Advice for preparing an in-flight meal

By Philip Wagenaar
This item appears on page 76 of the April 2008 issue.

With difficulty, I tried to pull my backpack from the itsy-bitsy storage space under the seat in front of me. It was two hours into the flight and the passenger in front of me had reclined his seat. The rucksack just wouldn’t budge.

I got up, squatted in the aisle and gave the backpack another tug. Hurrah! Now I could get at the lunch I had so carefully prepared.

Most of us are aware that food is no longer served on many flights, in order to reduce carriers’ costs. This forces me to prepare my own repasts. Before leaving home, I had carefully considered what I should take. It needed to be something lightweight, compact and nourishing that would keep my hunger at bay.

As I mulled over my choices, I wondered if I should carry, besides my lunch, “emergency food” in case the flight was delayed. Given the new security restrictions, I questioned if the TSA would approve of a peanut butter sandwich or if peanut butter was considered a cream. And would that sticky stuff go down my throat without sufficient water, which I knew I could only buy at an inflated price after the Security checkpoint?

Below, I discuss the answers to those questions and list a number of general and specific suggestions for provisions to be carried onto a flight. All (except water) can be assembled at home.

If you have better or additional ideas, let me know. In perusing the items listed, remember that your tastes will be different from mine.

General suggestions

1. Pack your favorite foods, which should be nutritious, low-caloric and low-fat.

2. Wrap half or quarter sandwiches and/or bagels and/or rolls in foil or plastic wrap so that one or two bites will finish the sandwich.

3. Prepare fare that doesn’t make your fingers sticky. If they get messy anyway, clean them with an alcohol-based antiseptic, such as Purell® Instant Hand Sanitizer or a similar generic brand, which you likely will have carried aboard in your bag of TSA-approved liquids.

Some readers may prefer moist towelettes, although, on occasion, the towelette turns out to be dry upon opening the package.

4. Take a plastic spoon, fork and knife.

5. Carry your own water (buy a bottle after having gone through Security). Alternatively, pack an empty, thoroughly cleaned bottle (test it for leaks before departure) and fill it up at a drinking fountain before boarding the plane.

You also can ask the flight attendant to fill it. If she demurs, ask for two glasses of water (one for yourself and one for a real or virtual companion) and pour them into the container. I have not run into any difficulty when carrying an empty bottle of the usual 500cc (16.9 fl. oz.) size.

6. Pack extra food and extra medication — making sure the latter is at your fingertips, in case the plane is delayed.

7. Stay away from anything that can melt, such as chocolate or chocolate-covered nuts.

8. Avoid items that make you thirsty, such as salted nuts or crackers (instead, take unsalted ones).

9. Shun items such as liquids and creams in containers that hold over three ounces as these are prohibited by the TSA. Peanut butter sandwiches are allowed, since the peanut butter is on the bread. Note that you can take on board all food and drinks obtained AFTER going through Security.

10. Keep in mind that edibles you bring from home have to be x-rayed and must be wrapped or inside a container. While a half-eaten fruit has to be covered, unpeeled produce does not.

10. Refrain from carrying anything aboard that has an odor, since it may offend your “next-door neighbor.”

11. Watch the volume and weight of your carry-on, especially when you travel on an airline that restricts the dimensions of cabin luggage.

Specific suggestions

1. Pack cheese sandwiches, which are especially delicious when you add lettuce or daikon.

2. Prepare peanut butter sandwiches (with or without jelly), which are filling and tasty. Go easy on the jelly to prevent it from overflowing the confines of the bread, which might result in sticky hands.

3. Carry bite-sized items, such as crackers with peanut butter, processed cheese and/or dried, jerky-style meats.

4. Consider snacks, such as nutrition bars (watch the calories), dried fruit and trail mix. Create your own mix, which not only keeps the price down but also provides you with the exact ingredients you like. My favorite is a mélange of M&Ms, raisins, hazelnuts, peanuts, almonds and a few (since they are high-fat) Brazil nuts.

5. Take along raw vegetables, such as carrots and celery sticks.

6. Pack precut apple slices. If you cut the apples yourself, stir them with a small amount of lemon juice to prevent them from turning brown.

7. Ask for wine, if desired. It usually is kept hidden inside a drawer and it may be offered at no cost on overseas flights.

8. At home, prepare a solid, nonperishable dish that does not need refrigeration. Place the food inside a small container with a tight-fitting but easily removable lid. Use masking tape or similar to prevent the lid from coming off. (Can you imagine what will happen to all your carefully packed items if the cover loosens up?)

The 64-dollar question

The 64-dollar question is, of course, “Will food be served on the plane?”

If so, will it be a meal, a sandwich or a snack, and (I almost forgot) “Will it be free?”

Many foreign airlines routinely provide meals even on trips of less than an hour’s duration. U.S. airlines usually serve food on intercontinental flights. On transcontinental journeys, some carriers, such as Continental, offer tasty complimentary repasts, while many others offer victuals “for purchase only.” On flights of shorter duration, depending upon the time of day, a snack or a sandwich for purchase may be offered.

If you do have the choice of ordering a special meal in advance, request the vegetarian serving. For me, this has worked out the best, since it is always available and usually is tasty.

To determine whether complimentary or purchased food will be served, call the carrier’s reservation number or look on its website. However, it has been my experience that the information you receive may not be accurate.

Since, when you are overseas, it may be quite difficult to find out whether any food will be provided, it is best to buy enough provisions to last you for the flight or to ask your hotel to pack a lunch box.

Bon appétit!