How To Travel With Food This Thanksgiving

Whether dinner is across town or across the country, you'll need to be prepared to drive or fly with your menu contribution.

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The holidays will be here before we know it, and that means a lot of traveling and visiting with family. While our family and friends may instruct us to just "pack yourselves" this holiday, we know we’d be remiss if we came without our legendary mac and cheese recipe or the family-favorite cheesecake.

But how can we travel with these items and have them arrive safely and securely? And what about all those leftovers?!

Consider Food Safety First

Many of us travel with food for the holiday. Usually it’s just a drive for a few hours, at most, but sometimes it can be significantly longer.

"The best advice I have for traveling with food is to make sure you keep the food in the right conditions," said Tevor Craig, food expert and corporate director of technical training and consulting at Microbac Laboratories.

If it’s going to be out of optimum conditions for more than a few hours, make sure you are keeping hot food hot and cold food cold. "Sometimes that’s as easy as just traveling with your food stored in some insulated containers that will keep it hot or cold or with some cold packs. Frozen water bottles work great," Craig said.

Even the most delicious of casseroles can get us seriously sick if not properly packed and stored.

"Food at room temperature for more than a few hours that isn’t shelf-stable can grow dangerous bacteria levels at high enough levels to make everyone sick," Craig said. This is especially risky when someone gathers for the holidays might be immunocompromised, such as Grandma and everyone at the kids' table.

Be Mindful of the Recipe and Ingredients

It is important to be conscious of the ingredients you're using and their recipes. Think about whether those ingredients will travel well, and what important product shelf lives are.

"Some recipes will call for cold foods, which will have a shorter shelf life and therefore will spoil quicker. Turkey, mashed potatoes, and gravy are some examples of ingredients that will travel well as opposed to things like a cold potato salad," said Guy Sharp, relocation advisor at Andorra Guides.

When traveling with food, one of the most important factors to focus on is temperature: "When food sits in temperatures between 40 and 140°F for more than 2 hours, this is the perfect opportunity for microorganisms and harmful bacteria to thrive, and this means you cannot eat the food you have prepared, or else you risk food poisoning," said Isabella Flint, chef and founder of Fanatically Food.

How To Fly With Food

As for flying with food, it’s a bit trickier. Not all food can be taken through TSA.

"The TSA has pretty strict guidance on what type of foods can travel, and it still has to fit the standard carry-on approved sizes,” Craig said.

Liquids cannot go through screening, and some solids or semi-solids are also restricted. This is fine for things like cookies and even cakes, but your holiday ham, turkey, and casserole will be a bit harder to travel with though it’s allowed, cooked or frozen.

Keep the sauces and liquid related food to a minimum to avoid it being thrown away or even worse, ruining your travel essentials. You can always make your sauces or dressings when you arrive. And always use an airtight container. 

"Make sure to pack it tightly in something airtight or tightly sealed, and understand that your dish probably won’t look as good after your flight,” Craig said.

If you’re traveling with ice packs, they must be completely frozen when you bring it through security, no slush or slightly melted cold packs will be allowed through.

"If it’s liquid or semi-liquid, it won’t be allowed through as a carry on, and better to not even try it with alcohol,” Craig said.

TSA is helpful in that they maintain very specific guidelines of what is allowed and not allowed. A good way to think about it is that anything that can be spilled, spread, sprayed, or poured and is greater than 3.4 ounces must be stored in a checked bag or made when you get where you are going.

Here’s some guidance from TSA of foods that can bring through airport security:

  • baked goods (cheesecakes, pies, cakes, cookies, brownies)
  • frozen, cooked, or raw meats
  • stuffing, cooked, raw, in a box, or a bag
  • casseroles
  • macaroni and cheese, cooked or prepped
  • fresh produce fruits and vegetables
  • candies
  • spices

Still not sure? You can use the “Can I Bring?” feature on the MyTSA app, or even send a picture of your food straight to the TSA by Facebook or Twitter; they should get back to you within a day about your item.

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