Yes, flying is a feat of engineering genius and something we’re grateful for every single day. But, (there’s always a “but,” isn’t there?) the process can certainly take a toll, from dehydration to general stress. That’s why it’s key to be aware of a few tips to make the experience as pleasant (and flavorful) as possible, and that, of course, starts with food and drink.
To help you have get the most out of your flight, we asked experts what travelers should know about in-flight dining. Mike Crowley, the vice president of onboard services at Delta Air Lines, James Beard Award-winning chef Jon Shook, co-owner of Jon & Vinny’s in Los Angeles, and more travel pros shared their tips for happier plane travel.
Eat something to prepare for landing
Crowley suggests digging into something that will make you excited for your destination. Plenty of airlines serve wines, dishes, and snacks that showcase the destinations they fly in and out of.
“That means kicking off an Italian vacation with a bowl of our pappardelle pasta with pomodoro sauce and a glass of sparkling wine,” Crowley adds as the perfect example. Check out your airline’s in-flight menu, which typically includes at least something from where you’re headed to help you get amped.
Alternatively, choose a dish that will get you excited to head back home. In August, James Beard Award winner Mashama Bailey unveiled a Southern-inspired menu curated for first class passengers flying out of Delta’s Atlanta hub. “We have a few things that are going to resonate with people who are away from home,” Bailey told Food & Wine about her comforting food now available in the air. “It’s for those who want something that’s feel good.”
Think short ribs with kanni sauce and smoked collard greens; vegan vegetable tagine with roasted sweet potato topped with a chermoula sauce; and buttermilk cornmeal tres leches with candied kumquats and mandarin oranges.
Don’t be afraid to bring your own spices
Have you ever noticed that your food tastes a little blander in the air? That’s because the altitude, air pressure, and even the loud sounds of an airplane all affect our taste buds.
As a group of Cornell food scientists explained in 2015, sweet and salty flavors are the most affected, with sweet sadly being inhibited but salty flavors are greatly enhanced. So, when possible, try to stay low sodium as you may be tempted to overdo it, but do try to throw in extra spice where you can.
“Not everyone knows that food tastes differently at high altitudes where taste buds are dulled. While many may think that adding salt to a dish is the only way to solve for that, it’s not,” Crowley says.
Don’t trust your plane to have spices? Bring a little of your own. According to the TSA, dry spices are allowed in both your carry-on and your checked luggage.
“Things just register very differently [in the air],” Bailey told Food & Wine. “That’s why people praise things like bloody Marys because you can actually taste all the salt in that.”
For super flavorful in-flight cocktails, you can even pack goodies like bitters, mini hot sauce bottles, martini olives, pearl onions, or Maraschino cherries (packaged in two- to three-ounce containers.) Read our guide to making your own fabulous in-flight drinks.
Go for a vegetable-forward dish
According to Crowley, Delta has seen a marked increase in demand for “vegetable-forward and plant-based dishes,” which the airline now offers alongside meat alternatives like Impossible Meatballs with a seasonal grilled vegetable plate and a vegan antipasti plate.
It’s also worth noting that some types of dishes translate better in the air. It is difficult to prepare perfectly cooked pasta on a plane, meaning it’s heated up during the flight and will likely get to you a bit overcooked or with a less-than-ideal sauce-to-pasta ratio. In a 2012, Fritz Gross, then-director of culinary excellence at LSG Sky Chefs Asia Pacific, told CNN that stew holds up best flavor-wise to all the reheating. “We can simmer it and reheat it over and over and it will still be a stew,” he said.
Bring the right snacks, even on shorter flights
Just because you’re on a shorter flight doesn’t mean you won’t get hungry. Want to save a little cash or don’t feel like waiting for in-flight service? Pack your own almonds, which, yes, are TSA friendly, too.
Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate
Your body can get seriously dehydrated on flights due to a plane’s low humidity level. As Bob Bacheler, managing director and in-flight nurse at Flying Angels, told CNN, a person’s body loses about eight ounces of water per hour on an airplane when it’s at altitude, making it imperative to replace it by drinking water.
“Staying hydrated is important, so drinking plenty of water every day, especially on travel days, will keep you feeling your best,” Shook says. “I bring my reusable water bottle with me wherever I go, and when the captain says we’re getting ready for landing — I always ask at that point to either refill my water bottle or for a new water bottle for me to take off the plane. I always make sure to drink plenty of water post-landing as well.”
How much should you be drinking? According to the Aerospace Medical Association, you should aim for “eight ounces of water each hour and use a hydrating nasal spray.”
Beyond food and drinks, there are other ways to make your flight as pleasant as possible. Crowley suggests checking out the in-flight entertainment options, which includes air-travel specific stretches and workouts via Peloton and podcasts via Spotify. Another go-to favorite you’ll find on several airlines is the meditation app, Headspace, which is available on flights across JetBlue, Delta, British Airways, Virgin Atlantic, United, and more.
You can even learn to cook, if you like: Bailey is now featured on Delta Studio, the seatback entertainment platform, as part of the airline’s partnership with MasterClass, which features 10 lessons from Bailey on Southern cooking techniques.