Delta Air Lines, American Airlines, US Airways and United Airlines are among carriers that already charge for food on flights.
Continental passengers on some international routes, on domestic flights over six hours and those who sit in first or business class on routes worldwide will continue to get free food. Snacks like pretzels and nonalcoholic drinks will continue to be offered for free.
The changes take effect in the fall. Menu choices and prices will be disclosed later.
Air travelers have seen a steady erosion of amenities included in the price of their ticket over the last two years or so, from checked bags to pillows and blankets on board. Airlines call it unbundling the product, allowing them to offer lower base fares and only charge extra for people who want more. But with so many add-on fees these days, a traveler could end up paying more when everything is added together than what they previously paid for an all-inclusive ticket.
Some travelers have been packing lighter or carrying more on board flights to avoid checked bag fees. Likewise, some bring their own food on flights to avoid paying for meals.
Continental, which has about 900 daily mainline flights, said its food-for-sale program is about offering passengers more choices.
Currently, Continental flights lasting less than two hours usually have a free beverage service with a small snack like pretzels. Flights of two to three hours offer a small sandwich roll, or a muffin in the morning. Flights over three hours currently offer a free hot sandwich or other hot meal, or cereal in the morning.
"While free food was a nice point of distinction for Continental, we could not provide the same caliber of food on that basis that we can under a food-for-sale program," spokesman Dave Messing said.
Continental shares fell 28 cents, or 1.2 percent, to $22.76 in afternoon trading.