Airplane food has changed drastically over the past 100 years—it’s been a rollercoaster, going from bad to good and back to bad again once we entered into the twenty-first century (at least for those who are sitting in economy).
However, for those who fly aboard some of the best airlines in the world can expect meals to be over-the-top, especially if you’re in a business or first class seat. But for other airlines, this may not always be the case.
In-flight meals were not always like this—the 1920s to the 1940s was a bad time to eat aboard an airline, whereas the 1950s through the 1970s was a terrific period to enjoy luxurious meals regardless if you sat in first or economy. Yes or no?
Let’s take a look at the past century to get a real feel for the history of airplane food, and we’ll let you be the judge!
In the 1920s, planes were not as advanced as they are today. All the energy to power the engines were used up and none was left for other luxuries such as heating up food. As a result, those passengers who flew during this time period had the pleasure of eating cold food, including salads, ice-cream, cheese, cold fried chicken, fruit salad and sandwiches all served on light chinaware.
If you were lucky enough to fly aboard Qantas Empire Airways (now Qantas) and Imperial Airways (now British Airways), you would be able to dine on “lobster and sherbet, ox tongue, roasted chicken, foie gras, and peaches with Melba sauce”. Yum!
The meals rarely changed, and since it was a time when only a few people flew, passengers wouldn’t even notice that what they ate was the same meal that was served over and over again, on every single flight.
During the 1930s, airlines began installing kitchens inside, which allowed the flight attendants to cook food such as beef while flying.
If you flew aboard Pan Am, then you were able to feast from a buffet in a dining room set up with white tablecloths.
For those who flew United Airlines, meals included a crabmeat cocktail, avocado and grapefruit salad, or lettuce and egg salads that were placed on top of white linen.
There were instances where the plane would land to refuel and serve the passengers outside in a picnic-type setting. Since airplanes flew closer to the ground, turbulence was almost always an issue, so it was much easier to feed the passengers on the ground than it was while flying.
The 1940s was the decade when frozen meals started to boom. The emergence of these quick, “hearty” meals had a lot to do with feeding the military during the war as they traveled from the U.S. to Europe. The airlines decided that they needed an economical way to feed their soldiers proper hot foods that they didn’t arrive malnourished (because during the war, military food was far from being hearty and healthy).
The transition into frozen meals also allowed carriers to have more variety in the type of food they could serve their passengers.
Meal variety took off during the 1950s, where passengers were able to devour foods such as Creole shrimp salad remoulade, cut pineapples studded with shrimp, cheese, cherry tomatoes and fruit squares, as well as chicken pie with a biscuit topping. Meals were served on a trolley that rolled down the aisle, allowing customers to see and choose what they wanted to eat.
Carriers began to buy jets in the 1960s, which allowed planes to add more seats and transport more passengers. With the addition of more travelers, airlines needed a way to serve food much faster. As such, meals were no longer served on chinaware, but instead, they were served on plastic trays and plates, making it easier and faster to serve and transport food.
Those who flew during this time period ate Cornish game hens, cream of tomato soap, fricassee of veal, pilaf rice with garden peas, with a choice of French red or white wine (and yes, these were the type of meals for passengers who flew in economy, too).
Everyone will tell you that the 1970s were the Golden Age of travel, especially for those who sat in first class. Meals were presented in such a luxurious fashion that it almost didn’t even matter what was served to you on a silver platter.
If you flew Japan Airlines during this decade, you could drink hot and cold sake and Japanese teas. And for those who flew on Pan Am could hang out in the upper deck lounge as they devoured a large selection of food, including chicken salad Hawaiian, Swiss roti, chilled shrimp mignonette, Chicken Kiev, filet mignon with salad or vegetables, key lime pie, French pastries, vanilla mousse and so much more.
As the airline industry entered into the 1980s, the competition between carriers grew as flying became cheaper and more affordable for the masses. As a result, airlines couldn’t afford to serve all of their passengers with lavish meals as they once did. In-flight meals served in the 1980s and into the 1990s is about the same as what we see today such as pasta, chicken or rice with veggies.
Nonetheless, during the 1980s and 1990s, airplane food was free, even for those flying within the domestic U.S. sitting in an economy seat. And those choices were not just sandwiches—you had a choice between a few hot meals paired with free alcohol.
We’re about to hit the year 2020, and in the past (almost) two decades, we have not seen many changes in the quality of airline food for passengers sitting in economy. However, in-flight dining for first and business class passengers has become posh. All meals are served on real plates with real utensils, and alcoholic drinks are free too. The food varies across each airline, but you are pretty much guaranteed a three-course meal with at least three to four different choices for your appetizer, entree and even dessert.
For passengers sitting in economy, you are stuck with either paying for a snack or sandwich (if flying domestically), or choosing between pasta and some other meat, paired with a salad and a cold bun (if flying internationally). Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem to be getting much better, but we do hope to see an upgrade in the next few years as passengers continue to have better and higher expectations from some of the best airlines in the world.