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Background information

Some people preorder special meals for variety, or just to try them

Some people are vegan. So, when they book a long-haul flight with free meal service, they'll preorder special meals which are vegan. This is fine.

Some other people eat meat every day. But they want to try some vegan airline food, to see if it's any better than regular airline fare. So, when they book their flight, they too will request vegan meals. I wonder whether or not this inconveniences the staff.

Still other people fly often, and preorder special meals for variety.

Special meals may take more work to prepare

One user claims:

"Airlines provide special meals as an accommodation for special needs (religious, medical, etc.), not as an à la carte option. As such, they require you to request special meals directly. This requirement helps to indirectly limit special meals to those who truly need them. If an airline essentially lets passengers order à la carte online, this makes catering the flight more costly and difficult.

"Some airlines do let you save your special-meal needs in your frequent-flyer profile. Others let you choose a special meal while booking. But many airlines require you to phone a call center."

Another user claims:

This burdens the caterers. They must plan the meals in advance, in order to ensure on-time departures.

FlyerTalk user "dia1" chimes in:

"From my observations: It would seem that, if you don't need to inconvenience [caterers and staff] by ordering special meals, it would be best not to. It's a different matter if you really need to."

My questions

A.) How much extra work is it for staff to prepare and serve special meals (e.g. vegan, vegetarian, Asian vegetarian, low-gluten, vegetarian Oriental, baby food, and others)?

B.) If you don't have any dietary restrictions, is it indeed best to avoid ordering special meals when you book your flight?

Related

Please also read my post on how to preorder and actually get a special airline meal.

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    If you really just want to "try" vegan food, then I can think of a great many better places to do so than an airplane. Airplane food does not generally have a good reputation (there are occasional exceptions), and that reputation extends to what they serve as "special" meals too. Mar 1, 2023 at 19:35
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    Comments have been moved to chat; please do not continue the discussion here. Before posting a comment below this one, please review the purposes of comments. Comments that do not request clarification or suggest improvements usually belong as an answer, on Travel Meta, or in Travel Chat. Comments continuing discussion may be removed.
    – Willeke
    Mar 3, 2023 at 10:48
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    We do not leave long comment strings on questions and answers as they get out of had, but the comments are still accessible.
    – Willeke
    Mar 3, 2023 at 10:52
  • @GregHewgill I can see this from the view point that the airline meal is "free": it comes with the ticket that you paid for to get from Point A to Point B, rather than being an extra expense. (But I agree that one should not form an opinion on vegan food as a whole based on an airline meal.)
    – chepner
    Mar 4, 2023 at 15:36

5 Answers 5

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While I can't really see ordering a vegan meal "for fun" you will not be consuming a limited resource or depriving someone else of what they really need. A meal will be available for you and for everyone else who has ordered one.

Reasons I have heard for ordering a special meal include:

  • the Indian vegetarian meals are usually much spicier than any of the regular choices
  • you get yours first and you know what it's going to be. With a seat at the very back you may find there is no longer any choice by the time the cart of general meals reaches you.
  • they believe halal or kosher meat is higher quality (of course, some airlines achieve halal by not giving you any meat)
  • they have a strange allergy (eg all citrus) and staff often don't know what is in the regular meals. For special meals you get full ingredient lists
  • the parts of a special meal are often individually wrapped and made to be ok at room temperature, making them easier to slip into your bag for later

All of these are perfectly fine. You don't need a "good enough" reason and there is no screening test or certification to prove you're entitled to a special meal.

The only downside is that the staff hand deliver the special meals one by one to each person who ordered them. You are thus causing about as much extra work for the crew as if you ever ding your call bell, even by accident. This is not overtly selfish of you.

The downside for you is that sometimes you get a banana and an apology from the crew. Many people have told me the volume of food in special meals can often be less than you would want.

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    Actual case of banana - channelnewsasia.com/asia/… Mar 2, 2023 at 11:22
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    @njzk2 i mean that of all the ways in this world to have fun, "I think I'll order a meal that doesn't contain things I normally eat" isn't one of them, for me. The original title asked about ordering a special meal just for fun, not because you need it. Mar 2, 2023 at 18:56
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    Surely some of the things you normally eat are not coming from animals?
    – njzk2
    Mar 2, 2023 at 19:31
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    As an ex-vegetarian, I still order ovo-veggie meals on long-haul flights as they are often more interesting than just beef or chicken, but I dread getting the combo veggie/vegan/halal/gluten-free/etc single menu item which usually something like salad+rice+dry cracker.
    – Ken Y-N
    Mar 3, 2023 at 1:22
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    People, please either stop arguing or start reading, I don't care which. Yes, it is fun to eat something new. I never said it wasn't. I said that the absence of some things I eat is not in and of itself new. I eat all the things in the vegan meals. Trying a vegan meal is not trying something new. It's only ensuring the absence of some of the things I eat. I don't need the Vegan Defense Guild to sweep in and accuse me of saying vegan food is not fun. I never said that. I said I wouldn't order such a meal for fun, because the question asked if you could order one for fun. So stop picking at me. Mar 3, 2023 at 12:44
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I'm not sure if this really is a comment or not.

I would argue that, if the airline has given you the option of ordering a special meal, then you are free to do so.

Airlines generally outsource their meal preparation to caterers. These caterers produce meals in bulk, and not individually. The cost of meal production will be aggregated over multiple flights. There will be an expectation of a certain percentage of passengers on a flight eating each type of meal. These figures will drive what meals are offered on each flight with the airline.

You, as an individual, will not upset the production of special meals, or the airlines' economics of meal supply. Even if every passenger on one flight ordered a special meal, the airline knows this ahead of time and can ramp up production before departure.

So, in my opinion, order what you like. The airline won't question you on the validity of your meal choices.


Flipping your question around: Would you feel bad for not eating any non-special meal that was offered to you? After all, the airline went to great lengths to ensure that it had food available for you.

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    On an international flight, most uneaten meals and fruits might be destroyed after landing, for bio-safety reasons. I would therefore perhaps feel a bit guilty if an international airline cooked me a meal and nobody ate it. It's a waste of valuable food. If they were able to serve it to a hungry passenger who asked for second helpings, though, I would feel fine. Mar 1, 2023 at 17:02
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    @unforgettableidSupportsMonica That is akin to saying that you shouldn't use your full baggage allocation, because if everybody did, it would cost the airline more in fuel costs. But that will only affect the airlines bottom line if it occurred on continually on every flight. If the airline has provide you with an option there is no guilt in taking up that option, and no need to feel shame about denying the airline some of its profitability.
    – Peter M
    Mar 1, 2023 at 17:10
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    Good point. By the way: If you know in advance that you don't want any food service at all, some airlines (and hospitals) will let you choose the "No Meal" special meal option. But you may have to make the choice 24 hours in advance. If you know in advance that you don't want any airline food, choosing this option can help to cut down on food waste. Mar 1, 2023 at 17:27
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    @unforgettableidSupportsMonica Not necessarily, because the price is based on how much they can actually get people to pay not really how much things cost (hence the record profits). Mar 2, 2023 at 16:22
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    @unforgettableidSupportsMonica: I am glad to hear that some airlines are offering the "No Meal" option as I have stopped eating food on flights, but this is not yet offered on AF... Mar 3, 2023 at 12:58
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Vegan is not a 'special' meal

There's absolutely nothing special in a vegan meal. A vegan meal consists of vegetables, which are a basis for every healthy meal. It just doesn't have meat as an addition. Think of a non-vegan meal as special, because an extra component is added.

Everything about you is an inconvenience to the staff

and they are being paid for dealing with that inconvenience. So don't feel bad about pre-ordering a special meal or using the toilet during your flight (though Ryanair might charge you extra anyway).

Offers are driven by demand

If nobody would take the vegan option, it would disappear. If more people take it, they will prepare more vegan meals in advance. Maybe someday meat will be considered an extra need (and charged extra?)

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    Vegan meal consists of vegetables, which is a basis for every healthy meal. It just doesn't have that meat as addition — a good vegan meal will have plant-based proteins such as tofu (or products derived from tofu), which may well be hard to source in some parts of the world. Of course, aeroplane meals are rarely good.
    – gerrit
    Mar 3, 2023 at 7:09
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    @gerrit, tofu is not needed, there are many healthy plant based proteines, each part of the world may have several different options. And for one or a few meals skipping some food groups will not hurt.
    – Willeke
    Mar 3, 2023 at 8:23
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    The first point is irrelevant. A special meal has nothing to do with the food being special or not. It's considered special because it's not what everybody gets by default.
    – ugoren
    Mar 3, 2023 at 9:16
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    @Willeke Tofu was just an example (hence "such as"); I wanted to complement the information that a vegan meal consists of only vegetables, which is not the full story. Plant based proteins are not usually counted as vegetables, and should be part of a good vegan meal — of course you're right that it doesn't hurt to skip those once in a while.
    – gerrit
    Mar 3, 2023 at 9:57
  • This is like saying that ordering a car without an option isn't special, because they're just leaving things out. But in a mass production system, any deviation from normal requires special handling and extra cost. That's why car features are in packages, not a la carte. The only reason this isn't an issue for special meals is because they're also standard packages -- there are thousands of passengers ordering the vegan meal every day.
    – Barmar
    Mar 3, 2023 at 15:15
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It is not bad to order a special meals for each of the reasons mentioned in the other answers (and comments) and use it, as long as you do claim what you ordered, (eat it or not, but do not claim an other meal.)

Sometimes they run out of certain special meals, because not enough were send to the plane for this flight, there is nothing you can do about that (other than if you hear it and you do not really need a special meal, you offer it to the flight attendant.)
But sometimes they run out because people claimed to have ordered a special meal but did not and people who really need the special meal and ordered it have to go without, which is bad. So unless you have ordered a special meal do not claim one.

The price difference between one airline meal and an other will not be huge and sometimes the special meals are cheaper which offsets the ones which are more expensive. That should not be enough of a reason not to order a special meal, airlines can raise ticket costs if it gets out of hand, or downgrade the meals, special or all.

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    "sometimes they run out because people claimed to have ordered a special meal" - in my experience (I have coeliac disease), each special meal is associated with a specific seat number, so there is little risk of that happening. Mar 2, 2023 at 11:20
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    @MartinBonnersupportsMonica, it is a while ago but I heard it happen around me, and they did run out of the special meals.
    – Willeke
    Mar 2, 2023 at 11:24
  • @MartinBonnersupportsMonica Mistakes happen and they have happened to me. Less often recently, maybe the systems have improved. I don't recall a mistake when I have entered or verified the request during online booking.
    – badjohn
    Mar 2, 2023 at 12:55
  • @MartinBonnersupportsMonica some airlines, SouthWest comes to mind, don't do assigned seating by seat number, it's first come-first served. Now, SW doesn't do meals, but others, like RyanAir(I think, I only flew once and a long time ago) have both no reserved seating and meals(on some flights).
    – Eugene
    Mar 2, 2023 at 19:50
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It probably depends a lot on your airline and your departure airport.

Are you taking a major airline, from one of their hubs? They handle tons of special meal requests every day. One more or one less request won’t make a difference, as long as it's been entered into their computer in time. With a small airline and a small airport, it could be a bigger issue.

Some airlines simplify things by preparing a reduced number of special meals. Each meal type may cover multiple categories of dietary restrictions at once. For example, the vegan meal and the vegetarian meal might both be identical: both meals might actually be made up of the exact same vegan foods.

(Adapted from a comment by jcaron.)

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