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Along with "military intelligence," the phrase "airline food" is said to be an oxymoron, and I agree. Most of it is pretty awful. There's a website, www.airlinemeals.net, devoted not only to photos of airline food being served today, but of snapshots of great meals from the past, back as far as the 1950s even. There are over one thousand photos of UAL meals, only one for Vladivostok Avia, for instance. These appear to be provided by dedicated frequent flyers and sometimes, by crew. I recall fondly when I could order a fruit plate and spare myself the complexities of mystery meat, overcooked veggies and Jell-O desserts. Well, surprise -- you can order special meals today, too, provided you know the ropes.

When you can get a meal, it's apt to be on a flight of five hours or more, or overseas, or, of course, if you are in business or first class. If you are none of the above, content yourself with snacks, most not healthy, or bring your own food along. Nearly all airline meals are produced by a few giant catering kitchens scattered around the world, all of them private concerns that cater to as many airlines as they can. I visited one on Long Island a few years back and was impressed not only by the cleanliness, but the special area where kosher food was cooked and assembled, even cleaner and better policed, I thought at the time. Another area for other special meals was nearly as neat, with separate freezers, too, and an entirely different production line. There were many different kinds of special meals in the past, a refugee meal on Northwest still sticking in my mind. (It was designed to appeal to the Vietnamese fleeing Saigon in the 1970s.)

Special Meals

If you can't get a decent preview of your meal (and good luck trying), you might want to consider, especially for health reasons, a special meal. Special meals need to be ordered in advance, usually a minimum of 24 hours, and are divided into several categories: religious, medical, vegetarian and "other." Of the hundreds of airlines and their special meals, I've chosen just American Airlines and United as samples here.

Vegetarian Special Meals

American offers breakfasts of bagel, margarine, jelly, maybe fruit; for lunch pasta, a variety of salads, roll, margarine, maybe a veggie meatloaf; for dinner the veggie meatloaf and fruit, salads or tofu frittata. They may add nuts or peanuts for protein. There's a non-dairy Asian Vegetarian meal, which is the same as the Vegetarian Meal, but seasoned Indian-style.

United has three kinds of vegetarian (vegan, lacto-ovo and "Asian"). At breakfast, the vegan menu has donuts, then egg- and dairy-free pastas for lunches and dinners. Included may be veggies, nuts, plant oils, tofu, soy milk, and the like. The lacto-ovo vegetarian meal requests get you the stricter Vegan meal anyhow, but if you're in first or business class, you can augment that with appetizers and desserts containing dairy products. Domestically, milk is available on all meal service flights for those who wish it. The "Asian" vegetarian meal is the same as the Vegan .

"Other" Special Meals

American has no "other" meal choices.

United has a Traveler's Lighter Choice meal, meaning a fresh fruit plate, which you can have on any scheduled service designated as breakfast, lunch or dinner flights. In addition, they have Japanese Obento meals on all USA-JAPAN-USA flights, in first and business class on lunch and dinner flights. They're also available in the Narita-Hong Kong market in first class, again lunch and dinner only. (Pity, as I think breakfast is the best meal in Japan.)

Medical Special Meals, Diabetic & Gluten Free

For diabetics, American offers anything from bagel and jelly through cereal to scrambled eggs and turkey ham, for breakfast. For lunch, it's smoked turkey sandwich or grilled chicken, and for dinner a seafood entrée, salad, fruit and dessert.

United believes diabetics would like its low-calorie diabetic meals, with no sugar, fried or fatty food or anything sweetened.

As to gluten-free meals, American offers rice cakes and fruit for breakfast (eggs in first or business), grilled chicken with raw veggies for lunch, and shrimp, seafood and rice cakes again for dinner.

United's gluten-free meals forbids wheat, barley, oats and rye, baked goods, pastas and gravies.

Medical Meals/Other

United has several additional medically-related meals, including Low-Purine (e.g., no gravies or sweetbreads), Low-Cholesterol (e.g., no fats, dairy), Low-Calorie (e.g., no fats, sugars, mayo), High-Fiber (no wheat flour products), Low-Protein (e.g., no soups, cured meats) and Low-Sodium (e.g., no salt, MSG, cheese).

Religious (or Faith-based) Special Meals

There are hundreds of religions that say something about diet, but here I am not concerned with What Would Jesus Eat?, the name of an interesting book, or specific Christian diets for those wishing to lose weight. (They include the Hallelujah Diet, the Body by God Diet and the Weight Loss God's Way diet, for instance.) The airlines mostly limit themselves to Hindu, Kosher and Moslem meals.

American's Hindu meal is simply their Vegetarian Meal (see above). Their Kosher Meal, they explain, is Orthodox as approved by the Jewish Orthodox Union, adapted somewhat during Passover. They don't serve Kosher on routes to and from Delhi or Montevideo.

United's Hindu Meals are "pure Vegan, and do not include meat, fish, eggs or dairy products". Count on rice, fruits and veggies, starches, tofu, dried beans and peas.

The United Kosher meal "comes from a certified kosher vendorÂ?prepared under rabbinical supervision," and adapted for Passover. They say they are "working closely with Heart Smart Restaurants International to develop healthier choices for our kosher customers."

American's Moslem Meals that contain lamb or chicken are certified by The Halal Food Council S.E.A. of Salisbury, MD. Breakfast is similar to Vegan meals, while lunch may included a falafel sandwich or a Vegan Patty in pita bread. Dinner may be pasta or bean/risotto mix, or halal lamb or chicken.

The United Muslim Meal (note the different spellings) prohibits pork, sausages, alcohol, eel and animal fats, but allows fruits and veggies, pasta, cheese and more. "If locally available, poultry is slaughtered according to the specified halal method." Halal, by the way, in English usage, means food that is permissible according to Islamic law.

Snacks for the Rest of Us

I haven't been impressed by the snacks being offered and/or sold these days, and remember fondly the occasional box containing an apple and a piece of cheese with a package of crackers for the latter.

The snacks available on most American Airline flights, selling for $3, include the following, three of which are definitely not healthy choices: Mega Bite Cookie (4. oz.), Lay's Stax Potato Crisps (5.75 oz.), 3 Musketeers candy bar (3.28 oz.) and Great Nut Supply Co, Nut Blend (4 oz.).

United has a variety of Snack Boxes, and their website says, helpfully, "None of the itemsÂ?contain peanuts, peanut flour or peanut oil. Some have been manufactured in a facility that also processes peanuts and are labeled as such."

United has four boxes, available on flights that depart before 8pm and more than 3 hours in length, or anytime on flights longer than 5 hours. Each box is $5. Three contain things like potato chips and cookies, or candy, but the Smartpack has healthy, natural and organic ingredients, including cheese, granola bar, pita crackers and more.

Note: The author is the Vice President (pro bono) of IAMAT, the International Association for Medical Assistance to Travellers, a registered charity, tel. 716/754-4883; www.iamat.org.

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