Amazing airline food from the 1950s, 1960s & 1970s: In-flight meals you won’t see nowadays

Airline food from the 1950s 1960s 1970s - Vintage in-flight meals at ClickAmericana com

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Today’s bag of pretzels or peanuts plus a small cup of soda simply can’t hold a candle to the quality and variety of airline meals from decades ago.

Of course, the whole travel experience used to be about more than just getting from point A to point B — it was about enjoying the (very expensive) journey. And how can you have an amazing journey without good food?

Flying first class in the 1960s with a cheese course and fruit at ClickAmericana com

Airline food has long been the butt of jokes, but if you take a look back into its history, you’ll find an evolution that mirrors the growth and sophistication of the airline industry itself. From basic snacks to gourmet meals, the story of in-flight dining is as varied as the destinations airlines serve.

The inception of commercial airlines brought with it the novel concept of eating above the clouds — a service that started modestly with pre-packed cold meals and snacks. As air travel became more popular, airlines saw an opportunity to enhance the passenger experience and boost revenue with improved meal services.

The 1960s and 1970s in particular marked a golden era for airplane food, with carriers competing to offer the most lavish meals, sourced from high-quality ingredients and prepared with the finesse of fine dining restaurants. Some first class flights even offered a real restaurant experience, complete with a dining table.

Dining around a table in the first class lounge (1976)

Braniff International, for instance, revolutionized the scene by hiring international chefs, leading to a dramatic upgrade from the usual fare, with dishes like Chicken Kiev and steak with Sauce Diane.

Vintage magazine ads from this era — several of which we’ve gathered here — showcase the lengths airlines went to differentiate their meal services.

Beef dinner on TWA plane - in-flight meal from the 1950s with Dave Chasen
Sirloin of beef dinner on TWA plane – in-flight meal from the 1950s with Dave Chasen

Braniff’s bold move to use chilled fresh food and gourmet dishes, the “All-Steak Airline” concept for flights to Florida, and Delta’s commitment to serving satisfying meals underline a shared ambition: To make the in-flight dining experience memorable… in a good way.

The vintage images and below ads not only highlight the culinary innovation of the back in the day, but also reflect the airlines’ understanding of food as an integral part of the travel experience. 🛫

✈️ Airline food from the 1950s

Even kids liked TWA Airlines food service back in 1952

TWA airplane meal tray back in 1951

TWA airplane meal tray back in 1951

A dessert cart with many choices for passengers

Airline dessert cart in the 1950s at ClickAmericana com

Pan Am airlines delivering breakfast to a sleeping berth (1953)

Pan Am airlines in 1953 would deliver breakfast to your sleeping berth

United Airlines in 1952 apparently passed around a basket of fruit

1952 United Airlines - bowl of fruit at ClickAmericana com

1959 Delta Air Lines champagne and tablecloths for in-flight meals

1959 Delta Air Lines champagne and airline meals at ClickAmericana com

A 5 course in-flight meal on American Airlines in 1955

Looks like a main course of steak, potatoes and a veggie side of mushrooms and peas. There also appears to be a salad or vegetables, a dessert, bread and butter, hot coffee and a few more items.

In-flight meal on American Airlines in the 1950s (1955) at ClickAmericana com

MORE: Look back at the early days of American Airlines – doing what they did best

✈️ Airline food from the 1960s

Vintage United Airlines basic in-flight tray meals in 1960

Vintage United AIrlines tray meals in 1960 at ClickAmericana com

Meals onboard SAS Scandinavian Airlines in the sixties (1960)

Meals onboard SAS Scandinavian Airlines in the sixties (1960) at ClickAmericana com

Why Pan Am used to be one of the world’s most legendary airlines

Stewardess/flight attendant offering a variety of dishes from a cart

Stewardess flight attendant serving airline meals in the 1960s and 1970s at ClickAmericana com

MORE: See the stunning space-age TWA Terminal at JFK airport as it looked in the ’60s (before it became a hotel)

Eastern Airlines first class meals by (French restaurant) Voisin

Eastern Airlines First Class Famous Restaurant flights (19654) at ClickAmericana com

Retro airline TWA Royal Ambassador First Class entrees (1965)

A whole lobster, a glass of wine, and Elizabeth Taylor. That’s living the high life.

Retro airline TWA Royal Ambassador First Class entrees (1965) at ClickAmericana com

✈️ VINTAGE VIDEO: “1960s Plane Food — First Class & Economy”

YouTube video

Braniff International: They said it would never fly. (1968)

Until a very few years ago, airlines assumed that food on a plane had to be utterly imperishable, if not downright indestructible. Then Braniff hired a group of top international chefs to rethink the whole business. At the head of this board was Willie Rossel, twice winner of the Culinary Olympics.

For a start, Chef Rossel threw out all the traditional assumptions. Instead of frozen food, he began using chilled fresh food. Instantly, the possibilities became infinite. Instead of fried chicken, Chicken Kiev. Instead of steak, steak with Sauce Diane.

In addition to regular coffee, our own cappuccino. South American hors d’oeuvres with unpronounceable names. German desserts with half a million calories. And pretty soon, a lot of well-known airlines were conferring with a lot of well-known restaurants.

Culinary options onboard Braniff International airlines in the 60s (1968) at ClickAmericana com

The All-Steak Airline to Florida (1968)

It always seemed sad to us that the first and last meals of your vacation, the meals served to you on an airplane, turned out to be the worst meals of your vacation.

Sad because airlines don’t start out with inferior food or bad cooks. Their meals just end up tasting that way. No matter how they serve it, no matter what they call it, airline food ends up tasting like airline food because it isn’t cooked on an airplane.

It’s cooked in big kitchens hours ahead of time and kept in warming ovens as it’s trucked from where it was cooked to the plane where it’s finally going to be served. (You women know what happens to food when you have to hold dinner too long at home.)

To break that tradition, we had to break that cycle. Which means we had to find a way to prepare food on board and find the food that can best be prepared on board. And we did.

We bought ovens we could cook with on the plane and we found we could prepare steak in them better than anything else. So that’s all we serve. Steak. On all our luncheon and dinner flights. In first class and coach. Flying to Florida and coming home.

Northeast Yellowbirds flights with steak dinners (1968) at ClickAmericana com

Stewardess on a plane with TWA steak dinner 1964

Stewardess on a plane with TWA steak dinner 1964 at ClickAmericana com

Pretty, thin, young and single? Check out these sexist stewardess job requirements of the '50s & '60s

Delta: The one meal airline. (1968)

The one-meal airline, Delta’s a pretty big name in the restaurant business. During the next month alone, we’re going to be setting the table for almost half a million hearty appetites.

But let’s face it — you can only eat one meal at a time. And, quite naturally, that is the one you’re going to judge us by. So if, by your second cup of coffee, we’ve got you loosening your seat belt a notch, we know we’ve done our job well. And everyone’s happy.

But if you were all set to dig into a piping hot steak, and the best we could come up with was a little cold turkey, we can’t expect you to be too happy about it. That’s why we call ourselves the one-meal airline. Not because we only serve one type of meal — far from it. But because we’re well aware that, to you, we are a one-meal airline; namely, the one you get on your next Delta flight.

Delta Airlines - the one-meal airline (1968) at ClickAmericana com

If we serve you an unappetizing dinner, you’ll think Delta Air Lines serves nothing but unappetizing dinners. Period. And no amount of excuses from us (“Too bad you weren’t flying to Miami, sir. The service on our Miami flight was excellent”) are going to change your mind.

Now, we know that serving almost a million perfect meals a month is no easy task. (Especially at 30,000 feet. ) But that’s no reason why we can’t try.

McDonald's Friendly Skies Meals were on United Airlines flights in the 1990s

✈️ Airline food from the 1970s

Preparing in-flight meals on Pan-Am airlines in 1977

Preparing in-flight meals on Pan-Am airlines in 1977

“Catch this! First a full breakfast, then this great Deli-Buffet.” (1975)

United Airlines Deli Buffet (1975) at ClickAmericana com

In-flight meals at a table in an airplane lounge

In-flight meals at a table in an airplane lounge (1970s)

United Airlines First Class Four Star Dining dinner menu (1972)

United Airlines First Class Four Star Dining dinner menu (1972) at ClickAmericana com

ALSO SEE: How Boeing 747 jumbos jet made history

You’ve met our stars, now meet the rest of our cast. (1970)

When you think of United, you probably remember the stewardess with the nonstop smile. The courteous skycap. Or the chef you met on one of our Chef’s Gourmet flights.

But at United, there’s a cast of thousands behind the scenes, too. In our shiny flight kitchens, for example. People working quietly to make sure the food upstairs is the finest in the sky. People who know everything from how to turn a radish into a thing of beauty, to the very proper care and handling of a Chateaubriand.

Even though they’re not all in the limelight, everyone who wears the name United puts a little more into his job — to make your flight a friendly one. That’s why they’re with us. United. We’ve always got something good cooking.

United Airlines gourmet kitchens in 1970 at ClickAmericana com

Vintage 70s TWA European-style food service (1975)

Vintage 70s TWA European-style food service (1975) at ClickAmericana com

Vintage 70s TWA food service (1975) at ClickAmericana com

Eastern said their service is what made their meals special (1978)

The president of Eastern Airlines said in 1978, “The truth is all airline food is pretty much the same.”

Vintage Eastern Airlines in-flight dinners (1978) at ClickAmericana com

TWA’s Ambassador Service food in the 1970s

A choice of 3 International meals in coach, 5 in first class. With champagnes, wines and liqueurs from around the world.

1970 TWA Ambassador Service in-flight meal service food options (1) at ClickAmericana com

1970 TWA Ambassador Service in-flight meal service food options (2) at ClickAmericana com

Northwest Airlines’ first class & coach in-flight entrees (1973)

1970s airplane in-flight meals (1973) at ClickAmericana com

Japan Air Lines in-flight meals for economy passengers (1973)

The 5-course economy meal: Prosciutto and melon, filet minion, garden salad, baba au rhum and beverage

JAL's American in-flight meals for economy passengers (1973) at ClickAmericana com

Japan Air Lines food from 1972 at ClickAmericana com

DON’T MISS: See what first class flights were like from the 1950s to the 1980s

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