Sky Dining: Is Food Allowed on Planes?

Carrying souvenirs, liquids, and food in the airplane has always been a tricky question for passengers. It is normal to feel a bit confused about which items are acceptable to travel in your carry-on luggage and which you should put in your checked luggage, send home, or eat before entering the gate. 

As a matter of fact, we all know that meals and food bought on the airplane aren’t exactly the kind you have at home or in the restaurant. And, this is why travelers with food restrictions or allergies, as well as frequent flyers, tend to pack their own meals for flights. However, given how many airlines have cut or canceled meal service due to the continuing coronavirus outbreak, more travelers than ever consider packing their own food. 

Nowadays, one of the most common questions that travelers are concerned with is the kind of food they can bring onboard the airplane. Most of the time, frequent and occasional travelers prefer to bring their own meals and snacks on the airplane, especially for long-distance flights

Your Food VS Airplane Food

The warmed-up plastic meals you get during your flight, as well as the Clif bars and nuts provided by most airlines free of cost, are both cloaked in mystery.

Despite the lack of information provided concerning the meal selection and preparation procedure, most passengers are unconcerned about where their complementary food came from or how it got to them. 

In the United States, the airline food services industry is worth about $6 billion, but the ordinary traveler has little awareness of how his meal is prepared behind the scenes. While most large airlines have culinary design teams to help them come up with menu ideas, they mostly rely on catering businesses to help them prepare thousands of in-flight meals every day. Meals and the procedures for preparing them, like everything else linked to modern air travel, are always being fine-tuned to be more efficient and, ideally, to improve the customer experience.

Meals are normally produced on the ground near the airport in catering facilities, then brought to the aircraft and placed in refrigerators for cabin attendants to heat and serve on board. The meals (and the aircraft ovens that cook them) are engineered to withstand the changes in altitude and pressure. 

However, note that people’s taste perception changes in the air and most aircraft meals are high in sodium. People lose up to 30% of their taste for salt, and airlines avoid adding salt since it dehydrates passengers, instead of adding more flavor profiles to their meals.

In general, it is safe to consume airplane food. But, the meal you make yourself is more reliable in terms of quality and prior preparation. Catering companies must be examined every three to five years, according to FDA regulations. Despite the fact that inspections can uncover safety infractions, airlines and caterers are rarely sanctioned for providing unsafe meals.

Complying With TSA Guidelines

There’s a general rule applied for carrying food on the airplane: You are allowed to carry your own snacks as long as they are TSA compliant. The conventional 3-1-1 liquid rule applies to spreadable food like peanut butter and liquids like yogurt. However, the 3-1-1 regulation does not apply to foods purchased after passing through airport security. Meaning that you can have as many in-flight food and beverages as you want as long as you buy them at the airport.

According to the Transportation Security Administration, solid food products can be transported in either carry-on or checked luggage, however, liquid or gel food items bigger than 3.4 oz are not authorized in carry-on baggage and should be placed in your checked baggage if possible.

Keep in mind that a liquid or gel is defined as something that can be spilled, spread, sprayed, or poured. That means it’s subject to the 3-1-1 liquids regulation, which states that any liquid, gel, cream, spray, or paste carried in a carry-on must be 3.4 ounces or less and fit in a single quart-size resealable bag. Note that only one such bag is allowed per passenger. 

Food products transported through security must either be whole, natural foods (veggies and fruits, in a container, or otherwise wrapped up. In other words, you can’t have loose sandwiches or cheeseburgers in your bag. Note that whatever you carry through airport security like your baggage, electronics, and food, will be X-rayed.

What Kind of Food are you Allowed to Bring on the Airplane?

So, here’s the big question: “What kind of food can I bring on the airplane?” Well, there are some guidelines in order to see if your food complies with airport security requirements. 

Of course, even if a food item is normally approved, it may be subject to additional screening or be denied at the checkpoint if it sets off an alarm during the screening procedure, looks to have been tampered with, or raises other security issues.

Let’s check the list of the food you are allowed to bring on the airplane:

  • Spreadable Foods: If a cheese or spreadable edibles, such as cream cheese, peanut butter, or Nutella, is in your carry-on, it must be packed in accordance with the 3-1-1 liquids guideline. 
  • Cheese and Solid Food: Snacks and food like chips, crackers, sandwiches, dry beans, grains, and pasta are allowed by TSA in carry-on luggage. Note that all kinds of solid and dry food are accepted but if you want to be 100% sure consider checking TSA’s list of prohibited items. Solid cheese, solid chocolate, and, well, solid peanuts are considered as dry food and are allowed in your cabin bag without restriction as long as your bag doesn’t exceed the airline’s carry-on weight and size restrictions. If the cheese is less than 3.4 ounces, you can also carry it onboard.
  • Canned and Bottled Items: Foods carried in a can must follow the same regulations as spreadable foods if they are to be poured out. Jams, jellies, honey, dips, and soup, for example, must all be decanted into 100ml (3.4 ounces) or smaller containers. Canned foods, on the other hand, should be carried in checked bags due to how they appear on X-ray equipment.
  • Vacuum-Sealed Meals and Packaged Food: Both of these products are absolutely safe to travel because they are non-liquid and sealed. If you’re still not sure, buy food that isn’t opened and is vacuum-packed. Note that pre-sealed products or insulated bags are available in stores all around the world. And, they’re small enough to fit in your carry-on or checked bag. 
  • Pies and Cakes: Pies and cakes, whole or sliced, are accepted as carry-ons. Cupcakes, brownies, donuts (filled or unfilled), cookies, gingerbread, dry baking mixes, and even fruitcake are permitted to be transported in the cabin. They are, however, considered carry-on items, and you may be asked to place them beneath the seat in front of you rather than in the overhead bin.
  • Meat and Seafood: Meat, whether raw or cooked, is allowed onboard flights. It must be properly packed by ensuring that it is thoroughly wrapped and sealed, preventing any fluids or odors from escaping. Seafood, both raw and cooked, can also be carried on the plane. Both seafood and meat are subject to the same rules. This rule, however, only applies to EU member states. When flying to and from nations outside the EU, the laws may differ depending on the country you’re flying from and to, as well as any layovers. We recommend that you check with your airline as well as the local customs of your origin and destination countries.

Can’t Find Your Goods on the List?

If you can’t find an answer you can check TSA’s list of prohibited items on board. On its website, the TSA has a useful list of foods that you can and cannot bring with you on a plane. You might be shocked at how many packaged snacks, hard cheese, chocolate, and even fresh eggs can fit in your carry-on bag. 

It’s crucial to remember that when it comes to food, the TSA agent in charge of your security line will typically decide whether or not you can fly with it. Certain creamy or liquid foods, such as peanut butter, olive oil, and sauces, must often abide by TSA 3-1-1 guidelines or be transported in a checked bag. If you really want these products as keepsakes, you can still take them home, but make sure you know how to pack them.

How to Properly Pack your Plane Food?

As the choices for in-flight meals and airport restaurants can be restricted, prepare ahead of time and stock up on foods you enjoy. In a transparent, tightly sealed Ziploc bag, pack your preferred meal or allergy-free/vegetarian/vegan food in your carry-on luggage. Have some insulated bags and small frozen ice packs in case you carry food that has to be preserved.

Consider packing items in little bags so that you don’t fill up the entire bag. For instance, you can pack 2 snack bags of nuts and bars, instead of 1 bag with a sandwich. You can also divide the bags into meal-sized portions. One bag can contain a hard-boiled egg, one bag with veggies, some hard cheese, and some grilled chicken, for example. You can also have a few more as individual nibbles, like a cupcake or a cookie.

Flying with Food Allergies

The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) confirms that food screening is part of the enhanced security measures for carry-on items at most airports. Note that TSA officers may also request that you place carry-on foods in the bins. So, in case you want to avoid cross-contact consider asking the officer to put on some clean gloves when checking. 

Keep in mind that every major airline has a policy regarding food allergies, but some have more helpful rules than others. Moreover, some airlines provide peanuts and energy bars regularly. So, consider contacting the airline in advance in order to substitute these snacks with allergy-free food. 

What can you Bring on International Flights?

There are no restrictions on what you can or cannot bring on an international flight. However, there are restrictions on what you may and cannot carry into the country at various borders. For example, China has tight rules about what tourists can bring through customs, and any raw food items like dairy products, vegetables, cooked or uncooked meat found in your luggage might be confiscated.

If you’re traveling overseas, consider checking the customs regulations of the country you’re visiting. In order to avoid the risk of the officers throwing your goods at the borders, you can either pack food and meals that you’re allowed to bring onboard or choose a meal provided by the airline.

The Bottom Line

Nowadays, food restrictions on airplanes have increased in comparison with two decades ago. Even frequent passengers have left their Ziplocs at home as restrictions have tightened and airports have implemented additional safety measures like food-sniffing dogs and X-ray security checks. Many more, though, continue to take the risk – for a taste of home or just because you want to bring back souvenirs to your country. In any case, it’s advisable to be well-informed beforehand so as to avoid any troubles and enjoy your flight!