High-Energy Foods for Crew on Extended Flights

PT 4 M minute read
High-Energy Foods for Crew on Extended Flights

High-Energy Foods for Crew on Extended Flights

This is a post by author Roger Leemann. Roger is the Senior Vice President of Culinary Operations for Air Culinaire Worldwide, headquartered in Tampa, Florida, with kitchens in Aspen, Colorado; Boston, Massachusetts; Chicago, Illinois; Dallas, Texas; Denver, Colorado; Las Vegas, Nevada; London, U.K.; Long Beach, California; New York, New York; Paris, France; San Francisco, California; Seattle, Washington; Van Nuys, California; West Palm Beach, Florida; and Washington, D.C. Also, Air Culinaire Worldwide provides in-flight catering services in hundreds of airports around the world via hundreds of catering partners. Roger is an expert on catering menu development and training for business aviation operators and can be contacted at rogerleemann@airculinaire.com.

What you eat impacts your metabolism, alertness and energy levels. When piloting an extended flight, it’s best to eat differently than you would on the ground. It’s also important to avoid the “roller coaster” effect of up-and-down energy levels, as the objective within the flight deck is mental alertness and stable energy levels.

1. Food choices impact onboard crew

When operating in the flight deck, it’s imperative to remain alert and have the ability to keep focused. You want to maintain a steady body metabolism over the course of a flight – particularly on longer, 8- to 12-hour missions. The best way to do this is to eat small meals at multiple times, along with well-chosen snacks. It’s important to keep energy levels up, avoid fatigue and avoid overloading the digestive system. Everything you put in your body has an effect on it, and you can “feel” how different foods impact your energy levels.

2. Some foods are not ideal on extended operations

Consuming a large meal in-flight, or just prior to flight, may divert 1/3rd of your blood supply to your digestive system, decrease your mental energy and make you feel sluggish. Large portions of carbohydrates such as pasta, rice and potatoes will tend to make you sleepy. Ingesting a lot of sugar, or sugary drinks, will give you an energy high followed by a low. The all-too-common crew meal request – sandwich, chips, soda and cookie – is a poor option, especially for longer flights.

3. Consider the effects of various foods

Our bodies want calories, and we get them from carbohydrates (including sugars), proteins and fats. On extended flights, it’s important to make good protein choices and not to overdo carbs or fats. In order to maintain optimal mental abilities, we recommend foods higher in proteins than what you may normally consume on the ground. If you’re trying to stay awake and maintain mental focus, it’s important to consume carbs and fats in moderation. Be particularly mindful of sugar/carb intake, as this can cause up-and-down spikes in energy levels and may lead to fatigue.

4. Eat smaller meals more often

The best way to maintain a steady metabolism over the course of an extended flight is to eat smaller meals multiple times. It’s best to consume five to six smaller meals with protein portions rather than three larger meals.

5. Choose snack foods carefully

Between-meal snacks are important in maintaining energy levels and alertness. Crews should choose snack foods strategically – and not dip into the chips, candy and sodas in the back of the aircraft. Protein-rich snack foods such as nuts, protein bars, vegetables or yogurt-covered raisins are all good choices. Lower-sugar fruits – a Granny Smith apple as opposed to sweet pineapple – are recommended. Cured dried meats – like beef jerky or prosciutto – are good choices. For raw vegetable snacks, seek more “bitter” varieties like broccoli or asparagus, which are preferable, as they have lower sugar/carb content than, for example, carrots. Don’t allow yourself to become so hungry in-flight that you’ll grab chips, candies or just about anything available. Remember that a cookie is not a snack – it’s a sugar bomb.

6. Consider the effects of what you drink

It’s important to remain well hydrated in-flight in order to keep all bodily functions working properly. Drink plenty of water. Soda or coffee with sugar will give you short-term energy spikes. While this may be beneficial in some cases – on approach to landing, for example, if a crew member is feeling tired – the ideal is to maintain a constant and balanced energy level throughout the flight. While diet sodas do not have a sugar/carb content, studies have shown that they can make you hungry.

7. Proteins are important with every meal

Meals should always contain proteins – as this helps keep you awake and alert – as opposed to high-carb or high-fat alternatives. For breakfast, an omelet or high-protein cereal is a better choice than high-carb content pancakes, waffles or breakfast potatoes. You should not avoid carbs but plan on consuming smaller portions than you would on the ground. If you’re having pizza for lunch, consider a thinner crust, rather than a deep dish variety, with meat and cheese. Chicken with fruit salsa, skewers of meat with sauce or Ahi tuna on spinach salad are all good examples of protein options with adequate carb content.

8. Certain foods should be avoided

Many flight departments do not allow crew meals to contain shellfish, as there may be neuro reactions, as opposed to simple indigestion, if food is contaminated. Sushi and other raw fish should also be avoided by active flight crew. Large carb-rich meals – such as a big portions of pasta – can damage pilot alertness but may be fine for passengers who want to sleep.

9. Limit carb/sugar intake

It’s best to avoid chips, pretzels, bagels and candy snacks on extended flights. A sugary donut may have you riding high for 40 to 60 minutes, but then energy levels will crash. Don’t overdo soda consumption, and consume fruit juices in moderation. It’s best to choose decaffeinated varieties of coffees and teas. Try splitting meals into two smaller portions, so that your body diverts less energy to digestion.

10. Plan in-flight meals for brain health

To best manage mental alertness in-flight, we recommend that crews consider having their own catering and snack supplies onboard. And, as all our metabolisms differ, it’s important to know your own body and be aware of how certain foods, drinks and caffeinated beverages affect you individually.


Making the right food choices for extended international operations will have positive and beneficial impacts on crew alertness, energy levels and mental performance. Keeping your body well-hydrated, eating smaller meal portions more often and using snack foods strategically help improve overall success of in-flight operations.


If you have any questions about this article, contact me at rogerleemann@airculinaire.com.

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