underscored nina compton airplane food lead

Let’s face it: Airplane meals typically aren’t the best food that’ll ever grace your taste buds. Unless you’re flying in a first-class suite at the front of the plane, a frozen, recently reheated bland meal served in an aluminum-covered dish is not going to make anyone’s appetite grow.

But it doesn’t have to be like that. James Beard award-winning chef and former “Top Chef” finalist Nina Compton says that airplane food can actually taste better with a few helpful tips.

“Airplane food got a bad rep because you’re producing food in masses, and it’s also because you’re traveling thousands of feet above [the ground],” Compton tells CNN Underscored.

Compton has partnered with American Express to bring card holders a unique dining experience as part of Member Week 2022. On Tuesday, Oct. 11, eligible American Express card holders can book reservations at 20 exclusive restaurants for one night only (Nov. 1). One of those restaurants is Compton’s Compère Lapin in New Orleans, an eatery that combines the flavors of the Caribbean and New Orleans with a European influence.

When it comes to travel, Compton finds flying to be a very meditative experience when she has a good book packed in her carry-on bag. But, when it comes time to eat, she knows the meals aren’t guaranteed to be a 3-star Michelin feast.

It’s a well-known fact while at 35,000 feet in the sky, our food doesn’t taste the same as it does on the ground. According to a 2010 study commissioned by the German airline Lufthansa, our perception of sweet and salty drops by as much as 30% when at altitude and when the cabin air is dry. Different studies have found that other factors, such as the background noise from the engine sound, can affect how our food tastes when at altitude. (Noise-canceling headphones are believed to be a big help here!)

Catering companies and airlines have attempted to alter their recipes and food and beverage offering in order to accommodate our changes in taste in the sky, but one of Compton’s top suggestions is to look out for the right meal choice — paying special attention to its seasonings — to make sure you’re going to be getting something that has flavor.

“It comes down to the marination of the items,” Compton says. “Lots of fresh herbs really brighten up a dish, so marinated chicken dishes and beef with strong herbs like rosemary are really punchy and they come through really nicely. It gives you the thought that it’s prepared very well and I think that’s a really big thing.”

When it comes time to order, consider the menu items that have the highest likelihood of flavor. Compton typically orders beef dishes, which she thinks are the most likely to be well seasoned.

For the dishes that she’s not so confident will be well seasoned, Compton recommends coming to the airport prepared. “One of the things that I always carry with me is a little pocket salt,” she says. “I carry Jacobsen Sea Salt in case something needs a little more salt.”

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Jacobsen Salt Co. Pure Flake Finishing Salt, 4 Ounce
Compton recommends Jacobsen Sea Salt, which is harvested from the waters of Netarts Bay on the Oregon Coast. While you probably won’t want to take this whole 4-ounce bag with you, bring a small reusable bag with some salt flakes in it — enough for your flight to your destination and home again.

Salt doesn’t always do the trick to make something taste more appealing while in the air. And in that case, Compton recommends traveling with something to give your meal a bit more spice.

“Sometimes I carry a little bit of Tobasco just for the added kick,” she says. “Cooking for the masses, you have to basically please every palate. You don’t really see things like curries on the menu because not everybody likes that.”

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Tabasco Original Flavor Pepper Sauce 2 Ounces, Pack of 4
These 2-ounce mini bottles of Tabasco are perfect for travelers, as they pass the TSA’s 3-1-1 liquid rule and can therefore make it through the security checkpoint and on the plane with you.

If no amount of salt and tabasco can save your meal, you’ve got to have spares nearby, which is why it’s smart to fly with sufficient travel snacks on hand. For Compton, she always carries a bottle of sparkling water for the times when cabin crew aren’t around and she wants a quick sip to stay hydrated.

She also carries a packet of cashew nuts or a Kind bar on a flight in the case she gets hungry during the journey.

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Nut Harvest Sea Salted Whole Cashews, Pack of 16
These 2.25-ounce packs of sea salted whole cashews are perfect for sticking in a travel backpack and heading to the airport. Plus, with 16 packs included in this box, you’ll have plenty for all of your upcoming travels.

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Kind Nut Bars Variety Pack, 12 Count
Kind bars are packed with nutrients and are a solid option for travelers if you need to feel replenished after — or during — a long flight. This variety pack includes flavors such as dark chocolate nuts and sea salt, peanut butter dark chocolate, and caramel almond and sea salt.

In recent years, airlines have made strides to improve the meal experience for passengers — whether that’s with more options for those with dietary restrictions or increased investment in in-flight catering.

“I think the airlines are definitely trying and it’s a tough job,” Compton says. But not every experience is great just yet, so ultimately, it pays to be prepared. By ordering the right meal and having some reinforcements of salt and hot sauce nearby, you can almost always make your airplane meal tastier.

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