On a plane, what you eat is crucial to when you eat. Simon Calder jumps the queue

"Become a vegetarian," insists frequent flyer Jessica Ayers of east London. "That's the best way to make sure you get your meal ahead of everyone else." Most travellers who order "special" meals, whether meat-free, Kosher or diabetic, will find their inflight banquet arrives first. This is crucial for those with diabetes, whose blood sugar levels must not be allowed to sink. But simply getting your meal ahead of others isn't always a privilege, says Ms Ayers. "Often you've finished your meal by the time the drinks trolley arrives."

On long-haul flights, being fed and watered in good time can be crucial to your enjoyment. After all the stress of getting through the airport, sitting around waiting for air-traffic control to find a space in the sky, a meal and a drink is just what you need.

On a fully loaded 747, though, the last passenger may not find their meal unceremoniously slapped down in front of them until four hours into the flight. Furthermore, the most popular dishes are likely to have been swallowed up by other passengers, and you'll be left with the liver and bacon or similarly unappetizing options.

With 400 other hungry people on the Jumbo, where should you sit to grab the grub first? We asked a number of international airlines flying long-haul routes about the order the cabin crew serve meals in economy class. Not all of them were prepared to share the inside track on inflight nutrition.

The most family-friendly is Continental, which tries to make sure that families travelling with children get served first on routes from the UK to Newark, Cleveland and Houston. Once the main meal service gets under way, it's the standard "serving from the front" policy, which means you could go hungry if you are at the back of the particular section. On twin-aisled aircraft, such as the 767 and 777 used for most UK flights, crew are asked to alternate the middle section, though if one side is falling behind it skips a few rows to catch up, leaving the faster trolley to fill in the gaps.

Air India is specific about the rows to avoid if you want to eat early. Its 747s to New York, Chicago, Bombay and Delhi have three separate groups of staff working for each section of the plane. The cabin crew begin their run simultaneously. The front galley runs from row 31-44 , the middle from 45 to 67 and the end from 67 to 84. In all cases, meal service starts at the front – so if your boarding pass says row 44, 67 or 84, you face a long wait and a poor choice of meals.

The same "front to back" policy applies on British Airways and many other airlines. There is a good technical reason for this – in flight, aircraft tend to be inclined slightly upwards at the nose, which means that the back of the plane is "downhill". It is easier for the crew to push the trolley up from the galley, then guide it back bit by bit with the help of gravity.

Most democratic appears to be Singapore Airlines (which also was first to serve champagne to all customers, regardless of class). On long flights, the order of service is reversed for each meal. On the first, they serve from tail to nose; on the next, nose to tail.

On a typical Orlando economy flight on Singapore's partner airline, Virgin Atlantic, two cabin crew teams start at either end of the plane and work their ways towards the middle. The result is that the people seated towards the end or the front of the plane will be served first while those in the middle will be served last. Virgin declines to give specific row numbers in case extra demand was created for certain seats. Britannia, Britain's biggest charter carrier, has the same "meet in the middle" policy.

The solution for anyone who wants to make sure of good, fresh food at a time of their choosing is to take a picnic. On no-frills flights, a DIY meal will also save you a fortune compared with the cost of an inflight cheese sandwich

Hard cheese if you're peckish

How much do each of the no-frills airlines charge for a cheese sandwich? Go's "soft cheese and roasted vegetables on olive focaccia bread" costs £3, compared with £3.50 on Ryanair, but, as the spokeswoman for the latter insisted, "it's actually a baguette."

Buzz's "healthy option" is "granary bread filled with a generous spread of Philadelphia Light topped with plum chutney and carrot" for a bargain £2. The easyJet cheesyJet offering is plain, and overpriced at £2.50. A better plan at Luton: buy snacks from Boots after the security check.