I saw how airplane food gets made from start to finish — and I learned a shocking secret about food waste and delayed flights

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Wait until you hear what happens to prepared airplane food when a flight gets delayed.
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Sarah Jacobs

Besides likening themselves to cattle shoved into an airborne metal tube, there’s nothing airline passengers like to complain about more than how terrible airplane food is. But how and where those disappointing in-flight meals get made is rarely thought of.

United Airlines recently let our cameras into its catering facility, Chelsea Food Services, near Newark International Airport in New Jersey.Surprisingly, the food we saw was super fresh, made entirely by hand, and meticulously planned in advance. Another shocker? The airline’s newest menu additions are actually pretty good.

Keep scrolling to see all of the work that goes into the making of your in-flight meals, and to find out about the shocking waste that occurs when your flight is delayed.


Welcome to United’s Chelsea Food Services facility, where a team of 1,000 produces 33,000 meals per day.

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Sarah Jacobs

Food services manager Leon Britton showed us around. Britton has worked here for 28 years.

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Sarah Jacobs

Absolutely everyone is required to wear a hair net, and most wear lab coats. To our eyes, the facility was spotlessly clean.

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Sarah Jacobs

This place is a machine — every meal, cart, and tray is efficiently produced, labeled, and dated.

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Sarah Jacobs

Here in the hot kitchen, meals for 217 flights are made daily.

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Sarah Jacobs

It’s hard to tell in this photo, but the hot kitchen is actually quite small for the amount of work it has to accommodate. You’ll see this better in another photo taken from outside the kitchen.


Fresh veggies are chopped by hand and cooked on a grill. Nothing is automated.

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Sarah Jacobs

The trick to airplane food is to only cook it halfway. Steak, for example, is cooked 30% of the way. The final cook is done onboard in the aircraft’s convection ovens.

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Sarah Jacobs

A common misconception is that planes have microwaves. Convection ovens, which use fans to push the heat, are faster and can cook items at a lower temperature.


Items that do not need to be cooked, like this fruit salad, are made outside the hot kitchen. Fresh produce is delivered multiple times a day.

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Sarah Jacobs

We asked how many produce deliveries the facility gets a day, but they told us it happens so frequently that they can’t even count!


Here’s a view from outside the hot kitchen. It looks pretty small when you consider that 33,000 meals come out of that space every day.

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Sarah Jacobs

The facility must also supply flight attendants with the tools they need to prepare and serve the meals.

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Sarah Jacobs

Everything the flight attendants could possibly need (think: tongs, ice scoopers) is niftily packed in an oven mitt.

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Sarah Jacobs

The precise amount of serving equipment that each flight needs is planned and packed in these metal bins far in advance.

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Sarah Jacobs

Once meals have been prepared, they’re rolled into the “cold room.”

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Sarah Jacobs

This room is kept at a chilly 50 degrees Fahrenheit.

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Sarah Jacobs

Here, employees package every single dish by hand.

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Sarah Jacobs

The dishes are then set aside for the next step …

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Sarah Jacobs

… which is to arrange the trays. Pictures on the walls show employees how to arrange food and what the final product should look like.

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Sarah Jacobs

Completed trays are put into the same food carts you see onboard the plane. Each one is labeled with its flight number.

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Sarah Jacobs

Once the carts have been loaded, they’re moved to an even colder room to be blast-chilled. This room is kept at a frosty 38 degrees; the people who work here wear heavy winter coats.

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Sarah Jacobs

These carts are ready and waiting to board an aircraft.

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Sarah Jacobs

Before boarding, carts are packed with dry ice to keep the food fresh.

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Sarah Jacobs

Dishes are conveniently kept at the bottom of the carts.

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Sarah Jacobs

Here’s the shocker: Meals can’t sit for more than six to eight hours before boarding a plane. If a flight is delayed for more than a couple of hours, all of its meals could get thrown out and replaced. Not only is the food wasted, but employees also have to work overtime to get the new food ready.

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Sarah Jacobs

Snack carts are also preloaded and have their own area.

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Sarah Jacobs

Walking into the soft-drink area kind of feels like being in Costco.

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Alcohol is kept in its own, restricted spot.

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Sarah Jacobs

That’s a lot of booze.

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Sarah Jacobs

This is the enormous dishwashing facility.

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Sarah Jacobs

After use, everything, including the pushcarts, is pressure washed.

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Sarah Jacobs

If workers hit their monthly goals and run on time, they get a $300 bonus for the month, hence the “$300” we saw plastered all over the facility. Here’s hoping this holiday travel season is light on flight delays and food waste.

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Sarah Jacobs