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When you catch that flight to Europe, South America or somewhere even farther, it’s always a relief when the flight attendant comes around with lunch, dinner or breakfast (and sometimes multiple meals!). But if you’ve ever wondered how those itty bitty dishes artfully arranged on your tray are prepped, how it gets on the plane and why it never stinks, you’re in luck. We did the digging and got the behind-the-cart scoop that included a few surprises:

RELATED: 5 airline perks you didn’t know you could get in coach

Airplane meals have a short shelf life

“To abide by food and health standards, [airplane] meals have a short shelf life of just a few hours” says Richard Gonzalez, an aviation consultant with Briscoe Group and an Air Force Reserve Pilot. As a result, those pre-packaged bites are loaded onto the plane during the pre-flight process while airport staff are getting the plane prepped for take-off, he says. If there’s a delay and a pilot can’t take off for an extended period of time, all of those meals have to be thrown out ASAP to avoid giving passengers food poisoning. In fact, on Valentine’s Day 1992, many people got sick (one fatally) when catered shrimp caused a cholera outbreak on an Aerolineas Argentina flight from Buenos Aires to Los Angeles.

A food truck will dock alongside the plane

Depending on what seat you select when you book your flight, you might be able to watch your food go from farm to table, er, rather from a set of wheels to a pair of wings. Kind of like getting takeout or ordering off of Amazon, food arrives via delivery truck. “If you happen to be seated towards the back of the plane, you might see the delivery truck docked next to the aircraft during the boarding process. These large containers, similar to what an 18-wheeler hauls, are raised 10 to 20 feet in the air and driven up to the aircraft to expedite the transfer process,” Gonzalez explains.

Some foods are too stinky to serve

When the flight attendant places your meal on the tray, you’ll likely notice that a small package of salt and pepper is included—and ahem, needed. Though they often try their best to create dinner options that will satisfy, Greg Antonelle, owner of a travel agency explains that the components of a meal have to be somewhat bland, just for the comfort of passengers. “It’s known that they try to limit ingredients with robust odors due to the confined space on planes,” he says.

Meals account for your lost sense of taste

Gonzalez says that when we’re miles above the ground, the low pressure and the dry, stale air cause us to lose up to 30 percent of our taste bud sensitivity. Don’t believe him? It was actually scientifically-proven by The Fraunhofer Institute in Germany in 2010. Researchers discovered that when we’re 30,000 in the sky, the air we’re breathing is comparable to the air in a desert, causing us to lose strength in our sense of smell. Many airlines have evolved their menus to reflect this shift in our senses, chasing after the “umami” taste buds, which are heightened in flight. This specific sense is tied to savory flavors, meaning you might crave salt more than normal.

ALSO: You’ll feel like you’re walking on air with the discounts you’ll receive with Orbitz Rewards!

Meals are heated up, not cooked

When that meal makes it to the plane, it’s mostly ready to go. In fact, it’s about 60 to 70 percent cooked, and just needs to be warmed up to perfection by the flight attendants before serving. In most cases, nothing is actually chopped, diced, boiled or braised on the actual plane, but rather, just tidied up, kind of like when you come home from work and you whip up something from the night before. That being said, if you can fork over the extra (thousands of) dollars to fly first class, certain airlines—like Etihad Airways (where chefs undergo a five-week cabin crew training course and an intensive two-week chef program before boarding their first flight), go above and beyond with their service.

Flight attendants used to bake fresh biscuits

There’s nothing like waking up to the smell of breakfast being cooked, and if you took a flight years ago, you might have had that experience. “When I started flying, flight attendants at my airline baked fresh their own breakfast biscuits and dessert cookies,” says flight attendant and author, Steffanie Rivers. “Now, they are baked and flash frozen and packaged for us. We place them in the oven and warm them up. It actually helps to create a uniformed service if the food already is cooked. All we flight attendants have to do is worry about the presentation of the food!”

Some flight attendants earn commission on food sales

If that meal wasn’t enough to wet your whistle, you might opt to buy a snack from the card in the backseat pocket. Make sure you eye down the flight attendant you like the most because guess what? Some airlines offer their attendants commission from those sales. “Airplane food is more expensive when purchased on the plane rather than at a store because flight attendants get a commission on food sales. So the airline has to mark it up for the price spread to make sense,” Rivers shares.

They cut corners everywhere

Thirty years ago American Airlines found a simple—and effective— way to save a lot of money. By removing a single olive from their salads, they were able to save $40,000 in one year.  Another way to pinch pennies is via that cardboard box your meal sometimes arrives in on a long flight. It’s cheaper than a tray (which has to be washed), is (somewhat) good for the planet since it can be recycled and it cuts back on the overall cost of feeding passengers.

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Tagged: Feature, Top 10 Lists

Lindsay Tigar

Lindsay Tigar

Lindsay is a lifestyle and travel writer, and content strategist. She is a passport stamp collector with an affinity for great wine, coffee and conversation. You can find a full collection of her work at lindsaytigar.com.
Lindsay Tigar

@lindsaytigar

Writer. Traveler. Editorial Director at ClassPass. Avid boxer and yogi. New Yorker. Lover.
Lindsay Tigar

One thought on “7 things you don’t know about your airplane meal (but should)”

  1. When airlines first started full service, people dressed for their trip as if they were going to church, instead of their rec room. Steak dinners were available. Today’s domestic airlines make you feel like the cattle before slaughter.

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