Airplane meals have traditionally been a bit of a punch line amongst jokers, but with expectations growing, and with the rise of social media, the pressure is higher than ever for airlines to come up with menus that are more palatable and Instagram friendly than ever before.

So what can you expect on board your next flight? Can you blag anything for free anymore? Check out this guide for the lowdown on aeroplane food so you know what to expect next time you jet off on your summer holidays.

A Bit of Background

The first meals to be served in flight were on the Handley-Page London to Paris journey in 1919, and offered a packed lunch consisting of a sandwich and some fruit. These days we have our own specialist catering companies specifically for the preparation of airline food. There are also very strict safety guidelines they have to adhere to as the thought of en-masse food poisoning at several thousand feet in the air is not a pleasant one.

So What do You Get?

“You get what you pay for” is not often the case when it comes to inflight meals. They vary hugely in quality, portion size, and price, from small airtight snack packets to multiple course gourmet meals served on fine crockery. What you get really depends on your choice of airline, class, or length of the flight itself.

Meals prepared for flight have to survive being cooked, cooled, and reheated again. Not only does this have to be considered by catering companies, but also the fact that flying many thousand feet in the sky means that the altitude really alters your sense of taste. The combination of the dryness and low air pressure reduces the sensitivity of your taste buds to sweet and salty foods by a staggering 30%. Not only this, but your sense of smell (a huge contributor to taste), is also affected by the plane.

Many airlines claim to have put together modern menus to combat the woes of dining at tens of thousands of feet in the air. Because of modern standards, many partnerships have been formed with airlines and celebrity chefs in order to develop such a menu. Heston Blumenthal famously joined with British Airways in 2011, Air France teamed up with a group of Michelin star chefs to create its business class menu, and Thomas Cook Airlines even had TV favourite James Martin advise on their inflight meals.

Long Haul vs Low Cost

You’re no longer able to snag yourself a free airline meal or booze. Short haul budget airlines like Ryanair and Easyjet won’t provide food for free, so be prepared to get your purse out or stock up in duty free. However, if you go with inflight, bear in mind you’ll be forking out around £3.00 for a cuppa or £10.00 for a small sandwich meal deal. (Based on Ryanair’s 2016 menu).

Middle budget airlines like Thomas Cook and Thompson typically provide free meals on long haul flights only.

More costly airlines like Virgin or British Airways will provide a hot meal with snacks and drinks included (long haul) or free coffee and snacks (short haul), in the price of your ticket. The time of day/night your flight is due generally dictates whether you receive “breakfast”, “lunch”, or “dinner”. Do make sure you check US airlines thoroughly before booking as domestic flights can be skimpy on the complimentary food and drink.

Dietary Requirements and Children

Due to medical issues, intolerances, religious beliefs, and personal preference, airlines have to offer alternatives to their standard meals. Depending on the airline of course, these days you have access to a wide variety of specially prepared meals that provide options such as vegan, vegetarian, dairy/gluten free, kid’s portions, halal, and diabetic. These alternative meal options must be pre-booked and you should check with an airline their specific offerings before you opt for them.

When it comes to ordering the food on the plane, it’s typical of staff to serve specially prepared meals before standard so ordering first can ensure you eat quicker. This tip also works well if you have small children, keeping them quiet earlier on.

Airlines rarely cater to babies, so packing your own baby food in your hand luggage will be necessary. They’re also not able to sterilise your bottles, and only some will heat up milk, so make sure you check what they’re able to do before your flight.

If you’re flying from an Islamic country, any meat served inflight will typically be halal (pork and alcohol free, using the meat of a ritually slaughtered animal). The same can be said for kosher on inflight meals when using the Israeli airline El Al.

And The Best?

If you take the word of the Daily Meal, then airlines to watch out for food-wise are Emirates, Qatar Airways, Thailand Airways, Air France, Austrian Airlines, Turkish Airlines, and Singapore Airlines.

And if you’ve got time to spare for research before your flight, then Airline Meals is a great place to do it as it is a site totally devoted to pictures of food served on airplanes around the globe.

Whatever Airline you end up choosing, a stay in Gable End before/after your flight is guaranteed to make your stomach smile with a complimentary full English every morning.