If you’re one of the millions of people traveling this season for the sake of eating — and seeing family, allegedly — you could be getting on a plane soon with containers in tow. Maybe you’re carrying ingredients for the big meal, or maybe you’re ferrying priceless leftovers home. Whatever the case, you would probably like to keep the food you packed and not have it tossed at airport security checkpoints.
To prevent you from having to throw away your grandmother’s famous gravy before boarding, the Transportation Security Administration has built a robust website that allows you to search by specific terms. You can also tweet your carry-on questions to @askTSA to get a direct response from a representative. But to cover the basics, we talked to TSA’s press secretary, Jenny L. Burke, about the do’s and don’ts of packing your food for the plane.
“The general rule that we tend to tell people is that if you can spray it, spread it, pump it or pour it, it should go in your checked bag,” Burke says.
Keep in mind that the rules may change for those flying in or out of the country.
“If you have people flying internationally, there may be additional rules with coming back into the country through Customs and Border Protection that travelers should be aware of with regard to certain agricultural products,” she says.
Here’s what we learned about nine of the most popular fixings for holiday tables.
In charge of the appetizers or amuse-bouche? Proceed carefully if your menu includes a cheese board. Not all cheese is treated equally.
Hard types like Jarlsberg, sharp cheddar and Emmental are good to go, but creamy cheeses that are spreadable, like brie, burrata and Vieux Boulogne are treated like liquids. You can bring less than 3.4 ounces of creamy cheese in a carry-on, which is entirely too little cheese, if you ask us. The rest has to go in your checked bag.
For the rest of your cheese board, know that crudités, crackers and a platter are allowed in your carry-on.
2. Main-course meats
Aside from that bulbous, decorative cornucopia your aunt heaves out for the occasion, turkey, ham and seafood are among the traditional stars of the holiday table. Whether you’re lugging the main attraction to dinner or bringing home leftovers thereafter, meats and fish are allowed through airport security. You can even bring whole birds and live lobsters.
What are not allowed in your carry-on bag are carving tools. Check your chef’s blades in your luggage, or they’ll get confiscated faster than you can say, “But wait, it’s a Masahiro utility knife!”
3. Mashed potatoes
Because your mashed potatoes are mashed-up solids, you’re allowed to bring them on a plane without checking them. This applies to other mashed starchy tubers like sweet potatoes and yams.
On the other hand …
Think of how you use gravy. You’re drizzling it over mashed potatoes. You’re using it to drown your uncle’s dry turkey. Those are actions you can perform only with a liquid, so gravy is treated like a liquid at TSA checkpoints.
“You’re allowed to take as many 3.4 ounce or smaller sized containers that will fit in one sealed, clear, quart-sized zip-top bag — and one bag per person,” the TSA website reads. “Make sure you take the zip-top bag out of your carry-on prior to sending it through the X-ray.”
Celebrity frequent flier Chrissy Teigen exposed a gravy-related TSA loophole on Twitter when she attempted to bring more than the allotted 3.4 ounces of gravy through security, learning that she could keep her meaty sauce if she stirred it into the potatoes. Food for thought.
5. Green bean casserole
Same logic as the taters here. Casseroles are solids, so they’re TSA-approved sides.
Toss that stuffing-packed Tupperware in your carry-on, because that side is coming with you onboard.
7. Cranberry sauce
Burke says you need to pack foods like “cranberry sauce, canned fruit and vegetables, because they’re packed in liquid in the can.” They’re also typically larger than your liquid allotment allows.
Worried about bringing dessert through security? Fear not. Even if your slice is jiggly or gel-like, it’s fine to bring onboard.
“Baked goods are perfectly acceptable through the checkpoint,” Burke says.
Homemade, store-bought and sliced pies are all good to go in your carry-on, as are other baked goods like fruitcake. Other members of your dessert lineup are approved too, like peppermint bark, candy and cookies.
9. Whipped cream
That fluffy, silky topper for your pie belongs in your checked luggage, should you be carrying it with you at all.
“I would probably, personally, buy it on the other end [of your flight], considering it’s a perishable product,” Burke says. “But the safest bet would be to put it in your checked bag if it was a short flight.”
A note on beverages
Most holiday drinks, like eggnog, apple cider and champagne, are allowed only in your carry-on bag if you’re traveling with mini-bottles of the beverage. You can pack a few miniatures into a single quart-size bag and successfully pass through security. If you want to take full bottles on your trip, you can store as many as you’d like in checked luggage as long as they’re less than 24% alcohol by volume (ABV) or 48 proof. For higher-proof booze, note that each passenger is permitted up to 5 liters (1.3 gallons) of alcohol between 24%-70% ABV in their checked bag, and the bottles must be unopened.
Then there’s your uncle’s moonshine. According to FAA regulation: 49 CFR 175.10(a) (4), alcoholic beverages over 140 proof (70 percent alcohol) are not allowed in carry-ons or checked luggage. That means hits like grain alcohol, 151-proof rum, Everclear or anything your rogue family member made in a bathtub.
No matter what you’re trying to bring, keep in mind the italicized disclaimer on the TSA website as you pack your food: “The final decision rests with the TSA officer on whether an item is allowed through the checkpoint.” If an agent finds your food questionable, they could toss it, regardless of what the official rule says.
A previous version of this article stated that all alcohol under 70% alcohol by volume (ABV) is limited to 5 liters per person. According to FAA regulations, the number of alcoholic beverages containing 24% or less ABV is not restricted in a checked bag.