Gourmet food at 35,000 feet: ideas for creating your own on-board meals

Airplane food is not always the most palatable, so why not take your own feast on board?

Your own granola bowl with fruit and yogurt is a smart breakfast choice. Courtesy Scott Price
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Unless you're lucky enough to exclusively fly first or business class, you have probably resigned yourself to the idea that eating on an aircraft really isn't anything to get excited about. Well, we're here to tell you that it doesn't have to be that way. Next time you travel, pack yourself a proper plane picnic and those holiday vibes can start flowing early.

Preparing a meal to tuck into at 35,000 feet does require a little prior thought, not least because the lack of humidity, low air pressure and background noise combine to play havoc with taste buds. In the air, we become less sensitive to salty and sweet flavours, and our sense of smell is inhibited, which directly affects our ability to taste – which goes some way towards explaining why plane food gets such a bad rap.

All is not lost though. Umami, the so-called “fifth” taste, is unaffected by altitude, so eating ingredients such as tomatoes, soy sauce, Parmesan and spinach (all of which are umami-rich) should go some way towards combating the cabin atmosphere.

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Your DIY on-board meal obviously needs to clear security without a glitch (liquids in excess of 100 millilitres are out) and be easy to eat in your seat. It should also be delicious and, ideally, a little bit luxurious.

Now, a sandwich might not sound like an exciting option, but when executed with finesse, it makes the perfect portable meal. First, choose a sturdy, artisan-style baguette over a flimsy loaf; you want something capable of withstanding a couple of hours in departures. When it comes to fillings, by all means pick your favourites, but do spare a thought for your fellow passengers – avoid the likes of egg and tuna. A trusted combination of aged Parmesan or creamy mozzarella, a cured meat such as bresaola and a few rocket or basil leaves will serve you well in this situation.

A quinoa, feta and pomegranate salad beats a lettuce-based option. Courtesy Scott Price
A quinoa, feta and pomegranate salad beats a lettuce-based option. Courtesy Scott Price

Lettuce-based salads are simply not meant for air travel – they become limp and listless far too quickly and demand drizzling with dressing at the last minute, which is an unnecessary faff. A hearty grain- or legume-based salad is a different story entirely, and actually benefits from being dressed and mixed a few hours ahead of time so that the flavours have a chance to meld. Our favourite options include Puy lentils with goats' cheese and pickled red onions, couscous, mango and spiced chicken, or quinoa with feta and pomegranate seeds. Once you're in the air, politely ask a flight attendant for a cutlery set and they will hopefully oblige. 

Taking the ingredients for your very own cheese plate is another excellent way to eat in the sky. To do so, pack crackers or slivers of thinly sliced bread, along with a wedge or two of cheese, a little box of dried fruit (apricots and cranberries are especially nice), a mini pot of chutney and something fresh and crunchy, such as a radish or a few cornichons.

Make your own cheese plate for your plane journey. Courtesy Scott Price
Make your own cheese plate for your plane journey. Courtesy Scott Price

Remember that you are also free to pick and choose from the in-flight offering: snap up that portion of perfectly spreadable butter, check out the quality of the bread roll, use the sachet of black pepper for seasoning, add a few nuts to your platter and round off your meal with the little chocolate or mint provided.

For an early morning flight, rather than facing reheated scrambled egg at 5am, which is nobody's idea of fun, a granola bowl is the way to go. Decant your favourite cereal into a sealed container before you leave, purchase fruit and yogurt in departures, then set about constructing your breakfast once the seat-belt signs are turned off.

Even if you don’t have time to prepare food at home, there are still a few things you can do to make on-board eating more enjoyable. To begin with, and even if you’re not usually a fan, try sipping on tomato juice; the deeply savoury, umami flavour is likely to appeal in a way it might not usually do – there’s a reason why airlines report record orders of the drink. If you really want to be savvy, pick up a couple of sachets of black pepper from the food court in departures so that you can season the drink with abandon, and don’t forget to enquire whether there’s any Worcestershire sauce or Tabasco knocking around.

Before the flight attendant in charge of the drinks trolley slips away, it’s also well worth asking for a couple of extra lemon slices, which you can later spritz over the salad element of your meal and pep it up no end. Lastly, when travelling in a group, don’t be adverse to a bit of bartering between yourselves: there’s always likely to be someone willing to swap their cheese and biscuits for a second dessert.


Short-haul snacks

Even if you’re only going to be airborne for a couple of hours, you still deserve something delicious to pick at:

Make some curry-roasted cauliflower before you set off. Courtesy Scott Price
Make some curry-roasted cauliflower before you set off. Courtesy Scott Price

Curry-roasted cauliflower

Drizzle cauliflower florets with olive oil, dust with curry powder (according to experts, curry is one of the flavours that stands up best at sense-dulling altitude) and season with salt and pepper. Roast in a 200°C oven for 15 minutes, turning halfway. Once cool, transfer to sealable bags.

Edamame beans

Edamame make an excellent on-the-go snack; they’re healthy, tasty, easy to eat and generate minimal mess. Once you’re in departures, if you happen to spot a little tub of soy sauce, don’t let it go to waste.

Frozen grapes and chocolate make for a tasty snack. Courtesy Scott Price
Frozen grapes and chocolate make for a tasty snack. Courtesy Scott Price

Frozen grapes

Once frozen, grapes take on a luxurious, sorbet-like texture. Pop them in your bag just before leaving the house and they should still be icy cold after take-off. Pair with a few squares of good-quality chocolate for a sweet treat with a sophisticated edge.


Flight food for children

Each to their own, but many parents would agree that when flying, the rule book gets thrown – metaphorically at least – out the window. This is particularly pertinent for screen time and snacking; food provides additional entertainment when the inevitable whining sets in.

Only an amateur would unveil the entirety of their snack stash at once. Instead, build a sense of anticipation around your offerings with a staggered reveal; wrap bits and pieces in foil or baking paper and tout them as edible presents, with a new treat every hour or so.

In terms of the contents of those delicious little snack packs, items that can be spilt, smeared or mushed (such as bananas, yogurt, crumbly crackers) with ease are probably best left on the terra firma.

Mini homemade muffins, falafels, frittata strips and little slices of savoury loaf cake are all robust enough to survive the pre-flight journey, and bring a novelty factor to the plane party that won’t send little ones off on a sugar high. Individual packs of dried fruit are brilliantly convenient, while prepared fresh fruit (a segmented clementine or a peach cut into thin slices) is somehow infinitely more appealing than a whole piece.

Getting children involved in making their in-flight munchies can help up the excitement further; a morning spent constructing edible necklaces from Cheerios and lengths of string might just buy you 15-minutes of much needed mid-flight me-time.

And finally, wet wipes are every parent’s friend, and even more so in the air, so make sure your hand luggage is well stocked.