With These Airlines You’ll Want to Eat Onboard — Not at a Restaurant

It’s rarely the case that airlines will provide meals that will be better than what you can get on the ground. The prepacking in the flight kitchen, constrained spaces onboard, and altitude present real challenges. And food is hardly the primary driver of my choice of premium cabin airline (heh, award space usually is!).

But some airlines do a fantastic job despite the challenging conditions. Several things go into having the best meal service.

  1. High quality food
  2. Choice and flexibility, the option to have something that will appeal to you at the most convenient time
  3. Snacks as well as main meals for long haul

Several airlines address choice and flexibility either:

  • With a ‘book the cook’ option, the ability to order your preferred entree in advance. Singapore offers this in first and business class. I’ve used this from Thai Airways in first class. And EVA Air offers it in business.

  • With a ‘dine anytime’ concept, with menu items that you can mix and match to form a meal whenever you would like during the flight. Excellent examples are ANA, Emirates, and Etihad.

Dine anytime also means there’s great snacks available throughout a flight. Other airlines have good standalone snacks as well, like Cathay Pacific (whose main meals I’m not usually impressed by).

Overall, I’d say the best food belongs to:

  • Singapore
  • ANA
  • Asiana
  • Emirates
  • Etihad
  • Austrian

On the whole I think that Singapore Airlines has the best main meals, but their snacks are limited.

Etihad’s onboard chefs can be a mixed bag (a flight attendant with restaurant experience). Some just phone it in as flight attendants. Others take the time to get to know your preferences and surprise and delight you based on the ingredients on hand. Their ribeyes are very good, french fries a shocking concept for onboard but hit or miss, and the biryani always a go-to. Here it is from a First Apartment segment this year:

I’ve ordered it many times, here it is on a Washington Dulles – Abu Dhabi flight in 2014.

Asiana’s food is fantastic. So is ANA’s (both their Japanese and Western items). ANA’s mix and match style is very good as well in first.

Here’s Asiana black truffle risotto from a Seoul – Los Angeles flight.

The best meal I ever had was Singapore Airlines business class, Singapore – Bali, Prawn & Chicken Laksa. It was as good as I had had days earlier at a hawker stall, good enough that I pre-ordered it for my Singapore – Hong Kong first class segment a week later.

Thai Airways is hit or miss. There have been some really good meals I’ve had with them, though. I had an amazing truffled triple cream cheese onboard a Bangkok – Beijing flight that I’ve still not forgotten. They served me one of the best soups I’ve ever had… a duck rice soup onboard a Bangkok – Tokyo redeye.

And who can beat lobster thermidor for breakfast (brunch?) pre-ordered on a short Bangkok – Hong Kong flight?

Also quite good was a traditional pad thai (cooked inside an omelette) with lobster.

(I pre-ordered the lobster thermidor on the 2 hour Singapore – Bali flight in business class once, although I find there’s almost always better choices on Singapore than the lobster and those short flights no longer allow for this service.)

Malaysia Airlines does the absolute best job with satay of any airline.

I’m not super impressed by Cathay Pacific’s main meals, but their snacks are usually very very good — hot pots, egg tarts, even their shrimp quesadilla. I miss the old Cathay Pacific caviar presentation, though: caviar and balik salmon.

EVA Air offers good choice and also creativity on their Hello Kitty Jets.

You don’t even need to be flying in business class on EVA to get a good Hello Kitty meal presentation.

Of course it’s not all unicorns and rainbows out there, I flew United first class where there were no menus. The flight attendant explained that one of the choices was meat. “How’s it prepared?” I asked. “It’s Indian.” Oh, ok.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. Qatar’s long-haul biz meals aren’t in the same league as the ones you highlighted but can be interesting. Most appreciated by those of us who have their own idea about how to spend 15 hours in an airplane, they’ll happily prepare anything, anytime, and seem to be supplied well enough that they’re never out of my request.

    Now if only they’d remove ‘robotic’ from their FA job requirements.

  2. Interesting ranking, but I’d say that you left out JL F, which is better than ANA F and OZ F.

    I’d rank QR J food (A380, 787 or A350 only) as better than EY F food because it’s seldom that EY has a real chef onboard.

  3. I have flown business or first on all of the airlines mentioned along with more than 40 other airlines, and while all mentioned airlines are good, Swiss first was the best food I have ever had in the sky.

  4. Etihad? Really? Seems like a shameless plug for a mediocre airline! Our experience was not all that great!

    Etihad in Biz, we were served potato soup and chicken sandwich. I have had better food on US domestic coach flights when they offered food.

    Etihad in F, during a 16-hour flight (AUH-LAX), the stewards/stewardesses and the so-called chef-on-board were all show and nothing substantial. Food service: What ever happened to the widely advertised 8-course tasting menu? The scallop appetizer was served cold and it was smelly (not fresh). The Salmon dish was good but the portion was very small. For desserts, they piled bunch of cakes on a plate, that was the presentation! Then they all disappeared. No problem, right? But after 11-hours of no service, I was starving, I had to go to the front looking for food (really) 2 hours before landing. They told me to go back to my seat and they will come and take my order. That took another 40 minutes!!! I ordered and was served a Biryani (rice dish) which was very dry and not as good and fragrant with plenty dried fruits and nuts as I’m used to partake. The steak sandwich was not that much better either – very dry and not appetizing at all.

    See photo details of our experience in my signature.

  5. CX changed their shrimp quesadilla, and it’s absolutely terrible. We had it a few years ago in F and it was amazing: large chunks of shrimp, guacamole, and salsa were all great. This summer in two different F flights it tasted fishy and was a puree of shrimp stuff. No large shrimp chunks like last time, and the guacamole wasn’t any good. Very disappointing.

  6. A shout out for a surprise: an almost unbelievably good Dover sole meuniere on BA 1st LHR to JFK. The contrast with UA ‘First Class’ meal EWR to Geneva was laughable.

  7. FYI — Not sure if you’ve flown EY lately but as of late last/this year, they’re Food Service has gone to crap. I know many people who have complained about it myself included — Others have done so to the point of writing in. I also know at least two people who actually fell sick — I have no idea what happened their. Personally I don’t believe in superstitions but when it starts happening to multiple people on the same flight or consecutive ones etc etc — well then. Most of them are now taking QR for their Long-Hauls, although personally I’m ambivalent there because I don’t like the Doha stopover and much prefer AUH/DXB for a day.

  8. FYI — Not sure if you’ve flown EY lately but as of late last/this year, they’re Food Service has gone to crap. I know many people who have complained about it myself included — Others have done so to the point of writing in. I also know at least two people who actually fell sick — I have no idea what happened there. Personally I don’t believe in superstitions but when it starts happening to multiple people on the same flight or consecutive ones etc etc — well then. Most of them are now taking QR for their Long-Hauls, although personally I’m ambivalent there because I don’t like the Doha stopover and much prefer AUH/DXB for a day.

  9. Thank you for a great post. I’m tired about the tirade that airplane food is bad. It is only on certain airlines (U.S. ones come to mind), but have had some fabulous meals in the air. In addition to our list, I found Thai regional (pre order the main meal) to be excellent, and like the posters above I’ve had great food on SWISS and Qatar.

  10. This year I had really good meals in Qatar Business, and on short flights from HKG to SIN on Singapore, but my favorite was the Filet on Etihad’s First Class Apartment. Perfectly cooked juicy and flavorful.

  11. The airline is certainly of importance but even more airport where the food is provided from. Out of CPT food is often mediocre in First, whichever airline you are flying. I used to fly LH very often and it was awful. Only after meeting a German lady from LH CPT I noticed great improvement, which lasted until she had left South Africa!
    The caterers in many countries have no idea what they are preparing. Can they read? They will never eat that stuff at home you know. Do the FA’s eat the meals or do they really know what they are serving? American FA’s generally know how to serve a steak but that still does not mean they can get it right.
    That brings me to the caviar, mentioned a while ago: it is very often an uninteresting dish. I loved the pictures where I think ANA stood out. There is little or no comment on the caviar as most pax have little experience eating it. Why should there be this immense lemon? Yes why? Because caviar can sometimes be a little fishy and a few drops of lemon will help. Why does EK serve such small portions of sour cream? There again, I had that substituted by yoghurt (CPT) or fresh cheese. Anyhow the guests all eat it anyhow. What a laugh. Same with the champagne: if you do not taste champagnes often it will be difficult to appreciate differences in taste.

  12. Aer Lingus biz deserves a shout out for their desserts. Simply phenomenal and among the best desserts I’ve had on the ground or in the air. Rest of the meals are meh.

  13. I would agree w Peter that British Airways First Class is surprisingly good. We flew BA business class to Europe and had a mediocre meal. Flew first class back home, night and day. High end wines & champagne (>$100/bottle, highly rated), dover sole & beef burgundy dinners, and wonderful dessert–an apple tart made to perfection. Am ordering 5 boxes of their first class chocolates (Lauder, a small company in Leeds) to be delivered back home. Not much of a chocolate fan, but these were the best I’ve ever had (the boxes are specifically made for BA First Class).

  14. Good food when flying is a plus when it occurs, but really, it is NOT a flying first class restaurant. It is a plane with a tiny kitchen and no true chef. It’s just relative to coach “meals”.

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