I toured the surprisingly small United Airlines catering facility where 33,000 in-flight meals are made entirely by hand every day

Sarah JacobsNothing is automated.
  • We visited United Airlines’ catering facility, Chelsea Food Services, near Newark International Airport in New Jersey,
  • Nothing was automated: Everything was made by hand, and all the ingredients were fresh.
  • The trick to aeroplane food is to only cook it halfway. Steak, for example, is cooked 30% of the way. The rest is done aboard the plane.
  • The facility is incredibly organised: Every meal, cart, and tray is efficiently produced, labelled, and dated.
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Besides likening themselves to cattle shoved into an airborne metal tube, there’s nothing airline passengers like to complain about more than how terrible aeroplane food is. But how and where those disappointing in-flight meals get made is rarely thought of.

United Airlines allowed 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.

Keep scrolling to see all of the work that goes into the making of your in-flight meals.


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

Sarah JacobsThe facility is located near Newark Airport in New Jersey.

Food services manager Leon Britton showed us around.

Sarah JacobsAt the time of writing, Britton had worked here for 28 years.

Absolutely everyone is required to wear a hair net, and most wear lab coats.

Sarah JacobsTo our eyes, the facility was spotlessly clean.

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

Sarah JacobsThe facility is super organised.

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

Sarah JacobsThe hot kitchen is actually quite small for the amount of work it has to accommodate.

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

Sarah JacobsEverything is prepared by hand.

The trick to aeroplane 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.

Sarah JacobsA 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.

Sarah JacobsWe 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.

Sarah JacobsThe kitchen wasn’t that busy when we visited one afternoon.

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

Sarah JacobsThe facility is not only in charge of food, but utensils and dishes too.

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

Sarah JacobsShoving everything into an oven mitt saves space.

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

Sarah JacobsThe catering facility is also in charge of organising plates and utensils.

Once meals have been prepared, they’re rolled into the “cold room.”

Sarah JacobsMeals are loaded onto trays and into carts.

This room is kept at a chilly 50 degrees Fahrenheit.

Sarah JacobsThe cold room.

Here, employees package every single dish by hand.

Sarah JacobsFoil sheets were pre-cut.

The dishes are then set aside for the next step …

Sarah JacobsMeals are loaded into carts once they are ready.

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

Sarah JacobsEmployees make sure every meal looks the same.

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

Sarah JacobsEvery meal, cart, and tray is efficiently produced, labelled, and dated.

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.

Sarah JacobsOnce cooked, the food is kept at 38F.

These carts are ready and waiting to board an aircraft.

Sarah JacobsCarts are prepared at the catering facility before boarding planes.

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

Sarah JacobsThe food cannot sit out for more than six to eight hours.

Dishes are conveniently kept at the bottom of the carts.

Sarah JacobsCarts are prepared at the facility.

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 must work overtime to get the new food ready.

Sarah JacobsMeals are covered in dry ice, but cannot sit out for more than six to eight hours.

Snack carts are also preloaded and have their own area.

Sarah JacobsSnack carts are a familiar sight.

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

Sarah JacobsSoft drinks are kept separate from alcohol.

Alcohol is kept in its own, restricted spot.

Sarah JacobsAlcohol has its own room.

That’s a lot of booze.

Sarah JacobsThe facility also stores many of the food and drink items.

This is the enormous dish washing facility.

Sarah JacobsDishes are all pressure washed.

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

Sarah JacobsEverything was spotless.

If workers hit their monthly goals and run on time, they get a $US300 bonus for the month, hence the “$US300” we saw plastered all over the facility.

Sarah JacobsEmployees are incentivized by a $US300 monthly bonus.

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