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Catering to every palate

How to meet the rising demand for ‘special meals’

The ‘special meal’ is experiencing something of a revolution in the airline industry, as the adoption of a growing number of modern diets ramps up. Once thought of as a lesser quality, minority product – think the lone vegetarian option - pre-ordered, special alternatives to standard food offerings are becoming sought-after themselves.

The International Air Transport Association (IATA) has now broadened its special meal range to more than 20 meal types – from Kosher to Vegetarian Lacto-Ovo - catering not only to medical and religious requirements, but also lifestyle choices like veganism.

In a world that celebrates customisation (…did you know that Starbucks now offers 87,000 possible drink combinations?), caterers and airlines are providing more opportunity to order ‘off-menu’ for those who need to. Today’s frequent flyers are less likely to indulge in heavy foods and are paying close attention to ingredients and nutritional values.

While this presents opportunity for more creativity in the kitchen, it also presents a number of challenges for the industry – considering the costs of going bespoke and the rate at which airlines tend to turn over their menus –every three months. It’s hardly surprising that many are still playing catch-up.

So how do we meet the rising demand for special meals?

Preparation is key


Often, special meal requests are made at short notice. With airlines accepting special meal requests as late as 24 hours before departure, catering facilities need to think a step ahead to avoid a situation where chefs are scrambling to throw something together at the last minute.

This means making certain assumptions about high-usage special meals. Our teams analyse our airlines’ customer demographics to anticipate which meals might be needed at each location. If we can see an airline has a high number of Indian passengers travelling through a particular port, we ensure we have plenty of Hindu and Asian vegetarian dishes ready. It’s important, as a caterer, we’re nimble and creative, with skills and ingredients for every special meal category at the ready.

Opportunity to shine in the sky


Gone are the days when you could plonk a soggy veggie wrap on a plate and call it a vegetarian meal. Passengers with dietary requirements are equal to everyone else on board and resent being penalised for what they can and can’t eat.

A special meal should be as fresh, healthy and tasty as any other dish on the aircraft. Our development team takes this into account, creating special meals with no less creativity or flair than we would any regular dish. We tend to steer clear of substitutes like mock meats and gluten-free bread or pasta, preferring to craft exceptional plant-based meals. Travellers should think, ‘Wow, great food! And oh yes, it happens to be a special meal.’

No room for error


Cooking for diners with allergies can be tricky in any setting, but for flight caterers, the stakes are higher than for most. An allergic reaction at 30,000 feet can have fatal consequences. We start segregating high-risk allergens from the moment we receive them. Ingredients like nuts and shellfish are stored in an isolated room and used only in certain areas of the kitchen, which we thoroughly clean afterwards. Instead of feeling they must bring their own food on board, these travellers can relax and enjoy the dining experience like everyone else.

Future trends


With passengers becoming more and more selective about what they eat, there’s been a great deal of speculation about where the special meal trend is headed. Is our industry moving towards widespread a la carte dining, in the style of Singapore Airlines’ ‘Book the Cook’?

To do so would require a major re-evaluation of logistics, loading capacities, and the roles of cabin crews, whose primary focus has always been safety. There are financial hurdles too. By limiting offerings, efficiencies in production and raw materials are easier to find. Once airlines deviate from that and become restaurants, costs begin to skyrocket.

One thing’s for certain: the demand for special meals won’t subside any time soon. As lifestyle diets like paleo and low FODMAP become more popular, airlines will only be forced to increase their offerings, putting our industry’s agility to the test. Investing in the best, diverse talent, training and creativity in the kitchen is critical.

For those prepared to go the extra mile and cater to diverse dietary needs, the longer term business benefits will be worth it.

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About dnata catering


63 locations

More than


airline customers



meals annually