Chicken, beef, or something better? It might seem that airline food is getting stingier and stingier, with airlines pulling back on meal sizes, second meals and even snacks. But aviation expert John Walton has a few key tricks to get an extra-good airline meal when you fly.

A fruit salad sits on a airline tray plate.
There are ways to score a better airline meal © Cheryl Chan / Getty Images

Spend a bit of money

First up is the easiest: spend a few extra dollars. An increasing number of airlines are offering “premium” meals even in economy, which look better than what a lot of business classes serve! On Air France, for example, these selections are called “À la carte”, and they run from 12 to 28 euros, featuring options by renowned chef Jean Imbert and the patissier Maison Lenôtre, as well as traditional French, seafood and Italian menus.

You might even think about buying a to-go hamper at the airport. At London Heathrow Terminal 5, Gordon Ramsay’s Plane Food restaurant offers a Grab & Go Picnic, where you can “pick from starters of crunchy beetroot salad or potted salt beef brisket with a grain mustard kick, mains of delicious grilled teriyaki salmon or broccoli and goats cheese tart, and finish with chocolate tart or a selection of British cheeses for dessert,” the menu says.

But if you’re not in the mood to splurge, but are often hungry, I’ve got tips for you too.

Scoring a better inflight meal
Airline meals: how to get a better one © Cheryl Chan/Getty Images

Skip the queue

Did you know that if you order a special meal it will usually be served first? Flight attendants will usually bring out the vegetarian, vegan, religious and other special meals first, which is great news if you’re on an overnight flight, since you can tuck into your supper and get on with the crucial task at hand: trying to catch a few Zzzs. You also avoid the risk of them running out of the option you prefer.

A child eats a shrimp from a airplane tray.
You can get a better airline meal © Shan Lu / Getty Images

Pick your cuisine

And now my favourite: airline vegetarian food in general can be disappointing, but if you like Indian, Bangladeshi or other south Asian spices, select the “Asian Vegetarian” meal option. As anyone who’s been to a wedding of friends or family from the region knows, this is food that serves large numbers of people really well, and suits reheating too.

Here’s how Qatar Airways describes it: “This is a vegetarian meal flavoured with spices from the Indian sub-continent. It may contain: Vegetables, fruit, dairy products, spices and aromas associated with the Indian sub-continent. The meal could be mildly spiced. Does not contain: Meat, poultry, fish, seafood, and eggs.” And, from United Airlines: “This is a non-strict vegetarian meal that is prepared in an Indian style and may be spicy. This meal is free of meat, poultry, fish and shellfish, and may include dairy products.”

Ask for advice 

For all of these special meals, you’ll want to order at least 24 and probably more than 48 hours in advance. But if you forget, do what I do: after takeoff and before the crew are getting busy, pop to wash your hands in the lavatory and ask a friendly-looking member of the cabin crew which of the options are looking the best today.

Bon appétit!

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