What travels well
Bite-sized foods that taste good at room temperature are your best bet. Maggie Battista of EatBoutique.com recommends fruit, chocolate, and cheese cubes. If you want something a little more gourmet, you could go for "spring rolls [or] hand pies," says Battista, or even mini-quiches, according to Aun Koh, founder of ChubbyHubby (chubbyhubby.net).
Hosea Rosenberg, winner of Season 5 of Top Chef, agrees. "Snack mixes. Chocolate-dipped pretzels. Hard candies. Crackers," he says. But sometimes travelers want something more substantial. In that case, Rosenberg says, "If you want to bring a sandwich, put it on a bagel. They are firmer and can handle the abuse of being shoved in your pocket. That or a firm bread, like a baguette. Not too much mustard or mayo, so it doesn't get soggy if you decide to nap first. Just lots of delicious cured meats."
What if you're on a special diet, though? Vegetarians often find few choices at airports. Michael Natkin, author of Herbivoracious.com and CTO of ChefSteps.com, makes mujadara, "a Middle Eastern pilaf of rice, lentils and caramelized onions. [It's] great for a plane because it is hearty, filling and compact." Get the recipe here.
If you're following a gluten-free diet, pack cheese sticks, protein bars, and perhaps a sandwich made at home, says Jen Cafferty, CEO and founder of the Gluten & Allergen Free Expo. At the airport, "If there is a Starbucks, they usually have Kind bars and bananas," she says. Another tip from Cafferty for anyone with allergies: carry wipes and wipe off your tray table. On a flight where there's no hot food service, instant soups or noodles are a great option. According to Rosenberg, "Ramen noodle cups are a great one. Just ask the attendant for hot water and you've got a bowl of ramen."
What to leave home
While kimchi, runny French cheeses, and other strongly-scented foods are popular with foodies, most say they're not the best choice for air travel.
"It isn't kind to subject a seatmate to that kind of olfactory assault," says Natkin. (Not everyone agrees, however. Koh recalls bringing canned duck rillettes on flights before regulations prevented it. "The smell would often drive fellow passengers seated near us a little crazy. Either they'd love it and be really jealous or think it was a horribly stinky thing that should be flushed down the toilet immediately.")
Tuna fish is nearly universally reviled. "It's totally mean to bring a tuna fish sandwich on a plane. Just mean," says Battista.
And in this writer's opinion, whoever green-lighted the Legal Sea Foods in the US Airways terminal at Logan Airport deserves a special place in hell. It's bad enough that one end of the terminal perpetually smells like clam chowder—someone inevitably brings a carry-out bowl on the plane, where the scent lingers for hours.
Clam chowder is not only stinky, it's potentially messy, making it a double faux pas. Natkin says that when you bring messy food on a plane, "You can pretty much count on getting bumped and jostled; your nice shirt will end up wrecked and you'll end up sitting there feeling sloppy for four hours." Or, worse, you can spill on other travelers.
Even fruit can be problematic. Rosenberg hates "when you're sitting next to someone and they're eating something really juicy or messy [like a] juicy orange and it's dripping and they're slurping and dropping orange peels on your lap." Battista warns travelers against cheese puffs. "There just aren't enough napkins."
Koh says, "Many travelers have no idea how to eat in a compact space. The number of times I have been elbowed by people who cannot eat with their elbows down and tucked within their allocated space is insane."
And don't forget cleanup. "Put your sandwiches (and all food you bring) in a zip-lock bag! It helps contain the mess and the trash later," Rosenberg suggests.