What is the best vegan airplane food? Even if you’re flying business or first class, specifying a plant-based meal remains a gamble. Case in point: the differences between VGML, AVML and VLML meals.
Those 3 codes are used by most airlines. Their definitions will vary slightly, but here’s the verbatim language Delta uses to describe each type…
|Meal Code||Full Name||Description|
|VGML||Vegetarian (Vegan) Meal||A non‐strict vegetarian meal typically prepared Indian style. This meal does not contain meat, seafood, egg or dairy products.|
|AVML||Asian Vegetarian Meal||A non‐strict vegetarian meal typically prepared Asian style. This meal does not contain meat, seafood, egg or dairy products.|
|VLML||Vegetarian (Lacto-Ovo) Meal||Typically cooked in Western style, this meal does not contain meat, seafood, eggs, or dairy products.|
The VLML is only suitable for people who eat dairy.
Between the Asian Vegetarian Meal (AVML) vs. Vegetarian Vegan Meal (VGML), what are their differences and which should you choose?
Actually, their descriptions contradict themselves!
They don’t contain meat, seafood, eggs, and dairy, yet in the same breathe they say it’s a “non-strict” meal.
What does that even mean?!
Presumably, they’re just trying to cover their butts for things like cross-contamination and most noticeably, the butter and dairy-based salad dressings they often include, even with a VGML or AVML entrée option.
Getting a side of butter with your bread should be the least of your concerns though.
The bigger problem is that airport food services are notorious for messing up the meals big time.
In fact from the collective experiences of the writers here at Superfoodly, we have found our alleged plant-based meals to be made incorrectly around 30% of the time. Sometimes, a completely different meal is received instead, yet it’s still marked VGML or AVML.
This is why even if you’re flying first class on Delta, United, or American Airlines, be prepared for disappointment. Vegan snacks for air travel are a must, because even if they get your special meal request right, chances are it will still leave you hungry and lacking certain key nutrients (especially if you’re an athlete/fitness follower).
What is AVML meal?
It stands for Asian Vegetarian Meal, but that should not be confused with the American definition of the word vegetarian. In many parts of the world, the word “strict vegetarian” is used in lieu of vegan.
As shown in the table atop, this should be what you think of as a vegan meal, with the exception that it’s vaguely not “strict” for some unknown reason.
Which airlines allow you to have special meal requests on domestic flights?
Only Delta, surprisingly. So that’s definitely a good thing if you’re on a plant-based diet, but keep in mind they only do the formal meal service domestically on business and first.
If you’re flying coach, you cannot request a vegan meal, or any other type for that matter, on a flight which both departs and arrives in the US. You can request it though on their international routes (departing US and landing in another country).
Aside from their definitions, the big difference between VGML and AVML is their popularity. Overall, the VGML is the most common or default vegan food option. As you can guess from the name, the AVML is more common in Asian routes but overall, is less requested in the United States.
But the word “Asian” here may or may not be talking about Chinese, Thai, Japanese, or Korean cuisine. On many carriers, those food types would be the Vegetarian Oriental Meal (VOML).
Rather, the word “Asian” in AVML often refers to Indian cuisine and similar. Since India is in South Asia, that’s the label much of the world uses to describe their food.
For some in America, the word “oriental” is viewed as offensive. In 2016, Obama even signed into a law a bill to ban its use in federal documents (1). So expect to see even less usage of the VOML meal within US borders.
Getting back to AVML, here’s Qatar Airways description of it:
This is a vegetarian meal flavoured with spices from the Indian sub-continent.
It may contain: Vegetables, fruit, dairy products, spices and aromas associated with the Indian sub-continent. The meal could be mildly spiced.
Does not contain: Meat, poultry, fish, seafood, and eggs.
So in this example, it’s vegetarian but not vegan, since it “may” contain dairy. That’s different than the Delta definition, which excludes dairy.
Regardless of the carrier, most of the time this meal is gluten free or largely so. Not officially, but since they use rice versus bread, you at least have that part to eat if you’re Celiac or gluten intolerant. The sauce on the veggies can be more questionable, but often times they separate it.
British Airways, Qatar Airways, Emirates, Lufthansa, and Singapore Airlines seem to get the AVML preparation right. But the Delta AVML meal can be a hit or miss, especially when requested domestically.
In a nutshell, the VGML is the safest bet for vegans across all the airlines, both domestic and abroad. The AVML is more of a gamble and its definition can vary greatly.
On British Midland Airlines, the IATA special meal code for AVML = Vegetarian Hindu.
The more common Hindu Meal (HNML) is meat free and vegetarian, but it does have “limited use of dairy” products in it, according to every carrier we checked.
Other religious meal requests won’t be any better.
Kosher Meal (KSML) will avoid mixing dairy and meat, but expect one or the other.
On El Al – also known as Israel Airlines – one of our special requested meals on a business class flight from New York (JFK) to Tel Aviv (TLV) was both plant-based and kosher, even though the latter was not requested. That’s the only airline which apparently offers kosher for everything.
Muslim Meal (MOML) only avoids pork.
Gluten Free Meal (GFML) always has meat.
Korean Meal (KRML) is prepared bibimbap style. That probably means a big fried egg atop all of it and even if there’s no visible beef, who knows if the sauce is fish based or not.
Chinese Meal (CNML) and Japanese Meal (JPML) will always have rice which is a safe bet, but the rest of what you get is up in the air, no pun intended.
Delta special meals review
On this recent flight, a Superfoodly writer had requested the Asian Vegetarian Meal on his first class flight from Orlando (MCO) to Los Angeles (LAX). Here’s what they got for their AVML…
Does that look like Indian food to you? Nope.
Or does it even look like Asian food in the sense of the American definition? Nope.
Even the flight attendant agreed that Delta’s special meal did not appear to match the 4-letter coding for it. Since this passenger is gluten free, he was unable to eat the bread.
That left him with this…
That left him with only a few pieces of fruit and 3 tomato slices to munch on! Sure that’s low calorie, but starving yourself is not healthy.
This food is more typical of what you might expect with Delta’s vegetarian vegan meal (VGML) if prepared Western/American style. With that one though, you’re more likely to get a rice-based dish instead of something with bread.
For example, the VGML entrée for lunch or dinner often consists of about 50% white rice, 30% steamed or fried vegetables, and 20% sauce. Sometimes the latter two are combined.
KLM vegetarian vegan meal review
On a business class flight from Seattle (SEA) to Amsterdam (AMS), followed by AMS to Kilimanjaro (JRO) for a safari, here were the breakfast and lunch/dinner which were served to one person here at Superfoodly.
The breakfast consisted of baked bean, potato pancakes/hash browns, roasted tomato, and sautéed onions for the main course. On the side, fresh cut fruit of apples, watermelon, and pink grapefruit. Regular wheat bread was offered, but passed on because of GF diet.
KLM’s vegan lunch or dinner included hearty lentils and quinoa, butternut squash, roasted zucchini and yellow bell peppers.
Most unique and something you won’t get in the states was the pureed parsnips and rutabagas, which you see underneath the squash. Fruit on the side.
As mentioned, the grilled/charred cooking of the veggies is not healthy. Ditto for the fried potatoes. But at least these recipes are prepared as expected, versus what was seen with the domestic Delta meal featuring a ciabatta sandwich.
British Airways, Emirates, Qatar, ANA, etc.
If you’re international first class on the higher-end on airlines, expect more of a luxury experience.
Can you request a meal that’s both vegan and gluten free? Probably not, but you can expect the quality of your food to be kicked up a notch. Significantly fancier than the special request vegan coach meal, that’s for sure.
Aboard their jumbo A380 departing at 10 pm from LAX and flying direct to London (LHR), this late night dinner in first class wasn’t filling for one of us here at Superfoodly, but it certainly was tasty.
They did accommodate the vegan AND gluten free requests by creating this eggplant dish with broccoli, marinara, and a plant based white cream sauce.
The breakfast was just glorified oatmeal, but at least it was prepared in a unique way. Those are peaches, nuts, and raisins you see on the plate.
You may notice that they provide Smart Balance, which is 100% plant-based. It’s not the Earth Balance which most of us are accustomed to, but it would suffice… if only there was GF bread provided!
Sadly there wasn’t, which means even a light eater would be left hungry after this [very expensive] first class breakfast.
Vegan food to take on a plane
As you see, even in the first class cabins on the fancier airlines, you can’t depend on getting filled up.
If you can eat 100% of what’s on your plate, all are low calorie. That may be good if you’re dieting, but not so much if you’re a 6′ 1″ athletic male who needs to eat more.
The total amount of protein you’re getting will probably be no more than 7 to 12 grams per meal, at best. Bringing a protein supplement is a must if you’re a bodybuilder.
Regardless of the cabin type of flight duration, try these 5 ideas for the best snacks you should bring with you if you’re on a plant-based diet. Packing them for travel is simple and TSA compliant.
1. Protein bars
Sure, you can buy these at almost any domestic airport, but their vegan options may be limited to one or two and they’re less than ideal. You’re going to get sick of Kind bars or a Pro Bar filled with sugar.
Not only are those crappy options, but do you really want to pay $4 or $5 for one of those from the airport snack shop?
Papa Steve’s No Junk Raw protein bars is a good option and you can buy them on Amazon.
Of course there are plenty of other viable choices, but whether it’s Papa Steve’s or another brand, these higher quality protein bars you’re not going to find in the airport, so buy them now before traveling!
2. Dried fruit and nuts
Are you allowed to bring food in your carry on? Of course, but anything fresh is a challenge. The TSA is notorious for making people throw out fresh fruits and veggies.
This is because of the bacteria Bacillus cereus, whose spores are not killed during boiling. However, the heat of that cooking does trigger them to begin growing right after the temperature cools a bit.
Cooked rice is one of the most under-respected sources of food poisoning.
Even if airport security lets you bring a veggie sandwich, who knows what the bacterial levels are on that after its been out of the refrigerator. It may not be eaten for several hours, until you’re midway in flight.
One of the safest bets are dried fruits and nuts. Since one contains sugar and the other fat, they complement each other nicely, rather than eating only one.
Consider the fruits with the most protein in them.
One of the healthiest nuts which is a favorite airplane food for us are shelled pistachios. Yes, make sure you get them shelled, because you don’t want to be hassling around with doing that in-flight!
If you’re not allergic to peanuts, then consider the health benefits of wild jungle peanuts.
3. Oatmeal cups
For breakfast, bring along oatmeal and ask the flight attendant for a cup of hot water. Combine and voila, you have a hearty meal!
Jazz it up with dried berries, nuts, and antioxidant add-ins like cocoa powder. If desired, sweeten with glycemic-friendly monk fruit.
4. Pre-cooked quinoa
No, not the kind you make yourself, because that isn’t safe out of the fridge for too long either.
Buy the pre-cooked kind which has been specially packaged to prevent bacterial growth and is stored at room temperature.
5. Dr. McDougall’s soups and dry salads
More than one of us here at Superfoodly uses Dr. McDougall’s foods while flying. Their plant-based dry soups are not an issue for airport security. Much like oatmeal, all you need to prepare them is a cup of hot water which your flight attendant will give you for free.
Since any in-flight snack options and meals provided by the airline will probably be lacking in protein, it’s recommended you choose the McDougall’s flavors which contain beans, lentils, and/or quinoa. Our favorites are:
- black bean & lime soup – 18 grams protein, 360 calories per cup
- “lower sodium” split pea soup – 16 grams protein, 260 calories
- pistachio citrus quinoa salad – 9 grams protein, 240 calories
These are gluten free, too. McDougall’s are the best vegan airplane food if you want to feel like you’re eating more than just a carb/sugar loaded snack. Pack a couple cups of McDouggall’s soup along with some of the other food ideas. Whether you’re flying transcontinental or transatlantic, your tummy will by happy.