Why does airline food taste so bland?
October 14, 2010 10:52 AM   Subscribe

Why is airline food so often tasteless? It looks like there are many factors, and even the background noise in the cabin affects people's perceptions of taste.

That's on top of things like the effects of low air pressure and reduced moisture in the air on the palate. And it's not as if airlines haven't been trying hard to improve, especially now that meals are often not free, and they're increasingly competing with in-the-airport options for eating.

In the meantime, if the airline chefs haven't found ways to compensate, it looks like your best bet could be to go for more strongly flavored foods, such as spicy ethnic dishes. Apparently tomato-based sauces hold up well, but creamy and lemony ones don't.
posted by philipy (52 comments total) 4 users marked this as a favorite

 
tomato sauce + economy calss seat + turbulence = huge mistake.
posted by GuyZero at 10:55 AM on October 14, 2010


As a flyer on an expense account, I prefer paying for something vaguely tolerable versus the previous options on American airlines. Especially after the airlines stopped offering vegetarian meals.
posted by These Premises Are Alarmed at 10:59 AM on October 14, 2010


I always bring my own food which tastes the same on the plane as if I were sitting at home. I don't think there's any way to convince people that airline food isn't total shit.
posted by MaryDellamorte at 11:01 AM on October 14, 2010 [2 favorites]


GuyZero: "calss"

I think you have a good point here. You can't even spell right on a turbulent flihgt.
posted by Plutor at 11:03 AM on October 14, 2010 [3 favorites]


The only airplane food I've had that was actually pretty good was courtesy of Singapore Airlines. The rest of it ranged from forgettable to inedible (pro tip: no matter who you're flying with, never, ever order the fish meal).
posted by The Card Cheat at 11:04 AM on October 14, 2010


Seriously, I have typing problems. The majority of my comments have typographicaltacular errors.

But there's plenty of good food on planes if you buy a first class ticket or get an upgrade or fly trans-oceanic. I've had some excellent wine & cheese pairings on Air Canada YYZ-FRA. And the smoked eel on ANA is supposed to be pretty good, even in economy.

But flying domestic is always hell at 20,000 feet.
posted by GuyZero at 11:06 AM on October 14, 2010


I'm with MaryDellamorte on this one. I've "known" that the way food tastes is affected by the airplane environment for a long time, but I've never noticed it myself. I bring my own food on planes all the time (both stuff I make myself and prepackaged snacks) and it always tastes the same to me.

I think the bigger problems that affect the taste are that airline food is mass-produced, made of cheap ingredients, and has poor storage/reheating options.
posted by phunniemee at 11:06 AM on October 14, 2010 [1 favorite]


I flew Delta international recently, and each way they had two options for the standard economy-class meal, one of which was vegetarian. I was actually pretty impressed. On my return flight, I got bumped up to business class, and the food was quite good.

(The trouble is, when I specify a vegetarian meal in advance, I always end up with a vegan meal, which, in airline food land, is usually not good. This happened recently when I was suffering through rice with bland veggies and soy sauce and everyone else was enjoying cheese tortellini. But I don't know if having a veggie option is standard enough that I can stop pre-specifying vegetarian.)
posted by statolith at 11:09 AM on October 14, 2010


Some of it is frankly just awful - being that there's some food that seems just generically bland, and some is really way worse than that. Iberia's plane food is just flat out inedible. I couldn't choke it down after not having eaten in eight hours. If I have to fly with them again, I'm stuffing as much food in my carry-on as I can manage. It's tough to get food through airport security though - I've had mine taken away many times for being a "liquid" or a "gel" even though it clearly wasn't and I think the security dude was just hungry.
posted by sonika at 11:10 AM on October 14, 2010


Eh, I've never had a big problem with airline food. Sure, it isn't fresh off the stove, but as microwaved food, it's fine.

That said, I usually skip the meals, star out the window, eat some salted nuts, then get drunk and pass out, before I become enraged about being stuffed into a small space (broad shoulders), so WIN WIN?
posted by nomadicink at 11:12 AM on October 14, 2010


leave it to science to explain why heavily processed, industrially produced foods taste *more* disgusting on a airline flight. The implication is that we can make this industrial offal taste delicious--if we get the science right. Yay!
posted by kuatto at 11:12 AM on October 14, 2010 [1 favorite]


I flew first class once and the food was restaurant-quality amazing. It tasted great, the ingredients were fresh, and the preparation was perfect with everything evenly heated.

I just don't think that kind of quality and attention to detail scales up from 12 people in the front to 200 in the back. It's impossible with a kitchen that is 10feet by 4feet to make 200+ perfect meals in a few minutes time.
posted by mathowie at 11:16 AM on October 14, 2010


I avoid eating on domestic American airlines -- they're all shit.

But you can do a lot worse than business class on Air France long-haul. The food is excellent about 80% of the time (and passable the rest), and as for the wine and whisky ... we're in appellation controlé/single malt Scotch territory without a ration book. Hic!
posted by cstross at 11:17 AM on October 14, 2010


It's impossible with a kitchen that is 10feet by 4feet to make 200+ perfect meals in a few minutes time.

Goddamit, if we can put men on the moon AND rescue them from a half mile underground, we can do anything. Get NASA working on this problem, STAT!
posted by nomadicink at 11:19 AM on October 14, 2010


Man, I love the Jet Blue blue potato chips. All the rest of the airplane food? Whatever; I will eat anything, really--I just don't eat plane food anymore now that I have to pay $7 for a "snack box". But those blue potato chips, I would actually buy those at the supermarket if I saw them.
posted by not_on_display at 11:22 AM on October 14, 2010


Jesus, what a bunch of complainers. You are in a tube going 500 miles an hour at 30,000 feet. You woke up in your own bed and will sleep in Hong Kong or Paris Or wherever, and you are complaining about the quality of food? And then y'all bitch about the fact that airlines no longer serves meals, mostly it would seem becuase you didn't like the meals and enjoyed bitching about them.

Food in hospitals is bad too. You'd all love it.
posted by Keith Talent at 11:24 AM on October 14, 2010 [4 favorites]


I'd much rather have mass-produced bland food served than mass-produced flavorful food served. The one time BA made the grave error of serving a spicy chicken curry, the entire plane was one giant horrible fart. For 8 hours.
posted by elizardbits at 11:26 AM on October 14, 2010 [7 favorites]


GuyZero wrote: "But flying domestic is always hell at 20,000 feet."

I used to fly first/business a lot on AA, and the food was almost always at least half decent. Pasta usually tasted OK, but the texture was almost always ruined by it sitting for a while and then being reheated. Meat was hit and miss. Good crews would leave it in the oven just long enough to get it warm again, while bad crews would leave it in too long and it would get tough.

Transcon business meals on widebodies were always nice and tasty, and followed up by a sundae, which erased any memory of mediocre food.

The food they served in economy, though? Ugh.

Supposedly, airlines from other countries are better in the food department.
posted by wierdo at 11:29 AM on October 14, 2010


I have the great and good misfortune to be both terrified by flying, and ravenously hungry when subjected to prolonged acute stress.

As a result, I've never had an airline meal that I haven't loved.
posted by Ahab at 11:44 AM on October 14, 2010 [2 favorites]


And WHAT IS THE DEAL WITH noise in the cabin?!?!?!
posted by l33tpolicywonk at 11:50 AM on October 14, 2010


Get NASA working on this problem

One of my links actually does mention NASA's experiences with astronaut food! Yes, they need to make the flavors *much* stronger to be tasted at all.

I always bring my own food which tastes the same on the plane

Human perceptions are a funny thing. We see what we expect to see, we only remember parts of talks that confirm what we already thought etc. It'd be kind of interesting to find out if we taste what we expect to taste also.

You've heard the story about how people prefer Pepsi to Coke in blind tests, but when they know what brand they're drinking they much prefer Coke right? There is even evidence from brains scans for that effect.
posted by philipy at 11:51 AM on October 14, 2010 [1 favorite]


> The only airplane food I've had that was actually pretty good was courtesy of Singapore Airlines.

Singapore Airlines food is pretty darn good. They give you like 6 different non-standard options (halal, Asian vegetarian, Western vegetarian, etc) as well. They also pick up local delicacies, so if you have a stopover in Moscow you'll get some Russian ice cream cones or something as a surprise snack.
posted by Burhanistan at 11:52 AM on October 14, 2010 [1 favorite]


You've heard the story about how people prefer Pepsi to Coke in blind tests, but when they know what brand they're drinking they much prefer Coke right? There is even evidence from brains scans for that effect.
posted by philipy at 1:51 PM on October 14 [+] [!]


Part of the problem there is that blind tests might ask you to have a few sips (in which the sweeter Pepsi is preferable) whereas if you're drinking a whole can, something that's too sweet gets old.
posted by Jpfed at 12:24 PM on October 14, 2010 [3 favorites]


WHat is the deaaaal with airplane food? Amirite, folks?
posted by orme at 12:31 PM on October 14, 2010 [1 favorite]


On the first flight I ever booked myself, I realized I could choose food based on dietary restrictions. I chose the Hindu option, and my brother chose Jewish. It's been a while, so I've forgotten the airline, but the meal I got was a tasty vegetarian dish with decent use of spices. Not really Indian food, but better than most airline meals I had before that. I think my brother enjoyed his meal, too.
posted by filthy light thief at 12:32 PM on October 14, 2010


philipy wrote: "You've heard the story about how people prefer Pepsi to Coke in blind tests, but when they know what brand they're drinking they much prefer Coke right? There is even evidence from brains scans for that effect."

The difference in flavor between Coke and Pepsi is plainly obvious to me. I'm that asshole who gets annoyed at a waiter for bringing me a goddamn Pepsi when I asked for a motherfucking Coke. If you don't have Coke, just fucking say so and I'll settle for a Dr. Pepper or Sierra Mist or (perish the thought) water. Yeah, despite my caffeine dependency and general love of sweet effervescent beverages, I'd still rather have water than that carbonated feces slurry known as Pepsi.
posted by wierdo at 12:32 PM on October 14, 2010


You woke up in your own bed and will sleep in Hong Kong or Paris Or wherever, and you are complaining about the quality of food?

Well, mostly because that (and not the wonders of air travel in general) was the subject of the POST.
posted by sonika at 12:36 PM on October 14, 2010


MetaFilter: one giant horrible fart
posted by hippybear at 12:56 PM on October 14, 2010 [2 favorites]


For 8 hours.
posted by mintcake! at 1:04 PM on October 14, 2010


elizardbits, for some reason that's my new favorite comment ever.
posted by mintcake! at 1:06 PM on October 14, 2010


I heard someone toot while eating my Panda Express yesterday. No wonder it tasted like ass.
posted by stormpooper at 1:11 PM on October 14, 2010


But on the bright side, the portions are small.
posted by blue_beetle at 1:44 PM on October 14, 2010 [1 favorite]



I don't fly a lot any more. But when I do it is the same routine. Bring a Jersy Mike's sub home the night before. Refrigerate and pack for morning flight. Halfway into flight (even a one hr. flight) open sub and start eating. The aroma (smell?) saturates an area fifteen feet around. Talk about some stares and craned necks. Most of whoich are envious. Especially if they have a tray of.....in front of them.
posted by notreally at 1:53 PM on October 14, 2010


I think airline food is bland for a reason. The more strongly flavored the food is, the greater chance is of someone disliking that particular flavor and being unhappy. If the food is all bland mush, well, everyone feels the same (it sucks), but hey, it's just part of flying, so we'll all just put up with it. If, instead, you start serving Sichuan cuisine, well, people who don't like Chinese food, or spicy food, they'll have a reason to complain. Any strongly flavored food would have people enjoying or hating it, causing a disruption in the oppression of suck, and maybe complaints about food would become a lot more common.
posted by Ghidorah at 2:27 PM on October 14, 2010


> I think airline food is bland for a reason. The more strongly flavored the food is, the greater chance is of someone disliking that particular flavor and being unhappy.

I think it's more because there are literal bean counters in the airline service industry. Measures like cutting one olive out of the salad can save a company buckets of money each year, so the food you get is a compromise between maximal profits and minimal edibility.
posted by Burhanistan at 2:30 PM on October 14, 2010


I don't know why anyone has high expectations of food that's stashed on a plane. Hell, I'm just happy if it's edible. I only eat on the plane if I'm flying for 5 hours/ through a meal time anyway.
posted by jenfullmoon at 2:35 PM on October 14, 2010


I think this may explain something about Chinese cuisine.
posted by BrotherCaine at 3:11 PM on October 14, 2010


I think airline food is bland for a reason. The more strongly flavored the food is, the greater chance is of someone disliking that particular flavor and being unhappy

Besides the bean counter argument, there's also the fact that half the airlines serve eggs for breakfast. EGGS! In a bumpty flying tube that makes people nauseous and smells bad already! Hmph.
posted by whatzit at 3:18 PM on October 14, 2010


Don't you dare mess with my eggs. It's practically the only decent amount of protein they serve on flights anymore. All the meals are about 2-5 times as much simple carbohydrates as I would eat as a diabetic normally. It's gotten to the point where over half my carry on is water and protein.
posted by BrotherCaine at 3:48 PM on October 14, 2010


Quit bitching about the food and start being happy that your plane made it off the damn conveyer belt! Mine is still stuck there more than three years later.
posted by srboisvert at 4:20 PM on October 14, 2010


(pro tip: no matter who you're flying with, never, ever order the fish meal).

Alright, now we know what we're up against. Every passenger on this flight MeFite who had fish for dinner will become violently ill in the next half hour.
posted by dragstroke at 4:22 PM on October 14, 2010 [2 favorites]


Honestly they should just freeze indian take-out for reheating. It'd be vegetarian, tasty, and cheap.
posted by mek at 4:42 PM on October 14, 2010


They're all just making excuses. You can definitely make good food in an airline - it just requires X amount of space and Y amount of time - which is just not feasible. Try comparing airline food to train food or bus food, for example...

Nth-ing that Singapore Airlines Business / First Class definitely has restaurant-quality food, flew with them a fair number of times in the last year. Tea-smoked duck with glass noodles and lemongrass (cold entree) ... steamed cod-fish with soy sauce... so many great creations from their chefs. Honeycomb and Macadamia ice cream. Very decent wines. Hunks of various types of warm breads with vials of olive oil and balsamic vinegar. I'm always super excited about the food on their flights.

The article got it right tho, always pick the red wines over the whites =p
posted by xdvesper at 5:49 PM on October 14, 2010


Nothing stokes my urge for class war as much as sitting in the first row in cattle class when they forget to close the curtain while serving meals. Then again, if given the choice between a first (or business class flight) or two or three extra days on vacation, I tend to go with the extra days.
posted by Ghidorah at 6:05 PM on October 14, 2010


Back in the late Nineties, United Airlines hired Sheila Lukins, of Silver Palate fame, to "design" coach meals. This was, of course, an attempt to position air travel as something more than a commodity. Which attempt failed.

I can't find a link, but I remember very well her remark about the endeavor: "this isn't cooking, it's manufacturing."
posted by Short Attention Sp at 6:29 PM on October 14, 2010


The article got it right tho, always pick the red wines over the whites =p

Only problem is that Qantas, the only airline I regularly fly, keeps their red wines on the plane much too cold. I suppose I shouldn't complain too much though – I doubt many airlines still give you a free glass of wine in cattle class on a one-hour flight.
posted by damonism at 7:15 PM on October 14, 2010


Nth-ing that Singapore Airlines Business / First Class definitely has restaurant-quality food, flew with them a fair number of times in the last year.

Singapore Airlines actually published a cookbook earlier this year.

I've never sat in Business or First Class, but the food in economy is occasionally quite decent, especially if you're flying out of Singapore. Another airline I like is ANA, with their cold soba noodles.
posted by destrius at 7:16 PM on October 14, 2010 [1 favorite]


> You can definitely make good food in an airline - it just requires X amount of space and Y amount of time - which is just not feasible. Try comparing airline food to train food or bus food, for example...


I'm not sure I understand you. They don't ever make any of the food on the airplane, it's made in one of those nondescript service buildings somewhere near or on the grounds of an airport in big industrial kitchens. They just assemble and heat them on the planes.
posted by Burhanistan at 9:22 PM on October 14, 2010


After spending 2 weeks in Poland, eating ham sandwiches and tomatoes every damn day - sometimes twice a day - you can't imagine my joy on the return flight to the US, when I was served....a ham sandwich and tomatoes. I screamed a little bit, and the girl in the seat next to me laughed bitterly. I couldn't eat ham for months after that trip.
posted by The Light Fantastic at 2:27 AM on October 15, 2010


The pilot and co-pilot each selects a different entrée to avoid consequences from food poisoning. For example, in Malaysia the captain might select beef rendang and the first officer will have seared salmon. In the United States, the captain chooses Sun Chips and the first officer has the peanuts.
posted by crapmatic at 5:41 AM on October 15, 2010


Ugh, the way the cabin smells after they serve food just makes being broad and tall in a doll's seat even more awesome.

I have had one good airline experience, New York to London on Virgin, tasty mild korma and rice with a sorbet at the end.

Of course this this was the trip when I was randomly upgraded to first class so I already felt like King Shit of Fuck Mountain.
posted by The Whelk at 6:13 AM on October 15, 2010 [1 favorite]


Qantas generally have fairly decent food; especially the Asian options.
posted by acb at 10:27 AM on October 18, 2010


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