Take Your Own Food on Your Next Airplane Flight

Save Money and Stay Healthy by Packing Your Own Travel Meals

man eating sandwich on flight
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If you have ever traveled by air, you know that food options are becoming more and more limited on domestic U.S. flights. Some airlines do not offer food at all, apart from a packet of pretzels, while others offer food for purchase, including snack boxes, pre-made sandwiches and fruit and cheese plates. Unless you are able to travel in business or first class, your dining options are almost nonexistent.

Of course, you can buy food at the airport and take it onto your airplane, but if you find yourself short of time or don't care for any of the airport's food offerings, you are out of luck. If you have food allergies or follow a specific diet, you are even worse off. Airport food is expensive, too.

Your best bet, if you want to save money and eat the foods you like, is to plan ahead and prepare your own travel meals. Here are some tips for making and carrying food for your next airplane flight.

Understand the TSA Regulations

The Transportation Security Administration prohibits all liquids and gels in containers larger than 100 milliliters (just over three ounces) in carry-on baggage on all flights. Liquids and gels may be brought in these smaller quantities, provided that all such containers fit into a one quart, zip-close plastic bag. "Liquids and gels" include peanut butter, jelly, frosting, pudding, hummus, applesauce, cream cheese, ketchup, dips, and other soft or pourable food items.

The only exceptions are baby food, baby milk, juice for infants, and liquid medicine (with a written prescription).

This prohibition extends to ice packs, whether they are gel or liquid. Keeping cold foods cold may therefore be difficult on long flights. Flight attendants may not be willing to give you ice from their freezer to use in your cooler, so you will need to find ways to keep your food cold or pack items that can be kept at room temperature.

Plan Your In-Flight Menu

Sandwiches, wraps, and salads are easy to carry and eat on an airplane. You can make your own or purchase them from your favorite grocery store or restaurant. Be sure to carry them in secure wrappings or containers to prevent leaks and spills. Remember to pack a fork.

Fruit travels extremely well. Dried fruits are both portable and delicious, and fresh bananas, oranges, tangerines, grapes, and apples are easy to carry and eat. Be sure to wash your fruit at home. 

Granola bars, energy bars, and crackers are easy to carry. Sliced cheese is tasty, but must be kept cold or eaten within four hours after it comes out of the refrigerator. If you like to snack, consider packing vegetable chips or other alternatives to junk food.

Raw vegetables are tasty on salads or by themselves. Although you can't bring a large container of dip onto your airplane, you should be able to bring a small quantity with you. Dips, hummus, and guacamole are available in travel-size containers. 

You can make instant hot cereal in flight if you bring a bowl. Ask your flight attendant for hot water. Remember to bring a spoon.

If you are traveling abroad, be sure to eat or discard all meats, vegetables, and fruits you bring with you before you land.

Most countries restrict imports of these items, and you will not be permitted to bring them past the customs checkpoint. Check the customs regulations of your destination country for more information.

Beverage Options

You can buy bottled beverages in the airport terminal once you have passed through security. You will be offered a beverage on your flight unless the weather is poor or the flight is extremely short.

If you prefer to bring your own water, take an empty bottle through the security checkpoint and fill it before you board. You can bring individual-sized flavor packets with you if you wish.

Transport Your Food Safely

You are allowed one carry-on item and one personal item on most flights. This includes any kind of cooler or food tote you wish to bring.

If you plan to bring cold food and want to keep it cold for several hours, use bags of frozen vegetables as ice pack substitutes.

You can also freeze water in 100 milliliter containers and use the containers of ice to keep your food cold. Yoplait's GoGurt comes in 2.25 ounce tubes; you can freeze them and keep your food and the GoGurt yogurt cold at the same time.

Test your methods for keeping food cold before you travel so that you know when to eat your cold foods, particularly if you are taking a long flight or using both air travel and ground transportation.

Have a backup plan, such as eating all of your cold food within four hours, in case airport security personnel tell you to throw away your ice pack substitutes (vegetables, ice containers, or yogurt).

Leave metal knives at home. Pre-slice your food or bring a sturdy plastic knife that is not serrated. Serrated knives will be confiscated by the TSA.

Consider Your Fellow Passengers' Comfort and Safety

Take your fellow passengers into account when planning your menu. While tree nuts (almonds, walnuts, cashews) and peanuts are excellent portable snacks, many people are quite allergic to one or both types of nuts. Even the dust from a packet of nuts can trigger a potentially deadly reaction. Eat your nuts and trail mix in the airport rather than in the aircraft. If you must bring food items that contain nuts, ask your fellow passengers about nut allergies before opening the package and wipe down your tray table with a wet towel after eating.

Avoid bringing foods with strong odors. You might be a fan of Limburger cheese, but the majority of your fellow travelers would prefer you to leave pungent treats at home.

Limit onion and garlic so that your breath does not annoy your fellow travelers. Alternatively, bring your toothbrush and travel-size toothpaste and brush your teeth after you finish eating.