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We all know that airline food is not great most of the time.  Heck, sometimes it is downright awful.  However, it is handy to be served food at mealtime while flying miles over the earth, so I grade on a big curve when it comes to my own airline meals.  I have the fortune of being able to travel with my almost-five-year old with some regularity, and miles and elite status have landed us at the pointy end of the plane where meals are more common a number of times.

As a result, we have some experience ordering airline child meals, specifically with United Airlines.  Since I know some of you occasionally travel with children on United flights that have meals, I wanted to share what I have learned.  I expect much of this is very similar on other major domestic US airlines, but the United is the only first-hand experience we have thus far with child meals.

You can order a child’s meal on select United flights:

If you are on a flight (and in a cabin) that warrants meal service, then you might be able order a “special meal” on United.  One of the special meal options is a child’s meal for children 2-12.  Other special meal examples include Kosher, Vegan, and Gluten-Intolerant.

Special meals are available on all international trans-Atlantic, trans-Pacific and most intra-Pacific flights. Special meals are also available on South American flights to/from Argentina, Brazil and Peru.  This will be true whether you are in coach or a premium cabin.

Special meals are available in premium cabins on domestic flights with scheduled meal service between:

  • New York JFK and San Francisco or Los Angeles
  • Continental U.S. and Hawaii

A special meal can be requested at the time of booking or by adding a request to an existing reservation by calling United (1-800-864-8331).  If you have a young child, the easiest way to manage this is to go into their traveler profile and update their preferences to include the special child’s meal.  Of course, just checking that box is no guarantee that anything will happen on your next eligible flight, but it is a good place to start.

I typically pick up the phone and call United to ensure the child’s meal, though be sure you do it before 24 hours out as it is too late once you pass the T-24 hour mark (so if you remember at check-in time, it is already too late).

The contents of a United Airlines child’s meal:

Before assuming the child’s meal will be the best option, think about what your child likes to eat.  If they are good with salads, soups, beef, pasta and things that typically show up on the adult meals, then that may be the best course of action.  On United, the child’s meal is more likely to be something like chicken nuggety type things, soggy fries, cheeseburgers, etc.

United Airline Child Meal
Child’s meal on United from Honolulu

On an international United operated flight back from Paris, the child’s meal was more interesting than normal.  It was some type of veggie flat bread with a side of sausage.  So, don’t always assume that even on a “domestic airline” that the child’s meal will be something your kid has likely seen before, because you never know what is going to show up.

child airline meal
United child’s meal from Paris

Bring Your Own Food as Back-Up:

Whether you are in a first class suite or the last row of economy with your child, bring your own food.  Let me repeat that most important line of the post, bring your own food for your kid.  There may be exceptions to this “rule” if you are flying on some fancy foreign carriers that are known for better meals, or if you have a kid who is happy with any and all foods.  However, in most cases you just need to be prepared for the child meal to not be loaded, the food to not be good, and the last thing anyone needs at 36,000 feet is a cranky, hungry kid.

Even if you decide against pack a full extra meal for your child, have enough snacks available that could pass as a meal if necessary.  In fact, I have found that the “extras” that sometimes come with the child’s meal can help piece together a good sized snack even if the main course is less than desirable.

airline child meals
United child’s meal

Foreign Air Carriers have Better Child Meals:

If you have ever flown a foreign carrier, you likely already know that their food is often a notch above many domestic airlines like United. This holds true in the child meal department as well.  For example, check out the Singapore Airlines “Yummy Food” options for children 2-11 in premium cabins.  You get actual choices to pick between before departure!

Airline Child Meal

On Iceland Air you get a free child’s meal on all flights, even when adults would have to pay for food.  They also have yogurt and bananas for infants as well as warm water available for warming infant bottles and food.

Lufthansa advertizes child meal options such as “a cheese sandwich that smiles broadly with its red tomato mouth”.  It also provides child meal options on flights of 185 minutes or more in Economy Class and on 75 minutes or longer in Business Class.  I could go on and on, but the summary is that many foreign carriers do better catering to children in many ways, including at meal time.

In almost all cases you need to confirm the child meal with the operating carrier more than 24 hours in advance, and do give some thought to what type of food your child likes before assuming the child meal is always the best option.  At the very least the dessert usually goes down without complaint…

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What are your experiences with airline child meals?

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