On most domestic flights in the U.S., you get a complimentary drink and tiny snack — a full meal on a plane has come to be seen as a rare luxury. (No wonder we’ve all succumbed to overpriced airport food when our hangry side kicks into high gear.) You might get lucky on an international flight, but if you have food allergies or subscribe to a special diet, your options are slim. Prepping a plane meal is likely the last thing on your mind before crowds and traffic, but it doesn’t need to be an elaborate affair. The good news is bringing food through airport security is mostly stress-free. We spoke with a few seasoned travelers and got their advice for a smooth trip — what foods to pack, what to avoid, and the eco-friendly and worry-free packaging they swear by.
Meet the food-packing experts:
Talia Koren, founder of popular Instagram and digital meal plan subscription service Workweek Lunch. Koren, who lives in New York City, meal preps to simplify her life, save money, and travel more. Plus, she can’t justify overspending on airport food. “I’m not going to be sad about not spending $15 for a little salad at the airport,” she says.
Staci Ardison, a Northern Virginia-based health and fitness coach at Nerd Fitness, usually checks a cooler of food for work trips or if she’s traveling with her boyfriend, who’s a professional bodybuilder. “I have Hashimoto’s disease and a lot of food intolerances, so planning is super important,” she says.
Maya Feller is a New York City registered dietitian nutritionist and author of The Southern Comfort Food Diabetes Cookbook: Over 100 Recipes for a Healthy Life. With meal prep, she says, “I go above and beyond when I’m traveling with my children because I’m taking delays into consideration.”
Matthew Ayer, a vegan airline pilot who started his Instagram and YouTube channel, The Veggie Pilot, a few years ago to share the meals he brings to work and meat-free eats he finds along the way. When he started, he couldn’t find many pilots with plant-based diets at the time, and says, “I wanted something to pop up when someone Googled just to say yeah, there’s somebody doing it.”
Make Snacks Stress-Free
Koren: “Even if you can’t cook things, bringing stuff from your grocery store is still going to be cheaper than buying snacks at the airport. You also have the flexibility of choosing something you really want to eat on the plane.” For easy travel-friendly bites, Koren brings an apple or banana and packs homemade snacks like protein balls, muffins, and trail mix.
Ardison: Her go-to is a fruit cup, with a little hack. “If you pack mixed berries frozen, by the time you get on the flight they’ll be a really good temperature to eat.” To avoid smushing the fruit, she puts them in Tupperware instead of a bag.
Choose foods that sustain you, not drain you
Feller: “Usually I tell people to pack a vegetable-heavy sandwich with a spread like hummus. I also love a loaded salad with a good source of protein, fats, and carbs.” Depending on the individual, Feller adds, “the simple act of flying can upset their GI,” so stay away from foods that bother you, and drink a ton of water since flying can make you dehydrated due to drier air and lower oxygen levels in the aircraft. “You want food in its most minimally-processed form, so go for wholegrain bread or, if you have food allergies, a gluten-free option. It’s going to be a better choice digestion-wise.”
Ayer: He flies about half the month, and has figured out foods to avoid. “I try to keep it lean on oils because they can make me feel sluggish.” Ayer’s mainstays are rice and beans, vegan meats (he recommends sausages from Field Roast), hearty salads, and lentils. “I’m a big proponent that beans and lentils are the real superfoods. I feel outstanding after eating them, so I try to eat that at work to keep my energy levels up for long days.”
Check a Cooler
Ardison: The TSA rule is you can carry on a quart-sized bag with liquids in containers that are 3.4 ounces or smaller. That’s not conducive to a food like soup, but if you’re hellbent on bringing that homemade chili on your trip, there’s a way. “If we are flying [an airline like] Southwest where you can check a couple bags with the cost of your flight, we will check a cooler full of food” in a zip-up heavy-duty cooler (keep in mind that it’s best to freeze liquids like soup or chili). Ardison can’t eat tomatoes and peppers, so she sticks to simple meals like salads with egg, bacon, and avocado on the plane; she’ll add dressing before going through security to avoid an extra travel-size bottle or packet.
Avoid smelly foods and keep allergies in mind
Koren: “I’ve learned that nut allergies are very prevalent, and people won’t always speak about them. So I just try to avoid bringing them.” If a passenger on board has a severe nut allergy, they may alert the cabin crew who may announce it to the aircraft. You can also ask nearby seatmates whether they’re allergy-free before eating food that contains nuts. As for odorous foods, since you’ll be in tight quarters on the plane, Koren says it’s wise to skip the tuna. “I think hard-boiled eggs smell terrible, but that’s borderline.”
Ask for water on the plane for instant meals
Ayer: “A good vegan protein powder saves you on the road,” especially for vegans who may have a hard time finding food en route to their destination. His pro tip for a filling in-flight meal that won’t get confiscated at security: “Bag the protein powder so it fits in your luggage. Then, on the plane, get water from the stewardess to fill up a Blender Bottle, make your shake, and you have a solid meal.”
Koren: Overnight oats are ideal plane food, she says, since they don’t need to be refrigerated and can easily be vegan or gluten-free. One caveat: “The liquid will soak up if you make it the night before, but if you make the overnight oats the day you fly, the liquid will still be in there and it could be taken away.” For the meal-prep averse: Bring instant oatmeal or ramen packets and ask a flight attendant for hot water.
Go overboard so you’re prepared for delays, and yes, even food shortages
Ayer: “My goal is to have enough food where I don’t have to eat out. Maybe there’s a cool vegan restaurant on the layover, but it means I’m prepared in case my trip goes horribly wrong, or we get stuck in a city with no options.” (And to take advantage of limited container space, Ayers recommends steaming some kale or spinach that cooks down small.)
Feller: “We’ve been on international flights where they run out of food on the plane, which you’d think never happens.” To be prepared for any travel hiccups, she’ll pack the equivalent of a meal and two snacks for her kids, like a grilled cheese sandwich with vegetables, and extras like fruit, popcorn, and cookies.
Koren: For a recent six-hour evening flight, she brought homemade chickpea pasta mac and cheese, energy bites, zucchini bread, and an apple. “One comment I get a lot on my travel meal prep posts is, ‘This is so much food.’ I don’t want to be in the air hungry, and all my options are $10. It’s okay to bring extra food that you can enjoy when you get to your destination. It’s better to be overprepared.”
Use leak-proof eco-friendly packaging
Feller: In regard to reusable packaging, she says, “People think, ‘I can’t do that, or I can’t buy those items.’ If there’s one thing you can do, choose that. What we need is a whole bunch of people doing things imperfectly as opposed to one person being perfect.” She says travelers invested in using fewer disposable plastics can put together a kit of reusable items, like a sandwich bag, metal straw, water bottle, and utensils.
Koren: “I always bring an empty water bottle because you can fill it up on a plane. You just have to remember to empty it before you go through security so they won’t take it away.” For coffee, Koren packs a Stojo collapsible cup and uses snap-on containers like Lock and Lock and Snapware by Pyrex. “I’ll put that in my bag with no protection next to my laptop, and it’s fine.” While glass is more environmentally friendly, she uses plastic when flying because it’s lighter and won’t break, and repurposes containers to hold souvenirs or small clothing items for her return flight.
When in doubt, check with TSA
If you’re flying within the U.S., you can refer to the TSA’s long list of foods you can and cannot bring on a plane (there are special instructions for items like gel ice packs and fruits and vegetables from certain states or territories) or check the “Can I Bring?” tab in the MyTSA app. And liquids or not, If you’re unsure whether your food will make the cut, send a photo of it to the “Ask TSA” Facebook Messenger or Twitter, weekdays from 8:00 A.M. to 10:00 P.M. EST, and weekends and holidays from 9:00 A.M. to 7:00 P.M. EST.
About the author: Jessica Militare is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in Glamour, Elle, Marie Claire, New York Magazine, and American Way. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband and their terrier mix, Stevie (after rock goddess Nicks). You can find her on Twitter.