Aviation Catering: Proteins – How to Get the Most From Your In-flight Meals

PT 4 M minute read
Aviation Catering: Proteins – How to Get the Most From Your In-flight Meals

This is a post by author Todd Lopez. Todd works in Inside Sales/Client Relations for Air Culinaire Worldwide, headquartered kitchen in Tampa, Florida. Air Culinaire Worldwide has kitchens in Aspen, Boston, Chicago, Dallas, Denver, Las Vegas, London, Long Beach, New York, Paris, San Francisco, Seattle, Van Nuys, West Palm Beach and Washington, D.C. In addition, Air Culinaire Worldwide provides in-flight catering services at airports around the world via hundreds of catering partners. Todd is an expert in catering for business aviation and can be contacted at toddlopez@airculinaire.com.

From the passenger’s perspective, catering can make or break a trip in a business aircraft. However, it’s not always easy orchestrating all the various elements of a successful in-flight catering experience. Some level of pre-planning is essential, particularly for more elaborate protein entrees, to ensure the best passenger experience in terms of presentation, flavor, and food safety. Your in-flight caterer will be able to advise you in this regard. Here are some catering basics that you should know in advance to help you in your planning:

1. Know what protein is

There are six categories of nutrients that the body needs to acquire from food: proteins, carbohydrates, fats, fibers, vitamins/minerals, and water. Proteins provide essential amino acids and can be found in food from animal sources – such as meat and eggs – as well as various plant sources – such as nuts, seeds, and legumes.

2. Learn about popular sources of proteins

Poultry, eggs, beef, pork, and seafood are common protein categories found in in-flight catering. Grilled chicken breasts are popular entrees, and in the seafood category salmon is a very popular choice these days. Vegetarian sources of protein include “tofu” (a soybean curd), peanut butter or other nut butters, nuts, and legumes. Legumes – and particularly hummus (because it contains both chickpeas, a legume, and sesame seeds in the form of “tahini”) – are popular vegetarian protein options.

3. Know how to prepare protein entrees

Animal-based protein sources are typically browned or seared and cooked to medium, then cooled, prior to undergoing final reheating onboard. The exception is eggs, which are normally prepared and delivered to your aircraft fully cooked to be reheated later. While in-flight caterers can source any protein requested, your choices should reflect your galley reheating equipment, length of flight, time of day of flight, and any personal or religious dietary restrictions. Keep in mind that certain proteins reheat better than others. Beef – particularly lean cuts such as filet mignon – and pork loin reheat well. In contrast certain types of fish are more challenging to reheat.

4. Be aware that sense of taste is impacted at higher altitudes

Your sense of taste changes at higher flight levels due to the effect of the pressure differential on taste buds. Even ambient sound and light will change your experience with food in the cabin environment. Sense of smell is also impacted, and there can be a loss in taste of up to 30% at high flight levels. For this reason, it’s important to hydrate foods sufficiently and to season foods correctly in anticipation of a high-altitude cuisine presentation.

5. Prepare protein dishes for in-flight catering

Once a protein entree is prepared by the in-flight caterer, it needs to be cooled, delivered, and maintained within a safe range – below 40°F or above 145°F – to ensure it’s out of the danger zone. Within the danger zone, bacteria can grow, and foods can spoil. If your aircraft does not have refrigeration, consider gel packs or wet ice to maintain food temperature prior to serving and quick-check thermometers to monitor temperature. Dry ice is commonly used only to maintain frozen items such as ice cream.

6. Consider onboard re-heating equipment

Any conversation with an in-flight caterer starts with specifications of your heating mechanisms, cooling capabilities, and onboard storage facilities. This will allow an in-flight caterer to offer the best options for your particular flight.

7. Know how to “fix” protein entrees if they’re dry or lack flavor

Always try to keep a few assorted seasonings, as well as chicken and beef stocks, onboard. A can of chicken or beef stock will help rehydrate a dry protein dish while adding flavor. Salt and pepper can do wonders as a fix for protein entrees that may be lacking in flavor.

8. Consider religious concerns when choosing proteins

Kosher foods avoid use of pork and are prepared and blessed in a specific manner. Kosher-style foods, however, are somewhat less rigorous in preparation. Halal – meaning “permitted” or “lawful” under Islamic guidelines – also avoids pork, birds of prey, and animals not properly slaughtered. Your in-flight caterer will be able to advise on the finer points of Halal and Kosher protein catering options.

9. Consider catering training for flight attendants

Due to the unique environment of an aircraft cabin at flight level – with limited heating, cooling, and storage options – there are many useful tips flight attendants will have access to by attending an aviation catering course. These courses – which typically run a few days – cover catering packaging, food safety, presentation, and reheating options, as well as how to recover from catering malfunctions when things go wrong.

10. Catering directly from restaurants or hotels

There are considerations to keep in mind when sourcing catering directly from a restaurant or hotel, rather than an in-flight caterer. It’s important to take the time to talk with the restaurant or chef regarding catering packaging, as well as how you want each order cooked and cooled. For example, you may want protein entrees grilled, browned, and partially cooked, then cooled for re-heating later. If you’re picking up pre-cooked foods – such as burgers or fried chicken – these items can be immediately cooled, and kept within the temperature-safe range with gel packs or wet ice.


Before you order catering, it’s important to confirm heating, cooling, and onboard storage capabilities and to communicate those to your caterer. Always check that catering orders are delivered with packaging appropriate for your galley configuration and within safe temperature ranges. Ensure you have basic onboard provisions – such as seasonings and soup stocks – to help rescue catering that may be in need of onboard assistance. Professional training on in-flight catering options puts more tools at your disposal to help make the passenger flight experience as memorable (in a positive way) as possible.


If you have any questions about this article or would like assistance planning your next catering order, contact me at toddlopez@airculinaire.com.

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