We’ve all been there: It’s the beginning of a long-haul international flight, you’re settling in with your noise-canceling headphones, fully loaded kindle, and complimentary plastic cup of wine just before meal service is about to start. You’re mulling over the choices on the in-flight meal menu: meat and potatoes or cheese ravioli? With the reputation that airline food has, this may be one of the most difficult decisions of your entire vacation.
Fret no more! We’ve rounded up our tips for hacking your airline meals to make them more flavorful, learning how to choose the best in-flight food options, or what to pack in your carry-on so that you can turn your tray table into a prep table.
1. Spice Up Your Life
Flying can dull your senses. The dry cabin air lessens your sense of smell—a crucial part of eating. While in the air, our sweet and salty senses can be decreased by up to 30 percent just because of the background noise from the plane engines. When airline chefs create your in-flight meals, they taste-test them in a hyperbaric chamber, which are essentially pressurized rooms that offer the same type of dining environment as the flight cabin. Even taking decreased senses into account, airplane food still winds up bland.
We recommend turning a standard weekly pill organizer into an on-hand spice rack. Think sea salt, paprika, cinnamon, or Tajin, the popular Mexican condiment of chili, lime, and salt. In a pinch, ask for extra pretzels or peanuts—you can easily crush them and sprinkle them over your dinner for some added crunch and salt.
2. Keep Hot Sauce in Your Bag
No, really, use some of your carry-on liquid allowance for things like hot sauce, or even harissa. These condiments are essential if a spongy, flavorless omelet is your only breakfast option. You can also expand your liquid allotment to include olive oil (fat = flavor!), honey for your tea, or even bring a vial of truffle oil. Hell, bring a small container of ranch if that’s what you’re into.
If you’re in desperate need of some additional flavor and forgot your hot sauce arsenal on the ground, ask for extra tabs of butter and melt them onto your food for some added flavor and salt.
3. Just Add Water
Rather than grabbing an egg McMuffin before getting on a 10-hour flight, stick a few packets of oatmeal into your carry-on and ask for an empty coffee cup and some hot water once you’re in the air. If you’ve managed to pack some trail mix, stir it in for added protein.
If you’re prone to sickness when flying, a thermos is your best friend. Make your own tea by chopping up ginger, turmeric, and lemon before leaving home and storing them in a thermos. Stop by a coffee stand or bar before boarding and ask for the thermos to be filled with hot water (once you’re past security of course!), or fill er’ up once you get in the air. If you can’t commit to thinking ahead with fresh tea, pack your favorite fancy tea bags.
On the occasion that you’re boarding a flight when you’re already feeling under the weather, pack your thermos with a spoonful of miso paste and some veggies. Add hot water and you’ve got miso soup on the fly.
4. Stock Up
Sometimes, dietary restrictions or a constant need to be snacking means that airline food and odd meal times don’t sync with your dining habits. This is when you’ll need to rely more heavily on planning ahead.
Stock up on portable protein-heavy snacks, which will keep you full when dairy or gluten-free meals aren’t an option or the snack service isn’t frequent enough. Think peanut or almond butter packets for banana chips, crackers, apple slices, or pretzels. Some companies make travel-sized containers of hummus that are a perfect dip for free pretzels (or whatever crackers and veggies you’ve managed to bring). Siggi’s also makes liquid restriction-compliant yogurt pouches for a grown-up high-protein version of Go-Gurt. Whatever you do, leave the stinky hard-boiled eggs and tuna sandwiches at home (please).
5. Know What to Choose
If you’re not very good at planning ahead or can’t spare any liquid ounces for some Tapatío, go for saucy dishes rather than big cuts of meat when the meal cart rolls around. Food tends to dry out in the air because of the lack of humidity, but saucy dishes like pasta or curries will maintain some integrity after the cooking, freezing, and reheating process. When it comes to what tastes better, choosing meals that tap into your umami flavor receptors like mushrooms, tomatoes, or soy sauce will be more enjoyable than their simpler counterparts.
If you’ve got the cash to spare, you can hack your airline meal by choosing an airline that pays more attention to the food it serves like Singapore Airlines or Air France. If those airlines don’t fly to your destination, some offer reasonable upgrades for better food or access to airport lounges that offer fresh fruit and name brand snacks before boarding.