By Nevin Martell
The golden age of air travel, when the on-board meal was something to happily anticipate, is so far behind us it seems almost fictional.
Unless you’re in business or first class, or on a long international flight, you probably won’t be served a meal.
Some flights don't even offer food for purchase, and if you don't bring something to eat, you’ll have to sustain yourself on miniature bags of pretzels and a can of tomato juice.
Don’t expect the airport restaurants or concession stands to save you, either.
The options there are usually underwhelming and overpriced, and they risk making you feel worse upon landing.
As a frequent flier, I’ve learnt to pack something suitable to snack on for longer flights – something that keeps my hunger in check but doesn't fill me up so much that I risk getting queasy if we hit turbulence or feeling uncomfortably bloated when I disembark.
Now that we are travelling more as the coronavirus pandemic seems to wane, I wanted to switch up my snacking game.
So, I turned to six pro chefs to find out what they bring.
Follow this advice, and you'll never be hangry at 35 000 feet again.
Level up your liquids
Always carry a durable water bottle. Many airports now have filling stations, usually near the water fountains, so you can fill up after passing through security.
But you don't need to stop there. Pastry chef Paola Velez, co-founder of Bakers Against Racism and host of Food & Wine’s Pastries With Paola video series, likes to add Liquid IV Hydration Multiplier and Immune Support powder to her water.
“It’s basically an energy drink,” she says.
“It helps me stay hydrated and feeling good.”
If caffeine is your thing and you want to perk yourself up without standing in Starbucks or Dunkin' lines, there are both iced tea and coffee powders.
Civilized and Cusa make instant cold-brew coffee granules that transform simple H20 into eye-opening fuel. Of course, you can always bring bags of your favourite tea, coffee or chocolate beverage and ask for heated water on the plane.
Create bento boxes
For Top Chef star Bryan Voltaggio, chef of Thacher & Rye and Showroom in Frederick, compartmentalized, covered bento boxes are key to successful in-air snacking.
They allow him to arrange a variety of tasty bites and create a multitude of flavour combinations, which keeps snacking interesting over the long haul.
“I’ll put together a selection of salumi, a couple of cheeses, crackers, pretzels and maybe some homemade hummus,” he says.
“It’s whatever I’m in the mood for.”
When the flight is longer than a few hours – such as a cross-country nonstop from DC to Los Angeles – Voltaggio carries something more substantial to sustain himself.
A handmade sandwich offers a comforting taste of home that will satiate almost as much as a meal.
His favourite combos include sunflower butter and cream cheese (“It sounds odd, but trust me,” he says); turkey with avocado and bacon; and chicken salad enlivened with mustard, chopped dill pickles and plenty of freshly cracked black pepper.
Gluten-free seeded breads are great for long flights, because they fill you up and are packed with protein, fibre, healthy fats and nutrients.
Because the brick-like loaves are so dense, you don't have to stop at sandwiches. Consider using them to make open-faced sweet or savoury tartines.
You can try nut butter and a little honey; roast turkey and Swiss cheese with mustard and mayonnaise; or ricotta topped with sliced cherry tomatoes, fresh basil, cracked pepper and Maldon sea salt.
When he flies, Diego Oka, executive chef of La Mar by Gastón Acurio in Miami, is all about Japanese onigiri (seaweed-covered rice balls).
His favourites come packed with miso-seasoned pork or umeboshi (salted Japanese plum).
“They are meant to be eaten at room temperature, they come perfectly wrapped and they are convenient,” he says.
“You can just throw them in a bag, and you don't need utensils.”
Nuts about nuts
All the chefs are big fans of snacking on nuts. Because nuts are brimming with protein, they satisfy hunger for a longer period than other options.
Velez loves cashews, especially in Larabar products. For Voltaggio, Marcona almonds are king, especially when tossed with Old Bay seasoning or rosemary snipped from his garden.
When chef Nina Compton of Compère Lapin and Bywater American Bistro in New Orleans wants something sweet but still healthy, she'll pick up a nut-rich Kind bar.
If sodium is your weakness, a five-hour flight seems like the perfect excuse to crush a mega-size bag of Ruffles or a box of Cheez-Its.
However, the chefs suggest slightly healthier salty snacks.
Velez leans into PopCorners – triangular chips somewhat similar to popcorn – which come in three flavours: sea salt, white cheddar and kettle corn.
Or she'll bring along plantain chips, because she finds they help her feel full for a longer period than other chips.
Voltaggio always packs a few strips of biltong (beef jerky).
“I love chewy texture, and it has a little more fat to it, so it's not dry,” he says.
“Plus, it’s flavourful and has a lot of protein.”
Don’t forget fruit
A container of freshly cut fruit can be pure pleasure at cruising altitude, offering a hit of natural sweetness and hydration.
Dried fruit may not pack the water content, but it still has plenty of fructose to help placate your sweet tooth.
Velez always travels with Pure Organic layered fruit bars.
“I’m hypoglycaemic, so if my sugar level drops, I can quickly bring it back up,” she says.
Refreshing pico de gallo
Iliana de la Vega, chef and co-owner of El Naranjo in Austin and a James Beard Award finalist this year for Best Chef: Texas, makes fresh pico de gallo to sustain her on trips.
Though you can use whatever fruits and vegetables you have on hand to make the salsa, she prefers large, easy-to-pick-up chunks of jicama, cucumbers, oranges, grapefruit, radishes, mangoes and pineapples.
Quickly toss it all with salt and chili powder to taste, and pack lime slices to squeeze on when you're ready to eat.
“It’s refreshing and not heavy on your stomach,” she says.
“And there’s no fork required.
“You can just reach in for a piece of whatever you want when you're in the mood for it.”
Personalize your trail mix
Can’t make up your mind on whether to bring something salty or sweet?
Craft an as-you-like-it blend of nuts, seeds, dried fruit pieces and small candies, such as M&M’s, chocolate chips or Reese’s Pieces.
There’s a lot of protein for sustenance, and plenty of sugar for a quick rush.
Is a metal tube full of strangers cruising about 805km/h high above the Earth’s surface not your happy place? Give yourself something to look forward to by bringing a special treat to savour.
Some of my favourites are Cretors caramel popcorn, a mixed bag of gummies from Sockerbit or a crunchy, salted-almond Toblerone bar.
Especially when travelling alone, I’ll slip a few individually wrapped sweets, such as small bags of M&M’s or miniature chocolate bars, into my carry-on to share with my seatmates.
I don't always have the interest or time for conversations on long flights, but when I do, proffering a little goody creates an instant icebreaker. It can start a dialogue that gives me the opportunity to see a new perspective, hear an unusual story or simply have a moment of connection.
When she was growing up, Sara Bradley - a "Top Chef" star who owns Freight House in Paducah, Ky. - had a tradition of buying special snacks at the airport to celebrate her travels. She still purchases longtime favourites: everything spiced bagel chips, Twizzlers and a can of root beer, if she can find one at the airport.
"Even if I'm on a stressful trip - I just have to fly somewhere, be there for a day, and then fly right back - those snacks chill me, because they take me back to being a kid."
Spice up your life
Sometimes it's not about the food you bring, it's about how you season the food you get on your trip, whether during your flight or after.
Compton always carries a little container of Jacobsen's flaky salt and a bottle of Crystal hot sauce; Voltaggio packs a tin of Maldon smoked sea salt.
Whatever you bring to nibble on, Voltaggio recommends restraining yourself. You don't need a full meal.
"What's exciting about travel are the destinations I get to go, where I try new food, meet up with old friends and make new ones," he says. "The snacks in between are just designed to hold me over until I get to my next great meal."