When you board an airplane and walk past the first-class passengers settling into their double-wide seats, it’s difficult to avoid feeling like a second-class citizen. The issue isn’t only personal space. As the curtain closes behind the lucky few, you know the crew is preparing a nonstop feast for those with plenty of disposable income.
You can almost see the French cheeses and crackers on a tray with glasses of bubbly Champagne, an opulent first course meant to stimulate the appetite before a gourmet entree — chateaubriand, perhaps, or line-caught salmon with roasted asparagus. If you listen closely, you can hear the flight attendant whispering to leave room for the hot fudge sundae with fresh whipped cream and toasted almonds.
In coach, nothing is free. Sure, for now the sodas, water, and coffee are still complimentary, but if you’re hungry, have your credit card ready. Alaska Airline’s cheeseburger with chips or the Chicken Bánh Mi Sandwich is a relative bargain at $7, but Delta charges $9.99 for a grilled chicken wrap, and a vending-machine-type pastrami and cheese (cheese on pastrami?) sandwich is $9.99 on American Airlines. Delta’s “Eats Treats” is a choice of three snack boxes with packets of easy to eat chips, cookies, cheese spread, nuts and dried fruit for $5.99-$8.99.
You’ll do a lot better if you brown bag it and pretend you’re on a picnic.
Choose food with staying power
Pack food that travels well: trail mix, your own tea bags and sunflower seeds. Fresh fruit is good, but avoid berries that bruise easily. Carrot and celery sticks are great, as are sandwiches. One caveat: Remember that you can only take 3 ounces of any liquid through airport security, so go easy on the salad dressing or condiments you bring.
Assemble sandwiches carefully
Sandwiches are an easy-to-eat option for in-flight meals because everyone gets to choose what they want. There are an infinite number of combinations from ham and cheese on rye to grilled shiitake mushroom and watercress sandwich for vegetarians. Meat eaters in the family can go crazy and build a feast of turkey breast, salami and provolone on deli rye.
To keep your bread pristine, put the mayo or mustard (as well as tomatoes or lettuce) between the meat slices, not directly on the bread. Or, for really long flights, wrap the bread, meat and cheese in plastic wrap sealed in Ziploc bags and assemble the sandwich with condiment packets while you’re flying.
Avoid fillings that might disturb your fellow passengers. Overly messy food or condiments, like chopped liver and garlic paste are a bit too aromatic for an airplane’s close quarters.
Keep it fun for the kids
If kids like peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, stop at a camping supply store and pick up a couple of refillable plastic tubes. The kids can choose their favorite peanut butter and jam and pre-fill the tubes at home. Now they have something to look forward to on the plane.
A salad bar in the air
Make carrot, potato or pasta salad at home and pack it in plastic containers. Keep a green salad fresh by assembling it when you’re ready to eat. (A tip: You can pick up a couple of the empty salad dressing containers at your grocery store’s salad bar.) At home, give everyone the chance to pack their favorite salad fixings. Besides lettuce or arugula, bring chopped tomatoes, scallions, croutons, olives, hardboiled egg slices, crumbled cheese, or carrot rounds — those salad-dressing containers work well for these items, too.
Want to make your salad even more delicious? Try this simple vinaigrette. Just heat ¼ cup of balsamic vinegar over a low flame until it’s reduced to a teaspoon, then mix it together with 2 tablespoons of olive oil. The reduced balsamic adds depth and natural sweetness to the dressing.
Let your deli do the work
To glam up your meal, nothing says classy like a charcuterie plate and nothing is easier to prepare. Pick up a selection of favorite meats, pâtés, cheeses, and a small baguette or a selection of rolls at your favorite deli. Bring along some olives, a few cornichons — those tart French pickles — and a packet of Dijon mustard, and you won’t care what the first-class passengers are eating.
Celebrate your sweet tooth
For dessert, go wild and stop at your favorite bakery. Fresh fruit tarts don’t travel well, but cookies, muffins, scones and even eclairs do quite nicely if packed in plastic containers, like the ones used at the deli or the lidded containers sold by Ziploc and Glad.
Don’t forget the basics
Bring paper plates, napkins and plastic utensils so you can feast in style. A plain kitchen towel makes a perfect airplane tray tablecloth and helps with spills. Pack everything in plastic containers. Be a good neighbor and carry plastic bags for easy clean up so you don’t leave any trash behind. Take along sea salt and freshly ground pepper in empty 35mm film canisters (remember those?) or even the plastic containers used for prescription medication.
Why we love flying
With all the inconveniences, we easily forget that flying is a manmade miracle. Think about it, a hundred-plus people and all their luggage powering through the sky above the highest clouds. Amazing. If only we didn’t feel so claustrophobically uncomfortable, we could return to the wonder we felt as kids when we pressed our noses against the window and looked down at the earth below.
We can’t regain that lost innocence, but enjoying a delicious home-prepared meal, maybe we can reconnect with the fun of flying. A really good sandwich, some olives, and a crisp Fuji apple from the farmers market can do that for you.