Despite all the teasing, that’s why I like airplane food

“And what will it be today, sir, chicken or beef?” There’s no better sign that all is well at 32,000 feet above the Pacific, and after surviving chaotic airport and office scenes, you’ve made it: The Escape – via a beef and beer hotpot or chicken korma – waiting for you.

Yes, the buns will always (always!) stay cold in the middle and reheated to crust density plywood levels. Yes, most pasta options last about an hour at a boil beyond al dente. And yes, the portions seem to be decreasing every year. And yet, I still gaze excitedly at the trolley heading my way with each flight.

My wife used to shame me for having the nerve (the courage, surely?) to go a few seconds on a long haul. And don’t get her started on my embarrassing and impatient tendency to pre-order special meals that are devoid of gluten or essential sodium and sugar in order to be fed first. I know it was the cliché kitchen to hate: always being trolled for being overcooked, bland and unimaginative.

There are dedicated Reddit feeds and Facebook communities with horror stories, but in my life of economy eating, I can only think of a few really average meals served in the sky.

One was on a recent flight out of New Zealand so I excused him as the sky chefs were a bit out of practice. The other was a particularly heavy and unimaginative tomato tortellini somewhere above the clouds in Central Asia, served by a now-defunct Italian airline. I can’t blame the endless saga of Alitalia’s bankruptcies on the delivery of pasta on the plane, but I can’t rule it out either – such is the importance for some passengers of eating meals right one kilometer away. And most do.

Don’t deny it, you never make fun of it. What else is there to do on a plane but get drunk and stuff yourself with watch boxes?

In fact, some airlines are so successful with their in-flight meal options that they have also started selling meals on a solid footing: Finnair has started selling some of its meals through stores and delivery services on its home market in 2020, while budget carrier AirAsia is doing better by expanding its Santan restaurant field beyond Malaysia into Indonesia and the Philippines. Obviously, it’s not just me who sometimes wants to peel back a hot tin foil to reveal the brackish, beige contents inside.

In this modern world of abundance of choice, sometimes you want the simplicity of a platter thrown into your lap with a dismissive, “Sorry, we’re out of chicken.”

It’s true that a lot more time, money and effort goes into the sharp end as you’d expect, but nutritionists and food techs also tweak economy class menus to strike the right balance. And the smartest airlines use it as a way to show off destinations: Cornish cream tea, cooked Irish breakfast, nasi lemak, lamb biryani, New York cheesecake or a stack of pancakes reintroduces you to a town long before you land.

The challenges of mass-cooked, factory-cooked porridge catering to the unique tastes of over 300 finicky passengers combined with transporting and reheating trays in onboard convection ovens means no one earns a Michelin star (or maybe even a Tripadvisor Travelers Choice award), but having had enough hospital meals and college grime, I can forgive these culinary misdeeds.

You can do a lot worse on the ground than a (wet!) roast turkey on Christmas Day with trimmings and a glass of bubbles on British Airways. And a side dish to accompany your plastic pot of gourmet mousse or mixed berries? A meal without being interrupted by work emails, TV commercials or social media notifications. A good conversation with a loved one. Hell, maybe even a conversation with a stranger. May I suggest trying an icebreaker on how best to deal with the buns situation.

See also: Airplanes, trains and ships: Chef’s secrets for creating meals on the go

See also: Forgotten Subway sandwich costs Australian traveler $2,664

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