I fly the IAD to European leg often and am solo on business travel and its a mix of either business class or premium economy. I have never paid attention to the food quality in either because I don't consume much of it and for work travel have my meals prior to departure and after arrival to better deal with jet lag.
This was a trip with the family. I have not traveled on a US carrier overseas other than United in over 8 years (choose foreign carriers when on personal travel), but I was shocked the decline in the quality of food and the presentation. A thin plastic container with chicken and cheese grits. Really? I would preferred a military MRE.
I regret comparing this to prison food as its an insult to prison food.
I realize the airlines attitude that since passengers pay little for fares, they will tolerate anything. This was a $2K/person premium economy ticket. If you are going to serve low quality food, then ATLEAST preserve the option of purchasing something more decent that passengers can on domestic travel.
About the only offset to my children was the unique experience that United only offers and does it very rarely: the Captain was gracious enough to open channel 9 (i.e. communication between the flight deck and air traffic control). That is a rarity that only United has, and only for so long since I doubt the newer fleet gives that option.
United, after hitting a new low with my family, your Captain unexpectedly surprised them