aNewDomain — Ever wonder why some passengers get served first on international flights?
They are the special meal peeps.
I never figured out why certain passengers got served ahead of me until I became a pescatarian two years ago.
The photo you see at top is a Spicy Asian meal I had on a recent Virgin Atlantic flight between London and New York. It’s one of my winners in the airlline food comparison below. The meal had only one shortcoming: A cold, tasteless roll. It was tasteless even with butter on it.
As a pescatarian, I eat fish, dairy and egg products but avoid other meat. So a vegetarian meal is my usual request. That’s because fish is not usually an option on flights. But most domestic and international airlines offer special meals if you request in advance.
I have discovered that special meals aren’t just served first, either. They are often tastier than standard plane fare. I have met quite a few passengers who are not vegetarians, but they order a special meal to get faster service and because they think it’s healthier. I believe it is. Do remember to order any special meal a few days in advance, though, or you’ll be out of luck.
Before you start deciding whether to eat like a Hindu, Muslim, Jew or vegan in the interest of better in-flight food, I have to warn you that lousy special meals are also widely available on most flights. I have received a bland special meal only to find myself envious of the vegetarian ravioli that other passengers received as their regular meal.
Virgin Atlantic, Delta and Japan Airlines all served two delicious vegetarian meals on 10-plus hour flights to Europe and Japan from either LAX or JFK. In testing all this airline food, I suffered my share: KLM, for instance, needs to seriously rethink its breakfast wraps. Yuck. But overall, this assignment tasted a lot better than I thought it might.
Here, at long last, is my airline food comparison, with a focus on special meals Virgin, Delta and JAL. Enjoy!
Ever notice food tastes different in flight?
Before we dive into the airline food comparison below, you should know this: Food really does taste different in the sky. There’s even a physiological reason why airplane food tastes different. We lose 30 percent of our sense of taste at cruising altitude.
Mark Nunn, Virgin Atlantic’s in-flight services food and beverage manager, attributes taste loss to dry cabin air and pressurization. On a visit to Virgin’s Base in Crawley, Nunn told me all about it.
You see, Nunn has a cool job. He travels the globe tasting, selecting and approving menus for Upper Class, Premium Economy and Economy passengers on Virgin Atlantic.
Some of his findings? Food that tastes fine on the ground often seem bland — or blander — at altitude. Nunn advises that you compensate for that differential with seasoning.
Another limitation with airline food is that whatever is served on the flight must not be offensive to the destination population. No pork dishes, for example, are served on a flight to Dubai, which is Muslim, Nunn explained.
The good news is beer news. Beer fits into a variety of diets. This Indian beer option on Virgin Atlantic was pretty popular. I prefer the Asahi beer option on Japan Airlines.
Best special meal on Virgin Atlantic: vegetarian
When Virgin Atlantic promises to make flying fun, the airline means everything from its flight attendants to the food. But does it deliver?
True, the Virgin flight attendants had me at “Hello” because I’m a sucker for a British accent, but I’ve found they appear to be genuinely welcoming even when you are seated in Economy.
I’ve had flight attendants on domestic carriers who seem to resent being stuck in Coach with me. That’s just rotten.
All politeness aside, my tastebuds are accent-agnostic. And I’ll tell you one thing for sure: Virgin Atlantic‘s vegetarian meals are awfully good.
This kale and tabouleh veggie wrap, above, was my second meal. And the caramel bar below was dessert. Unlike many airlines, Virgin Atlantic realizes that a special diet doesn’t mean a passenger only wants bland, unripened fruit for dessert. I know I don’t! Give me some sugar, Virgin! And it did.
Best special meal on Delta: Asian vegetarian
Delta has upped its game in the last few years and is one of my favorite airlines to fly. The airline has 17 special meal options. I can recommend the Asian vegetarian meal pictured below.
This option on Delta usually features a spicy Indian dish. And my dinner on the flight from JFK to Manchester was great — well, except for the cold, tasteless roll I mentioned. To be fair, I probably have been spoiled by the warm bread and rolls you get with Business and First Class meals.
My meals between LAX and JFK were also excellent. And I received free meals because I was seated in one of Delta’s Comfort+ seats. These seats really do give you a lot more legroom, plus you get to board earlier, you get more free entertainment options and all alcohol is complimentary to imbibing adults.
So here’s a story: A week before my flight to Manchester, I thought about spending $99 to upgrade my Delta Economy seat to Delta Comfort+, but I decided not to spend the money.
When I checked in for my flight 24 hours before departure, I discovered I was eligible for a free upgrade to Comfort+ as a Silver Medallion Skymiles member. Those with higher status can upgrade even earlier. On my flight to JFK, I found the airline food was pretty awesome. I had a delicious yogurt parfait with mixed berries, granola and honey.
It was so tasty that I devoured half of it before thinking to take a picture, so the photos wound up looking gross and you won’t be seeing them here.
Anyway, on my flight home from JFK to LAX, I had a great LUVO vegetarian meal pictured below. The hummus and tahini wrap was great, and the coconut chocolate chip cookie was as good as the dessert on Virgin Atlantic.
Best special meal on Japan Airlines? Hindu Asian vegetarian and asahi
I fell hard for Japan Airlines (JAL) in June because I had the privilege to fly on the Dreamliner between LAX and Kansai Airport.
All of my in-flight meals on JAL (pictured below) looked good and tasted great. I don’t know if the fact that the Dreamliner is pressurized at a lower altitude than most planes was a factor, but probably it was. The airplane cabin was definitely not as dry as most airplane cabins. I chose the Hindu Asian vegetarian meal option because I thought it would have some spice. It did, and I highly recommend that meal option.
On my JAL flight back home to LAX, my meals were good, too. See for yourself.
BTW: Asahi became my preferred in-flight beer on that trip. I’m tipping one back on all airlines from now on …
Now you know what special meal to order on your next flight. Hope you liked my airplane food comparison … more to come!
All photos taken by Terry Gardner. All Rights Reserved, 2015.