Why is airplane food so terrible?

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This question originally appeared on Quora: Why is airplane food so terrible? Answer by Jay Wacker.

I fly first and business class a lot (thanks to upgrades), so I’ve sampled a lot of food. Some of it is quite good. I know that the people designing the meals care and try, but it’s immensely hard. Factor in that people are usually in a foul mood from the whole security and boarding procedure, and there’s little hope for unanimous praise.

The real issue though is that the constraints upon airplane food are pretty severe. Airplanes aren’t kitchens. Think about serving a 450-person wedding, and remember all the bad wedding food experienced.

For a hot meal right after take-off, you have to make a meal that can take being heated for a long period of time in the serving container. The food is precooked or par-cooked (they can’t do on-the-spot cooking). The shortest hold times are usually about 60 to 90 minutes. So except for stews, say goodbye to any delicate proteins. Vegetables are tough to do well. A lot of starches begin to break down. Nevertheless, if you notice, you get the best meal right after take-off (and that’s why they serve dinner at 4pm) because it is the easiest high-quality meal to get to the passengers.

For meals served well after take-off (usually trans-oceanic flights), they have to heat from scratch. The ovens are pretty terrible and totally packed with food (450 meals from a few galleys). There is no consistent heating, and airlines are operating on a tight energy budget. You can’t afford to undercook anything or burn something, so you have to be super-careful about what you serve.

Once you take into account the immense variety of dietary restrictions that airplanes have to cater to: vegetarians, vegans, pescatarians, allergies, spice-haters, lactose intolerance, pregnant women, people with suppressed immune systems, etc., you start to realize the problem. Ultimately, you have to hit the lowest common denominator. Plus, if meals result in any food-borne illness, there is going to be a serious problem (can you imagine a run on the restrooms over the Pacific?). So, safety-first, and if compromises in taste are necessary, so be it.

Sandwiches and wraps can be done fairly well on short-haul flights, but you run into sogginess problems on long flights unless they’re very dry. The delivery chain is very complicated and involves multiple temperatures. For instance, lettuce is very sensitive to temperature. On a blistering day, those aluminum carts can get hot if they get held up unexpectedly (like if a wheelchair assist closes down the galley). You need to be perfect all the time, and it’s just really hard to do that in such a complicated environment serving hundreds of people.

Additionally, you have very tight budgets for ingredients. Airlines push to get the lowest fares. People make a decision based on $5. If the airlines can knock that off the fare, they’ll do it—particularly in coach. They really do scrutinize budgets down to the last ingredient.

For me, the best meals usually are the ones on Asian airlines because they often serve curries over rice or stews over rice, which can be done quite cheaply. They hold well, but the cuisine can disagree with a lot of Western palates, so they aren’t used on many European or American airlines.

I haven’t singled out the in-flight food for sale on American airlines. Never buy this food. It’s usually terrible. I get given it due to my frequent flyer status and I barely touch it. It’s basically convenience store food at a premium, and it’s prepared and stored under similar junky condition.

If an airline was totally dedicated to delivering high-quality meals, they could re-engineer the entire process. But passengers have spoken, and the vast majority of them want price over value over luxury (including myself). It would probably require $100 per meal to get something that a typical person would consider good. This is not due to ingredients, but having to retrofit an entire fleet of planes and design completely new ovens, probably $10 million investment or more. You might need to get new FAA approval for a lot of equipment, and it would take five to 10 years before they were in planes.

So I eat what I can, and try to figure out what challenges the food engineer struggled with when designing the meal before me.

This Quora answer has been lightly edited. 

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