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Flight of fancy feasts: Making the most of in-flight dining

By Kristi Keck
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(CNN) -- You're sitting on an airplane, 30,000 feet away from anything that might stimulate your taste buds. Your stomach starts to growl. You see the flight attendant wheeling the meal cart down the aisle. It's decision time. Do you dare sample these unidentified flying objects, or do you fight hunger pains for the rest of the flight?

OK, so maybe it's not that bad -- but airline food is definitely not that good. And as any experienced flyer knows, over the years, in-flight dining has been on the decline.

"In the 50s, dining was part of the in-flight experience because flying itself was deluxe travel, so people expected a bit of deluxe food," said Marco Hart, founder of His Web site features more than 18,000 pictures of airline meals, spanning more than half a century.

Pictures of in-flight meals from the 1970s showcase roast beef, potatoes, green beans and red wine. The pictures from recent years, however, look slightly less appetizing.

Why? As the price of fuel goes sky-high, other services have been put on the chopping block.

"Clearly [airlines] have been engaged in cost cutting, and one of the areas where it's been most noticeable is cutting meal service," said Bill McGee, the travel editor for Consumer Reports.

The stigma of airline food has more than a morsel of truth to it, but if you keep a few things in mind, you can make your in-flight dining experience more enjoyable.

Airplane < restaurant

"The first frustration coming from a customer is when they don't get what they expected because they didn't know what to expect. It's always best for the traveler to be as educated as possible to know what the offerings are," said Bob Schuerman, general manager of in-flight products for Midwest Airlines.

Remember, you are in an airplane. It is a mode of transportation, not a flying restaurant.

Don't expect a flight attendant to fire up a grill and prepare a New York strip.

"You have to understand that these kinds of meals have been cooked in a kitchen, put on a truck, driven around an airport, loaded onto an airplane, and in many cases they are unrefrigerated for a while," McGee said.

By the time the meal gets to you, it has gone through a lot.

Blame it on the buds

You also need to understand that the food is not as bad as it tastes -- really.

"With the particulars of aircraft -- pressurized aircraft, low humidity, dehydration, cabin pressure -- we lose about 20 percent of our taste buds," said Shawn Monroe, executive chef of Mader's restaurant in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

Monroe did an in-flight tasting of all sorts of foods to find out which flavors aren't flight-friendly. Flavors that don't work include dry breads processed with a lot of salt, frozen or canned vegetables and processed foods. Monroe said Asian, Mexican, South American and Cajun/Creole dishes maintained flavor at 30,000 feet.

"We found that there are certain buds that work, certain buds that don't. Certain flavors, obviously, you need to give a little more punch to the food," Monroe added.

Taking it up a notch

With the taste buds in mind, Monroe teamed up with Midwest Airlines and designed the onboard menu for the Best Care Cuisine program.

"It's a chef-prepared, by scratch, buy-on-board meal program that is offered to customers to purchase as a fresh product in flight," Schuerman said.

The menu includes gourmet goodies such as wasabi salmon, Cajun rubbed shrimp and poached eggs. The meals cost between $5 and $10.

"We think like a restaurant that delivers food of restaurant quality onto our aircraft," said Schuerman.

While not every airline has taken the buy-on-board program to this height, you're likely to find boxed lunched with sandwiches or salads for sale on many flights. With security getting tighter, sales for these services will be on the rise.

Making the most of it

If buy-on-board is not an option, you'll have to make the most of what you're offered.

McGee, who studied the largest domestic carriers still offering full economy meals, advises choosing foods with staying power.

He said salads are safe bets because they are not going to dry out over a long amount of time. Hart said if given the choice of chicken or pasta, go with pasta. Chicken tends to be rubbery after it goes through all the preparations.

You can also call ahead -- at least 24 hours in advance -- to request a special meal. Most airlines offer vegetarian, low calorie, low sodium and kosher dishes, to name a few. These meals are generally better than the prepackaged meals that are made in bulk.

"You get something that gets some special attention. It's not just the average meal," said Hart.

If worst comes to worst, and you just can't stomach whatever is in front of you, take comfort knowing you can chow down after the plane touches down. At least you will know what to expect next time.

"I think some passengers are expecting restaurant-type cuisine, and there are certain limitations that even the best airlines have in delivering that," McGee said.

"If passengers are sitting back expecting that this is a cycle, and it's going to reverse itself over time, and we're going to be getting full meals on short flights again, it's just not going to happen," McGee added.


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