Green’s Dictionary of Slang

meal ticket n.

1. (orig. US) anyone good for the price of a meal.

[US]J. Flynt Tramping with Tramps 388: ‘Meal-ticket.’ This is a tramp term for a person who is ‘good’ for a meal.
[US]‘Hugh McHugh’ Skidoo! 58: The mosquitos still look upon me as their meal ticket.
[US]F. Hurst ‘Oats for the Woman’ in Humoresque 48: You’d shove over the Goddess of Liberty if you thought she had her foot on a meal ticket.
[US]P. & T. Casey Gay-cat 102: She sure must be a good meal ticket all right [...] Setdowns, I s’pose.
[US]V.W. Saul ‘Vocab. of Bums’ in AS IV:5 342: Meal ticket — One who carries the wherewithal of another’s eats.
[US]Monteleone Criminal Sl. (rev. edn).

2. (orig. US) anyone who provides money or a livelihood for someone else, who thus needs to make less effort; also the object which earns one’s income.

[US]Irving Jones ‘There Ain’t No Use to Keep On Hanging Around’ [lyrics] I’ve been your meal tecket [sic] long enough – Money home you never bring.
[US]Ade Forty Modern Fables 66: All the Tin-Horn Sports and Shoe-String Gamblers speak of him as their Meal Ticket.
[US]R. Lardner ‘Champion’ Coll. Short Stories (1941) 122: Jerome Harris [...] saw in Midge a better meal ticket than his popular-priced musical show had been.
[US]W. Edge Main Stem 71: The haughty dowagers and their ambulatory meal tickets retired to their cabins.
[US]R. Chandler ‘Guns At Cyrano’s’ Red Wind (1946) 240: Your mother just wished you on to him like any cheap broad who sees herself out of a swell meal ticket.
[US]W. Guthrie Bound for Glory (1969) 29: I don’t give a damn how drippin’ I git, boys, but I gotta keep my meal ticket [guitar] dry!
[US]A. Zugsmith Beat Generation 2: It’s only her wanting her old man to get back to work. He’s her meal ticket.
[US]N. Heard Howard Street 84: She was a damned good meal ticket and a status symbol with high prestige for him.
[US]R. Barrett Lovomaniacs (1973) 42: Their mamas coach them — trade it for a lifetime meal ticket.
[UK]P. Barker Blow Your House Down 95: I had to go round the flat [...] and break the sad news to Dave that his meal-ticket was out of action.
[UK]P. Theroux Kowloon Tong 122: As they hunted for a passport, or a meal ticket, or a way out, they were all reaching hands and twitching fingers.
[US]Mad mag. Apr. 12: Darling meal tickets. I am your dear, sweet fourth cousin.
[US]C. Hiaasen Star Island (2011) 7: If you don’t hold that yuck bucket for my sick child, [...] your meal ticke, you’re fired.

3. (orig. US) employment, wages, whatever provides the price of a (fig.) meal.

[US]Ade More Fables in Sl. (1960) 176: Any One who [...] used to stake him to a Meal Ticket now and then.
[US]Ade ‘The New Fable of the Uplifter’ in Ade’s Fables 114: When it came to a show-down between Dough and Art he didn’t propose to tear up his Meal Ticket.
[US]D. Hammett ‘The Scorched Face’ Story Omnibus (1966) 90: Those [i.e. blackmail pictures] [...] are Hador’s meal-tickets — the photos he was either collecting on or planning to collect on.
[UK]P. Cheyney Don’t Get Me Wrong (1956) 23: I am very very sad, Señor, because I have lost what you call my meal ticket.
[UK]V. Davis Phenomena in Crime 85: The combination was his daily ‘meal ticket’ [...] in the South Amercan port.
[US]‘Ed Lacy’ Men from the Boys (1967) 52: Seriously, Marty, we can make a go of it, live well [...] this hotel will be our meal ticket.
[UK]T. Blacker Fixx 101: We’re not [...] giving a load of clapped-out ancient retainers a meal ticket for life.
[US]B. Hamper Rivethead (1992) 119: With my meal ticket hangin’ in the balance, I was quick to respond, ‘Hell, yes, I will go!’.
[UK]Guardian Mag. 13 May 28: Comedy gradually emerged as Hope’s meal ticket.

4. (US) the bill for a meal.

E.W. Townsend ‘Chimmie Fadden’ 12 Nov. [synd. col.] I caught sight of de check [...] I could pay a mont’s rent and board out of dat meal ticket.

5. (US) a personal preference.

[US]R. Chandler Playback 42: The right [fist] wasn’t his meal ticket.

6. (US gay) as senses 1–3 above, in homosexual contexts.

[US]R.O. Scott Gay Sl. Dict. [Internet] a meal ticket: 1. [70s] a john that is picked by a nonprofessional male prostitute when the money gets low. 2. older man who shows affection for his younger male lover with gifts. 3. the guy that pays a prostitute. 4. older man who supports a younger lover or friend.
[SA]K. Cage Gayle 82/1: meal ticket n. older man who supports a younger lover or friend.

7. an opportunity.

[UK]P. Theroux Picture Palace 189: And it dawned on me that the whole purpose of the dinner [...] was a meal ticket to mock, to sit in judgement upon people whom money made into clowns.