There's something wonderful about getting on a plane. Despite all the petty nuisances involved in air travel these days, every time I sit down in my seat and look out the window, I feel the same thrill I did as a kid. Back then, my mom kept travel exciting by packing cards for games of "go fish," books of mad libs, and other treats that made the time on a plane special. On most trips, there was even a bag of peanut M&Ms tucked into her purse—the height of indulgence for children raised on sugarless cereal and carob-based desserts. These days I still pack little indulgences like that when I travel—magazines I wouldn't normally take the time to read, novels that have been languishing on the shelf—but the most effective way I've found to make flying fun and comfortable is to bring along delicious food that will keep me not just full but happy throughout the flight.
I started packing my own food for plane trips when I moved to New York from California and made the six-hour flight home three or four times a year. At first I brought along prepared foods from a specialty store like Fairway Market or treats I'd picked up at a local bakery, but pretty soon I was making myself real meals. I planned them ahead of time, strategizing about what I could make in the days before the trip that would leave me with scrumptious leftovers. The more I cooked and traveled, the more I learned about which ingredients "fly" well, which dishes are the easiest to pack, and which kinds of food are the best companions on long flights. Here are a few tips:
When making sandwiches, think about ways to keep them from getting soggy while they sit in your bag. Using a baguette is a good start, as is avoiding wet ingredients like tomatoes, lettuce, and even some lunch meats. Thin shavings of firm vegetables, like cucumber or radish, are a good choice; so are cheeses that won't sweat as they sit out. If you want to assemble the entire sandwich before you leave home, try using flavorings like lemon zest, freshly cracked pepper, and salt instead of mayonnaise or mustard. Of course, you can always bring a moist ingredient and add it just before you eat: I sometimes assemble a pulled pork sandwich of just meat and bun; once in flight, I pile on the coleslaw, dressed with a flavorful white sauce, that I toted in a separate container.
Current restrictions prevent me from bringing vinaigrette onto a plane unless I've packed it with my shampoo in a tiny plastic bag, but that doesn't mean I don't carry salads on board. I've learned to pack those that actually benefit from being dressed a couple of hours before I plan to eat them. Panzanella, a mixture of cubed day-old Italian bread, diced tomatoes, capers, olive oil, and a little vinegar, is an ideal example; the flavors meld as the salad sits at room temperature. The same is true of salads that center on rice or corn. For something less time-consuming, I might cut up a few hardy vegetables, like a cucumber and cherry tomatoes, and dress them with salt and good-quality olive oil—omitting vinegar, which would turn them into pickles.
Pasta lends itself to all sorts of room-temperature dishes. Since I know I'll be eating in a cramped space, I usually forgo tomato sauces and other messy ingredients, and I choose bite-size shapes, like small shells or chiocciole (scrolls). I top the pasta with chopped-up broccoli rabe and goat cheese or a summery mix of fresh corn, roasted and fresh tomatoes, soft sautéed leeks, and chunks of fresh mozzarella; either combination results in a thoroughly satisfying meal.
On long international flights, I make sure to bring along something for breakfast. It may be as simple as a scone or croissant from a favorite bakery, but recently, on a flight to Hong Kong, I was inspired to do more. Taking an idea from the Stumptown coffee shop down the street from our office, which offers crunchy French toast alongside the usual baked goods, I made a few pieces of my own from a leftover baguette. I cooked them slowly to ensure that the egg mixture was fully cooked through, then covered each side of the bread with a layer of sugar mixed with spices and let the whole thing caramelize and crisp; the sugar and flavorings stood in for the syrup I would have added at home. Eaten with some strawberries that had been macerating in sugar, it was a fine "start" to an airborne day.
To be really happy eating on a plane, it's always wise to stash sweets of some kind in your bag (otherwise you'll find yourself buying something from the flight attendants at three times the usual price). Anything will do, really: cookies, leftover birthday cake from a friend's party, or even the old standby, a bag of M&Ms, will help make the flight feel like a vacation rather than a commute.