Booking an airline ticket online is a fairly straightforward process. Select the relevant airports, pick your dates, check you've picked the right dates (over and over again), and break out the credit card. Insurance? Nah, I'll live dangerously. Special meals? They're for nancies. A few dubious cubes of chicken, a dry bread roll and a thimbleful of water normally does for me, thanks.
And yet, while booking my Emirates ticket for London this week, my eye lingered upon this special meals section when normally it would prefer to hop right over it. In recent weeks, however, thanks to a combination of vanity and Jonathan Safran Foer's latest book, Eating Animals, I have been flirting with stringent dietary measures. Initially, this meant eating no wheat, later no dairy, then no chicken or beef, and most recently, no eggs.
Eating like Cheryl Cole, give or take a few Galaxy bars, is a phase that I go through every now and then. Generally, I submerge myself in this dietary cul-de-sac for a couple of weeks before I peer in the mirror, shriek with fury that I have not lost five stone, and then give up. Hello, Big Mac, my old friend. But, given that I am currently mid-phase of a tedious new diet, I was intrigued by Emirates' special meal options. So I clicked on them, wondering whether I'd be offered scrambled tofu or vegetable cobbler. I wasn't, as it turns out, because do you know how many meal options they list? Twenty. Did you know that? I certainly had no idea about the wealth of options. Virgin offers 11, British Airways gives you 10, Cathay Pacific also has 20 and United offers 12. Etihad has 23, including the "ice-cream meal" strictly for passengers "who have tonsilitis". Inspired. To think, for years I have sat mutely in my seat and accepted a tray of various little plastic pots with no idea of the riches available to me. What a peasant I must seem to more seasoned travellers.
Among Emirates' array, there's a diabetic meal, a low-cholesterol one, a "bland" meal ("for those who suffer from disorders of the stomach and /or the digestive tract"), a gluten-free one, a raw vegetable meal, and, my personal favourite, a vegetarian lacto-ovo meal. What? Ah but of course, one that's high in veggies but "may also contain eggs and dairy products" too. Confused? Maybe just forget the whole thing and go for their "fruit platter" meal. "It contains one or more of these ingredients: seasonal fresh fruit. It does NOT contain canned fruit." Good to know.
In the interests of further research, you understand, I snuck on to the website airlinemeals.net. As the name suggests, this is where airline meal voyeurs gather and share pictures of food dished out on recent trips - more than 17,500 photos now, from 551 airlines. There's something vaguely grubby about it, and yet extraordinarily compelling. Emirates and Etihad might offer food for every dietary caveat, but does it offer plastic-packeted biltong as on Air Botswana? I think not. Or seaweed soup as on Korean Air? Octopus pasta on Olympic Airlines? Nope, looks like I'll have to make do with my boring old "raw vegetable" option on the flight home instead.