Staff Picks: Our Go-To Airplane Foods

airplane food

We've all been there: You've gone through the hassle of packing a suitcase, the endless gridlock, the nightmarish shuffle of airport security. And then, at long last, you're stranded in a mind-numbingly vast holding pen, surrounded by overpriced, lackluster pastries and sandwiches. Oh, and you're really, really hungry.

There are few more contentious dining arenas than the airport, not to mention the airplane itself. Let's face it—air travel's a pain in the ass, and the density of bad food can sometimes be the last straw. So how does a food lover tackle eating in transit? Here's how we feed ourselves for those long, hunger-inducing flights.

The Perfect Sandwich


I've pondered this question since an eight-year-old me boarded a flight to Germany with five bags of chips which, my father tells me, I snacked on IN MY SLEEP. Now that I'm older, wiser, and fatter, I've developed the following criteria: airplane food should be 1) physically dense for convenient transport, 2) nutritionally dense because god forbid I miss out on a single calorie while switching time zones, 3) clean and easy to eat at room temperature, and 4) ridiculously indulgent because flying is terrible and there's no better way to deal with two-hour just 10 more minutes delays than eating your feelings.

To that end, I submit: the giant-ass deli hero. Hot cappa, Genoa salami, prosciutto so thin you can see through it, and more fresh mozz or tangy provolone than is wise. Shredded lettuce and pickled peppers, please, no dressing needed. And make it a 12-incher. Airplane designs are still humane enough to fit one of them under your seat. —Max Falkowitz

My favorite airplane foods? That is a thought-provoking question. The first one that comes to mind is a simple ham and cheese sandwich on a baguette with cornichons and a little butter. If it's a long flight I buy an epi baguette that consists of a connected series of irregularly shaped rolls (it helps that a branch of the ever-expanding retail empire of the great Parisian bread baker Eric Kayser just opened a Maison Kayser on my corner). Then if I have time I make the sandwiches at home and then put them into a paper bag and head to the airport. If not I just buy the epi baguette, ham, cheese, butter, and cornichons, take them through security (make sure you drain the cornichons), and assemble them on the plane. With a plastic knife supplied by the flight attendant for the butter, the assembly is a relatively neat and self-contained process. The result is plenty of food to last me through a transcontinental or transatlantic flight.

For dessert, a package of Justin's dark chocolate peanut cups. They come two to a package, they're a little more than a hundred calories each, and they hit the spot. Two other foods I frequently take on planes are room temperature slices of really good pizza (say, the spicy pepperoni slices from Prince Street Pizza in New York) that have never seen the inside of a fridge and cold pieces of Popeye's seriously delicious fried chicken. What does all these foods have in common? They can be eaten without utensils, they can get through security, they don't emit any unpleasant odors, and they don't make a big mess. — Ed Levine

On a recent flight to Seattle that took 14 hours due to inclement weather, plane delays, and unhelpful customer service reps, an Italian combo with sweet peppers from New York's Parisi Bakery was my figurative stress ball. Not only did it withstand the beatings of a TSA inspection like a literal one would, the extra time it took to get through check-ins and lift offs allowed the flavors to meld into an intensely delicious sandwich. I pitied all those stuck with their refrigerated turkey wraps and $7 "cheese plates", because just half that sandwich was able to sate my hunger and knock me out for the rest of the flight.

Pro-tip: Prefer a Vietnamese sandwich? You can order a banh mi and get the pickled vegetables on the side. That way, by the time you board the plane, the bread's still nice and crusty and you can just assemble the whole thing in your seat. —Leang Chaing

I'm all about the painstakingly crafted travel-friendly sandwich—it's all in the layering. I start with toasted bread and then place my meats and cheeses on the outside, with any wetter ingredients like tomatoes and even condiments in the middle. Minimum soggage, maximum satisfaction. My most recent creation involved toasted rye with smoked turkey and swiss cheese sandwiching a thin layer of chopped liver (it really didn't smell that bad, I swear!), tomatoes, mustard, and coleslaw. I made it three hours before takeoff and it was still crisp and delicious when I finally unwrapped it in mid-flight. —Niki Achitoff-Gray

Just Embrace It

airplane food

I hate bringing food to the airport and resent any travel companions who do because, in their attempt to control everything, they end up ruining all the fun. It may sound crazy, but I LOVE eating shitty airport/airplane food. I've actually almost missed a flight because I was so determined to squeeze in an airport meal before getting on the plane. I also really like to drink at the airport and on the plane, usually beer at the airport and those little liquor bottles in flight. The best part is that every once in a while the food is surprisingly good. Most impressive, perhaps, was a delicious braised lamb stew with black cardamom I had on an Air India flight several years ago.

I've never thought much about why I have such strong feelings about this, but I think part of it is that, in my experience, having a relaxed attitude is essential to great travels. People who try to plan everything in advance end up missing many of the best experiences. To me, the best way to travel is to plan just enough and no more, then see where the wind takes you. And while that may seem completely unrelated to eating on planes, I think establishing that willingness to not control every last step of the trip starts as soon as you get to the airport. You gotta get yourself in the right mindset right from the beginning. —Daniel Gritzer

I honestly can't remember a time I've ever brought food aboard a flight. The type of food I'd want to bring would either offend my row-mates or be difficult to eat in a plane setting. Am I weird in being one of those people who secretly (or not so secretly) actually enjoys airplane food? And I mean even the $8-a-pop snack boxes with a dozen different little packages of snack foods. It's fun to have a meal consisting of a dozen almonds, a tetrapak of hummus, some strangely marinated olives in a foil pouch, and a couple slabs of single-serving cheddar cheese on rosemary crackers. So long as you avoid the brownie (It's an unwritten rule that all brownies served on airplanes shall be horrible and probably gluten-free), you're in good hands.

International flights with actual meal services, particularly on good Asian airlines, are even better! —J. Kenji Lopez-Alt

Ok, this is a Californiabrag, but at SFO you actually CAN buy legit snacks in the airport: Cowgirl Creamery cheese and baguettes do just fine. But if I'm not going to be in the right terminal for that, I like to bring slices of homemade zucchini bread, which is just sweet enough to keep me from buying an absurdly expensive bag of peanut M&Ms. —Maggie Hoffman

Serious Snackage

Ritz crackers

I always pack a bag of crackers to take on a plane—usually Triscuits, but maybe even just a sleeve of Ritz. Crackers are my secret fascination...I love the crunchy, salty aspect on its own, but usually I try to find something in an airport shop to spread on or dip them into like hummus or cheese. Easy to pack in a ziplock, and if I don't finish the bag I have snacks for the rest of my trip! —Vicky Wasik

If I'm planning, dried fruit and nuts. But like the GOOD stuff from Brooklyn's Sahadi's—I especially like coconut, because it's easy to carry, doesn't smell and doesn't go bad. In a pinch, I'll get snacks from Trader Joe's, like those sesame sticks!! But I have to admit that lately I'll just be totally lazy and get a Kind bar at the airport concession stand because it's easy. Although then I kick myself for spending so much money on something so tiny. If it's a really long flight, I usually just buy something at the airport food court that I hope won't be too smelly or go bad. A pre-wrapped sandwich or something like that. Which is sad, I know. —Tracie Lee

Rather than attempting to make a flight more enjoyable by bringing quality snacks, I typically just embrace the suck and think about the good rewards that (hopefully) await on the other side. I've usually got some sort of nuts or trail mix on hand if the hunger becomes too much, but usually I'm sitting in a window seat, eyes closed, reminding myself that the In-n-Out near LAX opens at 10:30—and there's nothing wrong with eating a double-double for breakfast. —Paul Cline