Thursday, 31 January 2013

Plane food: a tale of two vegetarian meals

Alternative titles for this post:
  • Why can't they get airline vegetarian meals right?  
  • When will airlines start to understand dietary preferences?  
  • I asked for plane food not plain food!
I was so unhappy with the plane food on our recent Melbourne to Dublin trip (the Dublin to Edinburgh leg was with another airline) that I was determined to write to Etihad as soon as we got home.  That was over a month ago and I am only now getting around to writing about the meals here.  But first I will share one of the highlights of the trip.

The best thing about plane food was actually while we were still on the ground.  I have got into the habit of trying to eat well before heading to the airport because of the dull dried food that usually sends us to a fast food chain.  At Edinburgh airport we ate well at The Turnhouse Pub.  It was really good.  Not much ambiance but good food presented with style.

I had the Vegetarian burger made with lentils, carrot, cheese and mushrooms.  It was served with salad in a bun with tomato sauce, a pickle and great crispy chips on the side.  If I hadn't been in the mood for a burger, I could have even satisfied my nut roast cravings.  They had a Christmas menu with a Lentil Mushroom Mozzerella and Pumpkin Seed Roast served with roast potatoes, Yorkshire pudding, cranberry and sage stuffing balls, seasonal vegetables. cauliflower cheese, gravy and cranberry sauce.  All for £9.99.  Sigh!  I wish I was there now.  Oh no I don't.  Because then I would be headed for airplane meal hell!

Unfortunately the worst part of the flight was predictably the plane food.  I have complained about it before.  We had unacceptably insubstantial meals a few times.  I was so outraged that I finally got out my camera to photograph the vegetarian lacto-ovo meal.  Above is the boiled potatoes, tomato vegie stew and green beans accompanied by a bread roll, some green vegies with two pieces of feta and some melon.  You might notice that there is a dearth of protein here.

What made me really cross was that if you look at the menu at the very top of the page, it gives a vegetarian option for the main meals.  I got so hungry with the meal they served that I asked for one of the vegetarian main meals.  While the salad wasn't vegetarian, the tagliatelle with a creamy mushroom sauce, the crackers with cheese, the bread roll and the cheesecake would have been just fine.  (See above photo.)

So here are some questions?  Why are vegetarians being offered one vegetarian meal and omnivores being offered another more substantial vegetarian meal?  The meal I was given was practically vegan.  But even vegans need protein.  (I am focusing on vegetarian meals but I know there are similar problems with other dietary preferences.)  Do airlines have some misguided notion that nutrition guidelines only apply to omnivores? 

Why do airlines make vegetarians feel like second class citizens based on their dietary preference?  We all pay the same airfare.  Yet I didn't get a choice of the vegetarian meal that everyone else could choose.  I had to wait until everyone else was served to see if there was a meal leftover.  Which left me unsure if I ate my first meal or waited.  I ended up eating a bit of both and getting very grumpy.  E has always had vegetarian meals so he can eat with us and because he doesn't like too much meat.  After this experience, he has decided that next time he will have the omnivore meal.

I am even more cross about this because my 3 year old Sylvia is vegetarian and I get all protective about her.  She needs protein as much as any omnivore child, if not more.  it is frustrating to try and feed her at the best of times.  On the way over, it was easier because I had some vegies and a tin of baked beans that she could eat.  Going home, I just had to wait to get home for her to eat properly. 

To end on a more positive note, we stopped overnight on the way home in Dublin.  The airline staff helpfully checked out cases through from Edinburgh to Melbourne, and we had a good breakfast in Dublin airport.  Best of all, my sister and husband brought Dash along to play with Sylvia.  It was such joy to see the two kids play together.

In fact, though I whinge, it is a first world problem.  It is a privilege to be able to visit family so far away and I would (and probably will) eat the rubbish plane food all over again for such a great trip.  Meanwhile I will try and let Etihad know my views and let you know if I get a response.

Update 10 Feb 2013 - I had a few comments suggest the Asian (Indian) Vegetarian meal.  I tried this going to Auckland with Qantas last week.   On the way over I got a dal and upma - quite spicy for me but not too much and was far more satisfying than the Etihad meals.  On the way back I had gnocchi with mushrooms and beans and tomato sauce - not a bad meal but not sure what happened to the Asian meal.  And we were all given chocolate coated ice creams after the meal.  Hurrah for a decent dessert!

35 comments:

  1. I know a vegetarian who says when she specifies that on her airline food requirement, she always gets a vegan dish. She said she was once told it's because it's too complicated/ takes up too much space for the airline to have vegetarian and vegan meals, since vegetarians can eat vegan food so they just serve that to both. Doesn't explain why you had no protein or why there was a veggie choice on the main menu that you weren't offered!

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    1. This is also my experience. So frustrating to get the world's plainest meal or even snack when the default offering would have been perfectly acceptable!

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    2. Thanks Caroline and pfctdayelise - I had always thought it was because they just have one meal for everyone with dietary requirements but it doesn't explain why one veg meal for everyone else and another for vegetarians without giving us a choice. And I don't mind having a gf vegan meal if they make it a good one - which is possible - rice crackers, baked beans and dark chocolate all fall into those categories! It's not that I don't appreciate some vegetables but I need a little more!

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  2. Sorry to hear about the sub-standard veg meal... I have had very good luck with veg meals on airplanes. Rob usually orders veg even though he eats meat because it it usually more fresh and flavourful. Plus I usually get my meal first!! :) I will have to keep this in mind next time I fly.

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    1. Thanks Janet - maybe the canadian/american airlines are more enlightened about dietary requirements. There was a time when I knew quite a few people who would order the veg meal even if they weren't veg because the meat was so terrible but I am not sure if that is the case with them any more

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  3. I was really interested to see you tackle this topic, because as an omnivore I often wish I had ordered the vegetarian meal option! While it's been a long time since I've gone anywhere longhaul, we are planning a big trip in the northern hemisphere summer. Given the look of your vege meal, I think I am better off going for the omni option!

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    1. Thanks Lucy - would be interested to hear how your food is on your long haul. If you get the vegetarian option as an omni then I think that would be far better than what we were given.

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  4. And this is why I always get on the plane with different bars of fancy chocolate, fruit, and assorted snacks. Funny how your main gripe is protein; mine is always that "vegetarian/vegan" is always interpreted as "they don't want dessert". YES I WANT DESSERT NOT JUST FLAVOURLESS FRUIT.

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    1. Thanks Hannah (and Kari) - I find it easier to argue that protein should be included in the meal. But I want dessert too - anything to cheer me up on a long haul flight helps. I did actually take food on both trips but it is always hard to work out how much to take and then it is such a lottery about what they will take off me at customs in Australia (they took away my unpopped popcorn but not my fudge buttons!!!!)

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  5. I had the same problems/annoyances when I flew to the US at the end of last year. As a business class passenger on Singapore Airlines, I was hoping for it to be a much better experience than plane food in the past... Unfortunately it wasn't much better. Not having any choice, having to eat what you've been given - the worst part was from Melb to Singapore, then Singapore to New York, i was pretty much served a variation of only 3 things - steamed or grilled vegetables, a salad, or pasta. I kept feeling like a pig when I asked for multiple servings of garlic bread solely so I could feel satisfied/full.

    What really annoyed me was at breakfast time, I finally saw a meal that sounded AMAZING - Belgian Waffles with Mixed Berries and Marscapone. When I went to place my order, the airflight attendant said "oh no we have a separate vegetarian breakfast for you". I said "but that is vegetarian, and I'd like that please" (excited to finally exercise some decision making). I was told I could only get it if there was one available once everyone had placed their orders. So frustrating.

    Another annoying part was when there was a choice of Tiramasu or Creme Brulee... but I was given soy yoghurt with fruit. I got a little miffed and said "was I accidentally put down as Vegan??"

    Flying Business Class, we also have the option of ordering meals outside of designated meal times... Meat eaters had chocies of focacias, pastas, pies, different Asian noodle dishes. I had the choice of a packet of chips or a chocolate... *sigh*

    First world problems I know, but they just can't get it right..

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    1. Thanks Christine - sounds like I am not alone in my experience - and disappointing that it was so bad in business class too - one of my best airline meals happened on a domestic flight in Australia when they didn't have a vegetarian meal for me and found me a very nice salad from business class. It just feels like these airlines don't have anyone planning meals who has ever had to cook vegetarian or vegan or gf - if you look into it, it is quite easy to make a decent meal

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  6. Hi johanna sorry to hear about your experience w plane food. I have been there too. Now my solution is to order "Indian vegetarian" if an option. We usually fly Singapore airlines but I imagine most Asian based airlines would offer this option. Cheers c

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    1. Thanks Anon - I think I have heard people talk about asian vegetarian meals as a different option - interesting that you find them more substantial - will try to remember that one.

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  7. Have you ever flown Emirates Johanna? I have trouble with plane food generally because I have developed plane sickness as an adult (most unhelpful!) and thus try to steer clear of anything exotic / heavy even aside from the vegetarian issue. However, we flew Emirates on our September trip last year and I was really impressed with them. For a start, they offer more ordering options - lacto-ovo vegetarian vs. vegan vs. lots of others, including just asking for a fruit platter. Their food seemed fresher, they had decent vegetarian dishes (still a bit low on protein but with a great lentil dish on one of our flights), and in all they were a step up from Qantas. Not perfect, but the best I've come across.

    Qantas food I have never liked even when I wasn't vegetarian focused, so I used to take lots of snacks on with me...now I resign myself to not eating on domestic flights and do the snacks for long haul :P

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    1. Thanks Kari - I think we went emirates last time and I remember being quite hungry then too but I can't remember the food exactly. One of the best airlines I remember for vegetarian food was KLM (but that was quite a few years back).

      Most airlines seem to ask if you are lacto ovo vegtarian or not but it makes you wonder why they have the lacto-ovo option when they seem to have very little dairy or egg - though of course one of the most substantial meals was a scrambled egg breakfast that I didn't like - felt like it was pretty useless for me to be lacto ovo as it was mostly dairy free but they still gave me eggs that I couldn't stamd. (Unfortunately there is no option to say don't give me eggs by themselves but I will eat them in baking)

      I think I have got mixed experiences with qantas but thanks for the reminder as I will be flying with them soon.

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    2. I suppose it is all a bit hit and miss depending on what veg. option they decide to allocate to your flight! I do like that Qantas gives you quinoa flour vegan muffins with their vegan meals, but sadly that's about all they do that I like. Hopefully when you fly with them you'll get a rare good meal or the flight won't be too long!

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  8. Totally agree, i FLY emirates each year back to the UK and feel like they think Vegans must eat air and lettuce. I want dessert! I want a normal portion. Thankfully the noodles you can order 'as you like' happen to be veggie friendly so that tends to keep me going,

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    1. Thanks Stephanie - yes sunshine and air is so delicious who wants to eat anything else - sigh! I actually quite liked some tomato, cheese and olive wraps and ate a few of these when they were offered as snacks. To be fair, the cabin crew were quite sympathetic when I said how little was in the veg meal and they did their best to help.

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  9. Just try asking for a vegan, gluten-free, sugar-free meal next time. . . LOL!!

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    1. Thanks Ricki - it doesn't bear thinking about - you are probably the airlines worst nightmare - well actually just a complete mystery :-)

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  10. ...I know how you feel! And even if there is a vegetarian option, its usually terrible, underseasoned, limp overcooked vegetables, or grilled cheese. Not just airlines, but cafeterias, company lunches, etc, etc...

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    1. Thanks Darjeeling - I agree that vegetarian options generally can be appalling - though I have had some good company lunches - and we did get a couple of meals with etihad that were better with more legumes (I think it was a bean stew with rice) - but when I am stuck in the air between a passenger that is spilling into your personal space and a tetchy 3 year old, a bad meal is the last straw

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  11. Unfortunately, neither one of those meals has any decent amount of protein in them and from a nutritionist's point of view, the first meal is far superior, although still lacking. Considering how inexpensive pulses are, it really surprises me that preparing something chickpea/lentil/kidney bean based would be so difficult.

    I normally bring some protein bars/nuts and seeds on trips with me to help fill me up when I inevitably get hungry after the carb heavy, crash and burn veggie meals they serve on flights.

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    1. Thanks Lidia - usually I would complain if I got the pasta dish that it was stodgy but I was really hungry and had eaten some of the vegies from the first meal - but I understand why you say the first meal is better. We did have some legume based meals that were far more satisfying.

      I think I was less organised re snacks for the plane on the way home as we were packing up our holiday flat and trying to fit all our purchases in our suitcases.

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  12. After many years of travelling as a vego I have discovered that the asian vegetarian meal is almost always tastier and healthier than the ovo-lacto meal. Generally you get some sort of mild curry, including lentils or chickpeas, and rice. So much more filling and flavourful than the almost entirely vegan meals the airline passes off as vego. The other thing I really really hate is that ovo-lacto meals don't get any chocolate!! My whole family chooses asian vegetarian options now, when possible.

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    1. Thanks Beth - I tried the asian meal last week (and put an update at the end of the post) - it was definitely more satisfying - quite spicy for me but not too hot. I don't think I could do the asian meal for sylvia who isn't into spicy food. Agree with you about chocolate - haven't they heard of dark chocolate for vegans?????

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  13. This is so weird - having not been vegan since travelling internationally, but the food I've received on Qantas has always been more substantial/better than the omnivore's equivalent! The lack of protein seems a common problem - any restaurant, anywhere, it seems that the vegan or vegetarian item is nearly completely devoid of protein. I know it's a cliche, but gosh, at least learn to cook tofu well!!

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    1. Thanks Matt - flew with Qantas last week and food was better than etihad but have had some terrible food with qantas too . There is a real lack of understanding of protein - so many caterers seem to think the only protein in the world is meat - though one of my worst ever plane meals was made by Ansett (remember them) with a sandwich with a slab of butter and a slab of plain tofu with no flavourings whatsoever.

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  14. Yes, I find that the concept of vegetarian eating brings out the idiot in even the most intelligent people. I can't tell you how often I've called ahead to request a vegetarian plate at a luncheon seminar, and been given a big pile of steaming broccoli. I like broccoli okay, just not all by itself for a whole meal, with no sauce or dressing. The broccoli incident has happened more than once, though once there were bits of cauliflower and carrot included. Another time I requested vegetarian and was given a chicken salad plate. The waiter said "I thought vegetarians ate chicken. Do you want me to bring another plate with just the lettuce?" I really don't think it has to be so difficult.

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    1. Thanks Bliss - isn't it amazing that a meat eater would never stand for being given a side dish without the meat and yet veg*ns constantly are given the equivalent of that. My family, friends and work colleagues have lots of dietary differences so it just seems second nature to be aware of it and I constantly get amazed at people who live in a a world of monoculture when it comes to diet

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  15. Travelling on both qantas and virgin domeestic recently, with a virgin fully flexible fare, as a vegetarian I got delicious parmesan ravioli in a basil and sundried tomato sauce. was really nice, cafe quality. On my many recent qantas flights, specifying vegetarian I get the same meal (when they don't forget to load them and offer the vegetarians beef and bacon pie or pretzels). This is a cold sandwich, no butter, completely dried out wholemeal bread and some soggy sweet potato and capsicum. Not a jot of protein (or flavour), a genuinely horrible offering, and vegan to boot. modified for vegetarians by offering milk in coffee. Protein is what makes us full, taste is what makes food food!

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    1. Thanks Anon - I've never travelled virgin but I have had that soggy sandwich you mention - it is the pits and shows a lack of imagination as well as a lack of nutritional expertise

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  16. I've had a pretty successful time even as a vegan. When I flew with Qantas I got mushroom wellington which was made with lentils, and even a noodle dish with soy-chicken chunks, plus salad, bread, fruit and even a vegan muffin. Malaysia airlines was also excellent. I think there's big differences between the airlines, because when I flew with British Airways it was terrible.

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