who’s behind the scenes, trying to design the least-revolting meals with limited ingredients and far-from-ideal cooking conditions? (Note: it’s not Satan.)

Typically, airlines employ catering companies who specialize in creating food for the restrictive conditions of a plane. A few of the major players include Gate Gourmet (British Airways, American Airlines, Qantas); LSG Sky Chefs (Delta, Asiana, Korean Air); Chelsea Food Services (United), Servair (Air France), and Emirates Flight Catering (Emirates, obviously).

Air New Zealand’s economy food is created by LSG Sky Chefs, but it’s a different story on the other side of the curtain. Renowned New Zealand chef Peter Gordon consults on the in-flight business-class meals, and professional wine consultants John Belsham and Jim Harre choose your reds and whites.

Over at Qantas, Chef Neil Perry consults on their first class dining menu. If you’re flying Emirates first class, your meal will be served on Royal Doulton china. Maybe it’s worth the upgrade after all.

Who Has The Best Airline Food?

Drumroll please…according to the reputable Skytrax World Airline Awards, Asiana Airlines takes the win for the best food in economy class, while the best in business class goes to Turkish Airlines. The winners are chosen by customers so of course they’re subjective.

asiana airline food service

I’ve personally had some great meals on Air New Zealand (roasted lamb followed by hokey pokey ice cream? That’s better than I’d do at home most nights!) And most people have at least one story of being impressed – or at least not depressed – by airline food.

Here’s The Thing, You Don’t Have to Eat It!

Most of us don’t even consider other in-flight dining options. And hey, lots of us are happy to eat whatever is served to us. But airports have upped their restaurant game in recent years, and it’s not hard to grab a decent meal and fill up before you go.

Bring a snack or two on board to tide you over (after you’ve cleared security, of course), and when you land in whatever exciting destination you’re flying to, you’ll be hungry enough to dive right into the local cuisine.