How to Bring Holiday Leftovers on Your Flight Home

The expert tips you need so your food haul doesn't spoil or spill on the way home.

One of the best parts of Thanksgiving is that it is a food holiday. There are a million and one different ways to enjoy a Thanksgiving meal, but at the end of the day, that is the focal point of the gathering. But then, at the end of the meal, there are leftovers to consider. If you are traveling back home on an airplane, how are you going to be able to take any of those precious, delicious leftovers home with you?

Thankfully, there are a number of strategies for bringing food on an airplane that won't require you to make enemies with your fellow passengers due to weird food smells, or to get off the plane with a smooshed, gooey carry-on filled with loose, spilled gravy. To find out how we should prepare to travel with food this season, and during the rest of the year, we spoke with Going's travel expert, Katy Nastro. As a long-time professional traveler, Nastro has perfected the art of traveling with food.

And if you're still confused about what counts as a solid or a liquid after all this, don't hesitate to reference the TSA's rather comprehensive guide on what you can and can't bring in your carry-on and checked bag

What's the best way to pack food on an airplane?

Nastro says your strategy for traveling with prepared food should start with considering what exactly it is you're packing, and considering "how cumbersome and easy will this be to carry through the airport, but also to stow away." When selecting a container, there are two questions to consider: "Can I pack or carry this easily and will this keep my delicious insides protected from the odd spaces it will get pushed into?"

"Glass containers, while amazing for the environment and a breeze to reheat, may not be the best choice for your airplane dishes due to their weight, so consider this when packing," Nastro says. "Plastic to-go containers that are leak-proof and have side snaps should do the trick. Certain silicone containers are also great for packing since they are lightweight and collapsible. A final plastic wrap or bag around anything is never a bad idea for peace of mind."

Of course, another consideration to keep in mind is what your airline's baggage policy looks like, because you don't want to get hit with an extra baggage fee if you can avoid it.

"Keep in mind when packaging these items up, if you decide on a separate bag, especially for a frozen item, the airline will count that towards a personal item," Nastro says. "For boarding purposes, you may need to consolidate your purse into the frozen food section for a moment."

Can you fly with frozen food?

"As a matter of fact, yes! This is a great way to bring liquids or 'things that have no definite shape but take their container's shape,' so grandma's beloved gravy can take flight," Nastro says. "The restrictions around this are you must have the item fully frozen upon entering a TSA checkpoint, and any ice packs or dry ice (properly marked and vented, only up to 5.5 pounds) must be completely frozen as well. Any partially melted items or liquid at the bottom of the container it's stored in will not be allowed through."

As an added tip for frozen items, Nastro noted you can elongate their life by wrapping them in newspaper or brown paper prior to packaging them up in a cold stage bag. 

Can you fly with cooked food?

"Yes. Any cooked item that does not contain more than the TSA limit on liquids (3.4 ounces) is good to transport," Nastro says. "You may get asked to separate the food out from your bags for screening purposes, so best to have that ready before security. And again, you want to ensure the containers are able to be stowed properly."

Are there certain containers that are best for flying with food?

"If you are traveling somewhere with containers, collapsible silicone containers may be the best idea for travelers since they are easily packed and lightweight," Nastro says. "On the other hand they may not be as sturdy as plastic containers and so when stowing these items, make sure they don't get smashed. Stojo and Flat Stacks are popular brands, but there are other dupes out there for less.

Additionally, big Yeti coolers are a great idea for transporting large cold items, but again, unless you are checking that coveted Yeti, you are responsible for its weight throughout the journey, and check its dimensions if planning on throwing it in the overhead bin."

When you travel through airports and on airplanes with food, what etiquette rules should you follow?

"If you're carrying food through an airport and there happens to be a spill of sorts, don't just leave it to the cleaning crews," Nastro says. "There's a lot of people in a terminal and unless you are running Home Alone style through the airport, you can take a moment to clean up a spill from your containers.

Additionally, it may be tempting to sneak a bite of string bean casserole mid-flight, but do keep in mind what smells amazing to you at 30,000 feet may not be so appetizing to others. Wait until you've arrived to your destination to snag a taste and avoid dirty looks from your seat mates."

What tips do you have for people who plan on flying with food for Thanksgiving?

"When transporting food, make sure it's fully cool before you place the tops on the containers," Nastro says. "You don't want the food arriving to the destination soggy, and taking lids off your consumables mid-flight to let them 'breathe' isn't a great idea.

You might be confused by what is TSA-compliant and what is not when it comes to food, especially after the great peanut butter debate. If you have any doubt, just know that if it has a similar consistency to peanut butter (spreadable, nondescript shape) you are better off only taking 3.4 ounces per container. That creamy cheese dip you're hoping to bring might not be the best idea, on the flip side mashed potatoes are fine without gravy.

And remember, full-sized alcohol bottles should go in your checked bag (with a wine or bottle skin for protection), up to 1.3 gallons, or about 7 bottles of wine."

Looking for more travel tips?

Whether you need help sneaking weed onto a plane, finding an airport where you can sign up for PreCheck without an appointment, or making sure you’re getting everything you’re entitled to when your flight is canceled, we’ve got you covered. Keep reading for up-to-date travel hacks and all the travel news you need to help you plan your next big adventure.

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Opheli Garcia Lawler is a Staff Writer on the News team at Thrillist. She holds a bachelor's and master's degree in Journalism from NYU's Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute. She's worked in digital media for seven years, and before working at Thrillist, she wrote for Mic, The Cut, The Fader, Vice, and other publications. Follow her on Twitter @opheligarcia and Instagram @opheligarcia.