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

United Airlines Food 7858Sarah 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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Once meals have been prepared, they're rolled into the "cold room."

Once meals have been prepared, they're rolled into the "cold room."

This room is kept at a chilly 50 degrees Fahrenheit.

This room is kept at a chilly 50 degrees Fahrenheit.

Here, employees package every single dish by hand.

Here, employees package every single dish by hand.

The dishes are then set aside for the next step ...

The dishes are then set aside for the next step ...

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

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

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

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

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.

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.

These carts are ready and waiting to board an aircraft.

These carts are ready and waiting to board an aircraft.

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

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

Dishes are conveniently kept at the bottom of the carts.

Dishes are conveniently kept at the bottom of the carts.

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.

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.

Snack carts are also preloaded and have their own area.

Snack carts are also preloaded and have their own area.

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

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

Alcohol is kept in its own, restricted spot.

Alcohol is kept in its own, restricted spot.

That's a lot of booze.

That's a lot of booze.

This is the enormous dishwashing facility.

This is the enormous dishwashing facility.

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

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

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.

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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