A simple task like eating lunch can get complicated when you’re on a job notorious for long hours, delays, and constantly changing schedules. After asking “beef or chicken?” dozens of times per flight and dishing out all the peanut packs, flight attendants eventually have to shift focus to their own dietary needs.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, flight attendants typically spend a few nights each week away from home, working 12 to 14 hours per shift followed by at least nine consecutive hours of rest—as required by the Federal Aviation Administration—before flying again. Back-to-back shifts and quick turnarounds make meal planning no easy feat.
Mental_floss interviewed flight crew members across a wide range of carriers about eating habits and options in flight and during layovers. The responses run the gamut from pot-luck dinners in the galley to crafty tips for creating culinary masterpieces via hotel room coffeemakers.
EAT A HAM SANDWICH, LOSE YOUR JOB
That might seem dramatic, but for one Ryanair employee, that scenario was a reality. News of the flight attendant who reportedly got fired for eating a $7.50 baguette intended for passenger service made headlines in 2014 when he filed a lawsuit for improper termination.
Policies for flight crew food vary by airline and tend to mirror trends in passenger meal service. While in the past many carriers provided meals and snacks, today that practice is usually confined to long haul flights. If an attendant spies a leftover meal or snack, most carriers say go for it. However, there are no guarantees and most avoid in-flight meals and stick to their own provisions—even if this means lunch is a pack of M&Ms.
WHAT’S IN THOSE BAGS?
Passengers aren’t alone when it comes to traveling with overstuffed luggage. There’s an industry joke that when you see a flight attendant with three bags, you can bet two and a half are packed with dry goods. Part of the job entails becoming an expert at constructing “rolling markets.” Stocking up on everything from crackers and peanut butter to mac-and-cheese packets and granola bars, veteran crew know how to prepare.
POTLUCK IN THE GALLEY
When making schedule requests, there’s more to consider than destinations and times. Colleagues in the air make a big difference. Milla Averett, who has worked as a flight attendant since 1977, says when she knows the crew on deck, they often coordinate meals. “Everyone brings a dish and that makes for an interesting buffet in the galley,” Averett says. “The passengers are always asking where they can get that food!”
Among her co-workers, she has developed a reputation for baking. “I prepare a ‘baby’ loaf of bread for each crew member on my trip every time I fly,” she says. “Each person has his/her own homemade bread—with no preservatives—for the day in case there is nothing to eat.”
It’s no surprise that bringing food to share makes a crew member instantly popular. Scoring a flight with a pilot known for bringing homemade lasagna for the crew is striking culinary gold.
CREATIVE WITH A COFFEEMAKER
Simplicity rules when it comes to layovers. With enough time, most crew seek out local eats recommended by co-workers frequenting the same city. Often there is just enough of a break to grab an easy bite before getting a few hours sleep then returning to the airport. Pros know that a basic salad from room service can serve as a full meal when topped with peanuts and served with cheese and crackers.
Some say it’s urban legend, but many attendants swear by tales of colleagues whipping up gourmet meals in hotel room coffee pots. The flight attendants combine a packet of rice with easy-to-pack seasonings, then use the coffee pots to transform the combo into a rich and filling soup.
PEANUTS, PRETZELS, AND PARTIES
When a crew is particularly cohesive, the culinary collaboration continues on the ground. Armed with a meal allowance, attendants plan multi-course hotel room dinners where everyone purchases and contributes something to the feast.
With the appetizer course covered—peanuts and pretzels, of course—local specialties rule the menu, from gumbo in New Orleans and clam chowder in Boston to paella in Madrid and wienerschnitzel in Frankfurt.
Attendants say that while some aspects of the job aren’t as glamorous as passengers might imagine, collaborating with colleagues to plan a dinner and explore a new destination’s culinary specialties is one of the greatest perks.