view of wing out of airplaneMy family and I are flying to the UK this weekend, so in addition to trying to arrange our trip and get a bunch of work done before we go, I’m planning our in-flight menus. I’ve been a plane picnicker for years, even before most airlines stopped serving in-flight meals. It all started when I was pregnant and just couldn’t bear the thought of airplane or airport food. Before a short flight to San Diego, I brought along a prosciutto sandwich from my favorite deli along with a Stewart’s root beer (which wouldn’t be allowed anymore. No liquids!), and some fried artichoke hearts. As everyone around me munched pretzels, my husband and I split our delightful dinner. There was no going back after that.

Since that time, I’ve had to consider my children’s food intake in addition to my own. I remember a flight to Washington D.C. where I literally brought an entire grocery bag full of food. As my family and I munched on cobb salads, BLTs, brie, and chocolate, I caught the envious looks of my fellow passengers who were stuck eating Jet Blue potato chips and cookies. I ended up taking pity on a lovely Indian grandmother in a beautiful sari who sat a few seats away. Switching seats with my husband so I could sit next to her, she told me all about living in India, the food her cook would make her there, and how her saddened she was that her daughters didn’t make the same foods in their U.S. homes. It turns out she was a moderately famous singer in her native country, a widow, and extremely funny. I was so glad I had brought along that extra mozzarella and tomato sandwich to share.

I rarely make anything homemade for our flights. Unlike road trips, I want the food to be packaged and sealed when I make my way through the security lines. No muffins falling out of my carry on, just food from a restaurant or store in its own paper or plastic lining. Maybe it’s my stomach-twisting fear of flying, or the fact that being on a plane is such a dismal experience, but I just can’t cook before I fly. Our standard airplane repertoire is usually freshly-made sandwiches from a local deli, some Petit Ecolier dark chocolate cookies, a few apples and pears, maybe a salad or two in secure plastic containers, some cheese (often brie), and always a bar or two of good chocolate. Anything I can think of to ease the pain of having my legs in one position for hours with some guy’s reading light piercing my right eye as I try to sleep with my jacket over my face.

The return trip home is often a problem as I’m never as sure where to shop for airplane food while in a strange place, and I sometimes forget to buy food at all. I’m vowing not to let this happen this time around, however, as the last time I flew home from Europe, I was stuck eating a greasy and cardboard-inspired excuse for a piece of pizza in the Toronto airport while running from plane to plane. My goal is to find some nice meat pasties for the trip home, along with some shortbread and a few pieces of fruit. I’m hoping to extend the good feelings of Scotland with some treats for that long and boring plane ride home.

Does anyone else pack a picnic when they fly? I’d love to hear what you bring.

Airplane Food 25 September,2008Denise Santoro Lincoln

  • Tim

    I don’t know where you might live, however there is a really good company in southern California that prepares meals for flights and delivers them to the airport prior to your flight. The company is called “SkyMeals”

  • Anthony

    After one of my first trips to San Francisco, I packed a blueberry muffin from Dottie’s into my backpack. I pulled a red eye home with a 6AM connection. While I was sitting in the terminal, bleary eyed and waiting for my second flight, and feeling hungry, I pulled out the muffin. Best decision ever.

  • In San Francisco International, I always see businessmen lining up to buy trays of sushi (but I can’t remember the name of the restaurant, sorry!) They buy three, four trays, and then sprint to the gates. It’s really funny (The sushi’s super-expensive; it figures that the guys buying are always in suits)

  • Great post! I’m with you, Denise.

    I have been bringing my own food onboard for years. I never step foot on a plane without necessary provisions for any flight over 4-5 hours.

    Since I am pressed for time before most trips taking care of all those last minute details, I usually just put together a bag of goodies the night before, foraged from the aisles of Trader Joe’s. They have a nice assortment of prepared sandwiches, wraps, sushi rolls, salads and the like, so I start with the fresh items that appeal to me, and build up from there.

    I often grab one or two salads, a couple of wraps (Chicken Caesar is my favorite of theirs), and maybe a foccacia sandwich (with turkey for the Tryptophan) or two (depending on the length of the flight), and split that with my husband. As a rule of thumb, I plan for one sandwich or similar item – each, for every 4 hours of flight, plus a selection of snacks in proportion to the length of the flight – usually one serving per two hours of flight).

    I stow the bulk of my toiletries with my checked luggage (as does my husband) which leaves room to place any dressings or sauces in a separate smaller plastic bag, placed inside of my airline approved liquids bag with my few essential on-board liquid toiletries in their own separate bag (I save and re-use the bags for the return trip, as well).

    In a pinch, if I am unable to hit Trader Joe’s, I’ll grab something from the choices in the terminal, but that’s pretty rare.

    I aim to limit my carbs during the flight, which isn’t easy with disposable packaged food items, and try to emphasize produce and lean proteins (something rarely found in airline meals), since my doctor advised that doing so would reduce the chances of inflammation, dehydration, jet lag and travel fatigue – all common symptoms of airline travel. My main deviation from that goal is the bread on the sandwiches and the occasional cookie, etc., but since I find the gluten in the bread actually calms my nerves while flying, it seems a fair trade-off, and I do my best to balance it out.

    For snacks I bring fresh fruit (I find grapes and apples travel best, pre-washed, of course), crudités, cheese, nuts, chocolates, etc. I also bring a handful or two or hard candies and lozenges, and make sure to pack plenty of napkins, and my latest staple: a package of Doctor’s Brand Brush Picks ( – no affiliation, they just rock.

    The return trip is a different story. It’s always such sweet sorrow to leave my travel destination of choice and return home, so I like to bring a taste of the local cuisine back with me, and the fresh goodies that won’t make it through customs, I savor during the return flight. To that end, I set aside time the day before returning and, if possible, the morning of, to shop for last minute fresh food items from the best vendors around, and bring that on board with me.

    As an example, for my recent return trip from Paris I stopped at the Eric Kayser Bakery near our hotel in the 6th Arrondissement before leaving for the airport and bought several of my favorite sandwiches (Le Rustique), along with some financiers and pastries. I added to that some Macarons from Laduree and chocolates and caramels procured from L’Etoile D’Or.

    Needless to say, that transcontinental in-flight dining experience was pure heaven.

  • Denise Lincoln

    Paula – You sound like a very organized and experienced traveler. I love your comment. It’s full of great ideas for the time time we fly somewhere. Although after reading your comment, I now want a delicious sandwich from Le Rustique and some macaroons!

  • parkerh

    I always regret buying those sandwiches from Starbucks. Someone please tell me why they are $9. If there is a wolfgang puck of CPK I think that is always the best bet!


Denise Santoro Lincoln

I am a writer, editor, mother of twins, and enthusiastic home cook. I was raised by an Italian-American mother who, in the 1970s, grew her own basil (because she couldn’t find any in the local grocery stores), zucchini (for those delicious flowers), and tomatoes (because the ones in the store tasted like “a potato”). My mom taught us to love all kinds of food and revere high-quality ingredients. I am now trying to follow in my mother’s footsteps and am on a mission to help my daughters become adventurous eaters who have a healthy respect for seasonal food raised locally. My daughters and I grow vegetables and go to the farmers’ market. We also love to shop at Piedmont Grocery and Trader Joe’s. When I’m not hanging out with my daughters or cooking, I like to contribute to cookbooks (including Williams-Sonoma’s Food Made Fast and Foods of the World series), work as an editor, and write about food for Bay Area Bites and Denise’s Kitchen. My food inspirations are M.F.K Fisher, Julia Child, and Alice Waters — three fabulous women who encompass everything I love about food.

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