Special Meals is the common term used by airlines to represent a wide variety of meal types. In order to address the various dietary needs of its customers, and to promote passenger loyalty, many airlines offer a vast array of meals that answer virtually any dietary requirements. An hour or two of grumbling stomachs may not be of great concern to airlines. On longer flights however, passenger comfort includes providing meals for all by taking into account that not everyone can eat the standard inflight meal.
Certainly, when in doubt the best adage is bring your own food if you have specific dietary needs. This may work easily enough on flights of let's say less than four hours, but when it moves beyond that time frame it becomes fairly difficult to plan and pack what you might need. There is the problem of refrigeration, or heating of meals. On long, full flights, a request to have meals that you have brought with you to be heated or refrigerated may sadly fall by the wayside and be forgotten. If you are bringing your own food, the most practical method is packing food that does not require refrigeration or reheating. By doing so, you ensure that you will eat when you need to.
For longer flights it is not unreasonable to expect that special dietary needs are taken into consideration. Although it is not a restaurant in the sky, with enough advance planning you can request meal service that will at least satisfy most dietary concerns. The operating word is advance - special meals do take more time to prepare, and they involve the paper work of linking your name and seat number to the request. Therefore it really is best to make requests sooner rather than later.
Most airlines have some sort of program for accommodating special meal requests. Many of these airlines will advise you to request special meals at least 12 to 18 hours prior to departure. To be on the safe side, special meal requests should really be made as soon as possible. Although special meals are never 100 percent guaranteed, you will most likely receive your requested meal.