Editor’s note: Thanksgiving traces its origins to an uneasy, temporary alliance between 17th-century English settlers and members of the Wampanoag Confederacy. This year, Eater is choosing to acknowledge that history in our coverage of the holiday.
Now that Thanksgiving is just a week away, many people across the country are already planning their turkey day spread. That’s especially true for the 53 million Americans who are gearing up to travel to visit family with food in tow.
In addition to figuring out how to make your Thanksgiving food fit into a suitcase and keep it at food-safe temperatures in transit, plenty of folks across the country are also trying to figure out which foods they can — and can’t — bring on an airplane. That’s evidenced by the onslaught of food-related questions directed to @AskTSA, a Twitter account operated by the Transportation Security Administration that can help you figure out how to pack everything from a can of cranberry sauce to a literal panini press.
“We know that when people are traveling, especially for Thanksgiving, they oftentimes want to contribute something to the holiday table,” says Lisa Farbstein, a spokesperson for the Transportation Security Administration. “We encourage people to really think about how they’re planning to transport these items.”
According to Farbstein, it’s possible to take pretty much anything that you might find on a Thanksgiving table on an airplane. What you do have to figure out, though, is whether or not the item is allowed in carry-on luggage. As you’ve undoubtedly heard a disembodied voice at the airport say one thousand times over the loudspeaker, the TSA’s guidelines stipulate that liquids, gels, aerosols, and creams can only be carried onto a plane in one single quart-sized plastic bag, in containers that are smaller than 3.4 ounces. Considering the size of most Thanksgiving feasts, those logistics just aren’t workable for turkey and dressing. But it’s still theoretically possible to transport an entire turkey and all the fixins as long as it’s packed safely inside your checked bags.
What exactly constitutes a liquid, though? Farbstein uses a handy (and jingle-ready) rhyme to help figure out how to pack: “If you can spill it, spread it, spray it, pump it, or pour it, and it’s larger than 3.4 ounces, it has to go into your checked bags,” she says. “Anything that’s liquid, gel-like, or spreadable isn’t allowed in carry-on luggage.”
Notably, items that are liquid but have frozen completely solid, like a pint container full of turkey stock, are considered to be solids by the TSA, and can be packed in carry-on bags. So are baked goods, like pies and cakes, and even slightly sloshy common Thanksgiving sides like mac and cheese or green bean casserole. Fresh vegetables are also okay to bring through security in carry-ons, as are chocolates and spices.
Here’s where things get complicated: cranberry sauce. Even though the texture is mostly solid — especially those classic cans — it’s still considered a liquid for the purposes of making it through a TSA checkpoint, even if it’s still totally sealed. The same goes for gravy, and other canned goods like candied yams or fruit cocktail, as well as homemade jams and preserves.
“Keep in mind: You can still bring all these things,” Farbstein says. “We’re just saying please, please pack it the right way. If you show up at a checkpoint with a prohibited item, you’re not going to be allowed to take it through.”
Even if you do perfectly parse out TSA’s guidelines and pack your Thanksgiving bounty appropriately, it’s possible that certain items could still trigger an alarm when being examined by an officer. As such, you should plan to arrive at the airport early if you’re traveling with food, and don’t be surprised if your food storage containers of sweet potato casserole are swabbed down to ensure that they don’t contain any traces of explosives.
When it comes time to fly home, these rules also apply to the leftover pie and stuffing you’re planning to smuggle back from grandma’s house. If the dishes require refrigeration, you’ll want to make sure that you’ve got an ice pack that’s still frozen completely solid to make sure that your food doesn’t spoil in transit.
“Even in checked baggage, food items regularly trigger alarms and when the agent goes to open it, it’s rancid,” she says. “You definitely want to make sure you have a nice, solid, non-melted ice pack.”
To minimize time spent in the security screening line, Farbstein suggests removing food items from your luggage and placing them directly into the bin that slides through the X-ray machine. (Bring a plastic trash bag to line the bottom of the bin before placing containers inside.) In addition to packing correctly, these tips can help reduce the likelihood that a TSA officer will ask you open up your bag for a lengthy search.
If, for whatever reason, you need to travel with cookware, items like baking dishes and nonstick skillets of any size can be carried on planes, but hefty cast-iron skillets are out. “No tools over 7 inches are allowed, and that includes cast-iron skillets,” Farbstein says. “Somebody could conk somebody else on the head with it, and then it becomes a bludgeoning instrument.” That rule also applies to rolling pins over 7 inches, which must be packed in checked luggage.
Few things are worse than being told you have to throw something valuable or, worse yet, delicious away at an airport security checkpoint, and being prepared for what TSA will and won’t allow will help avoid both losing your precious bowl of Nana’s cranberry sauce and holding up yourself and your fellow travelers in line.
“We know that people want to travel with food, and we want to make sure that nothing that you’re bringing through that could cause a catastrophic incident on the plane,” Farbstein says. “It’s going to be more crowded than usual, so do yourself a favor. Get there early. Oh, and wear a mask.”