Award-winning chef Nina Compton shares her favorite secrets on how to make in-flight food taste better

Let’s face it: Airplane meals aren’t usually the most satisfying food for your taste buds. Unless you’re flying in a first-class suite at the front of the plane, a chilled, recently reheated light meal served on an aluminum-lid plate won’t whet anyone’s appetite.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. James Beard award-winning chef and former Top Chef finalist Nina Compton says food on a plane can actually taste better with a few helpful tips.

“Food on a plane has a bad reputation because you’re mass producing it and also because you’re flying thousands of feet in the air [the ground],” Compton told CNN Underscored.

As part of Membership Week 2022, Compton has partnered with American Express to bring cardholders a unique dining experience. October, Tuesday. On the 11th, eligible American Express cardholders can only book one night at 20 exclusive restaurants (November 1st). One such restaurant is Compton’s Compère Lapin in New Orleans, a fusion of Caribbean and New Orleans flavors with European flavors.

When it comes to travel, Compton finds flying to be a very contemplative experience, as she has a good book in her carry-on bag. But, when it came time to eat, she knew the meals weren’t guaranteed to be a three-star Michelin feast.

We all know that at 35,000 feet in the sky, our food tastes different than it does on the ground. According to a study commissioned by the German airline Lufthansa in 2010, our perception of sweat and saltiness drops by 30% at high altitudes and when the cabin air is dry. Different studies have found that other factors, such as the background noise of engine sounds, can affect the taste of our food at high altitudes. (Noise-canceling headphones are considered a big help here!)

Catering companies and airlines try to alter their recipes and food and drink offerings to accommodate the changing tastes we have in the sky, but one of Compton’s top tips is to find the right meal options — paying particular attention to its seasonings — — to make sure you’ll get something flavorful.

“It comes down to the pickling of the item,” Compton said. “Lots of fresh herbs really brighten up a dish, so marinated chicken dishes and beef with strong herbs like rosemary are really punchy and taste really good. It makes you feel like it’s well prepared, which I think is It’s a very important thing.”

When ordering, consider the menu item with the highest flavor likelihood. Compton usually orders beef dishes, which she thinks are most likely to be seasoned.

For her less confident dishes, which will be well seasoned, Compton advises coming to the airport to be prepared. “One of the things I always carry with me is a little pocket salt,” she says. “I carry Jacobsen sea salt in case I need more salt.”

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Compton recommends Jacobson’s sea salt, which is harvested from the waters of Netarts Bay on the Oregon coast. While you may not want to carry the entire 4-ounce bag with you, bring a small reusable bag with some salt flakes in it—enough to get you to your destination and back home again.

Salt doesn’t always make things in the air taste more appealing. In this case, Compton recommends traveling with something to spice up your meals.

“Sometimes I bring a little Tobasco, just for added stimulation,” she says. “To cook for the masses, you have to basically please everyone. You don’t see things like curry on the menu because not everyone likes it.”

If there’s not much salt and Tabasco to save your mealtimes, you’ll have to have spares nearby, which is why it’s wise to carry enough travel snacks with you. For Compton, who always carries a bottle of soda with her when the crew is away, she wants a quick sip to stay hydrated.

She also carries a pack of cashews or Kind bar on the plane in case she gets hungry during the trip.

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These 2.25 oz Sea Salt Whole Cashew Bags are perfect for packing in a travel backpack to the airport. Plus, this box contains 16 packs, giving you plenty of room for all your upcoming trips.

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Kind Nut Bars assorted packs of 12

Kind bar is packed with nutrients and is a great choice for travelers if you need to refuel after or during a long flight. This assortment pack includes flavors like Dark Chocolate Nut and Sea Salt, Peanut Butter Dark Chocolate, Caramel Almond and Sea Salt.

Airlines have come a long way in recent years in improving the dining experience for passengers — whether it’s offering more options for those with dietary restrictions or increasing investment in inflight dining.

“I think the airlines are definitely working on it, it’s a tough job,” Compton said. But not every experience is great, so in the end, it pays to be prepared. You can almost always make your airplane meal tastier by ordering the right meal and adding some salt and hot sauce nearby.

Looking for a travel credit card?Find out which cards CNN Underscored has chosen as ours The Best Travel Credit Cards for 2022.

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