Special Dietary Needs at 35,000 Feet

If you fly with any regularity, particularly if you frequent the coach cabin, you’ve probably noticed that airline meal choices are limited. “Chicken or beef?” the flight attendant will ask you or. In rare cases, she may even provide you with a vegetarian option.

But what if you’re vegan? Or diabetic? Or what if you’re Jewish or Muslim and need to adhere to a kosher eating regimen? The fact is that while airline food is only rarely “good,” the taste or quality of an airborne meal can be a secondary concern to anyone with special dietary needs.

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The good news is that with enough forethought and planning, it’s possible to make sure you’re fed when you fly. Even if the meal doesn’t blow your mind, you won’t go hungry except in the most unfortunate of circumstances.

Book Your Meal with Your Ticket
The easiest way to make sure your dietary needs are met is booking your special meal when you book your ticket. If you get a meal on your flight – food is typically complimentary on international flights, as well as longer domestic trips – the booking system should prompt you to make a special meal selection, if one is available. If you aren’t able to select a special meal online, call the airline’s reservations department after you make the booking and ask the representative if he can assist you.

Special Meal Options
Options for special meals vary depending on which airline you fly. Generally speaking, however, vegan meals (which are completely devoid of animal ingredients), diabetic meals and kosher meals are available. Gluten-free dining options have become more popular over the years, but might not be available on all trips. Consult your airline directly if you don’t see the option you want listed at the time of booking.

Meal Choices for the Vegetarian Traveler 

Bring On Board
If your special meal selection isn’t available or you have a particularly severe dietary restriction, the best option may in fact be to bring your own food on board. If you fear you’ll be unable to find something suitable in the terminal building, bring something in your carry-on luggage and make sure it doesn’t violate the TSA’s security requirements. Alternatively, if your flight isn’t terribly long, eating a large meal prior to boarding may be sufficient to hold you over

What If They Forget?
Airlines do their best to meet special requests, but mistakes do happen. Even if the plane takes off without your special meal on board, you will probably still be able to eat. If you’re vegan, for example, you might not get to enjoy an entree, but the flight attendant will probably be willing to give you as much salad as you want. Last-minute fixes aren’t usually ideal, but the goodwill airline employees show in helping you out should might make you forget your hunger.

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Airlines in Far-Flung Places
Major airlines like Delta, British Airways and even China Eastern are generally going to be able to accommodate special meal requests, whether they’re available at the time of booking or, as I just mentioned, as last-minute quick fixes. If you’re flying small airlines in remote locations (I’m thinking Myanmar or Egypt from personal experience), the airline might not have the resources to offer special meal options.


About the author

Robert Schrader is a travel writer/photographer and editor of the blog Leave Your Daily Hell, your source for destination information, travel photos, practical travel advice and inspirational travel essays. Robert’s writing and photography has been published on websites such as CNNGo, Tripping and Shanghaiist and in print publications like That’s Shanghai and East & West magazines. Robert’s travels have thus far taken him to more than 40 countries and to all six inhabited continents. Follow the Twitter feed, “Like” the Facebook page or add Robert to one of your Google+ circles.


Published: April 16, 2012