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Universal Meals: Food Everyone Can Enjoy

More people than ever are changing the way they eat—for health reasons, environmental or humane concerns, or other motivations. Many more have followed cultural or religious food traditions all their lives.

They take their preferences and traditions with them when they board a plane, go to a business meeting, visit the breakfast bar at a hotel, have lunch in a cafeteria, or meet friends at a restaurant. It is challenging for them if their nutritional preferences are not reflected in anything that is served. And it is no less challenging for businesses that want to be able to respond to clients’ requests.

Universal Meals is a simple set of guidelines that meet a wide range of food requirements and can be implemented anywhere food is served. Imagine being lactose intolerant, following a vegan diet, or avoiding meat and eggs for religious reasons, and never again having to ask if suitable foods would be available—because they always are. Imagine being a flight attendant who never again has to say, “I’m sorry, if you wanted a vegan meal, you would have had to order it 48 hours in advance.” Universal Meals means never having to say you’re sorry.

Different Needs and Traditions

Different Needs and Traditions

Diet choices differ for many reasons:

Religious traditions

People from a Jewish tradition often avoid pork and shellfish. Those from a Muslim tradition often avoid pork and alcohol. Those from a Hindu tradition avoid beef and most avoid meat and eggs. Ethiopian Orthodox Christians avoid animal products two days each week and during Lent.

Health, humane, or environmental concerns: Many people avoid meat or all animal products.

Lactose intolerance

Many people, particularly people of color, have difficulty digesting dairy products.


Individuals with gluten sensitivities avoid wheat, barley, and rye.


Certain foods trigger allergies in sensitive people: dairy products, eggs, fish and shellfish, nuts and peanuts, wheat, and soybeans, for example.

Foods that work well for nearly everyone include vegetables, fruits, legumes, and non-gluten grains (e.g., rice, corn, quinoa, etc.). While it is not possible to cover every possible food tradition, preference, or medical need, it is relatively straightforward to cover the vast majority of them.

Limitations of Universal Meals

Universal Meals ensure that the nutritional requirements of the vast majority of people are met where they work, study, or travel. However, the program has limitations. For example:

  1. Some individuals have unusual food allergies.
  2. Meals will be kosher or halal only when catering companies have made the necessary arrangements.
  3. The range of religious observances is broad and may include practices that are not accounted for by Universal Meals.  

The Defense Department’s Experience

The Defense Logistics Agency of the U.S. Department of Defense developed a meal program that, while intended for a more limited application, provides useful lessons. The Humanitarian Daily Ration (HDR) was designed for feeding large populations of displaced persons in emergencies. It provides a full day's nutrition and is designed with the recipients’ needs in mind:

“In order to provide the widest possible acceptance from the variety of potential consumers with diverse religious and dietary restrictions from around the world, the HDR contains no animal products or animal by-products, except that minimal amounts of dairy products are permitted. Alcohol and alcohol based ingredients are also banned.”

These meals are much more basic than Universal Meals. HDRs are inexpensive and are packaged to be able to withstand extreme environmental conditions, with a three-year shelf life at 80 degrees Fahrenheit, and to allow air drops when necessary. Examples of currently available HDRs include the following, served as fully prepared, ready-to-eat meals, along with crackers, peanut butter, raisins, bread, a fruit bar, etc.

  • Bean Salad
  • Brown and Wild Rice with Lentils
  • Barley Stew
  • Lentil Stew
  • Beans and Rice in Tomato Sauce
  • Red Beans and Rice
  • Pasta in Tomato Sauce
  • Beans with Potatoes
  • Lentils and Vegetables


Although Universal Meals aim to be enticing to all diners and are not necessarily designed to withstand the rigors of emergency situations, what is noteworthy in the HDR program is the U.S. Government’s recognition of the need for widely acceptable meals, a principle that might be profitably applied to all facilities serving diverse populations. Also noteworthy is the use of simple plant-based ingredients, focusing especially on grains, legumes, and vegetables.

Applicable Settings

  • Airlines and airline clubs
  • Restaurants
  • Schools and colleges
  • Hotel breakfast bars
  • Businesses