Which leftovers can you take on an airplane?

Photo: MariusLtu (iStock)
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It’s inevitable after every holiday meal: Once the dishes are cleared, the plates are stacked, and the dishwasher is loaded, out come the Ziploc bags, the Tupperware, and the plastic wrap for the solemn division of the leftovers. Everyone must take part in this postprandial rite, even if it’s just a symbolic scoop of mashed potatoes. It’s a courtesy to the host: No one can possibly eat through all those leftovers on their own.

Even if you have to catch a plane the next day, don’t think you’re off the hook. Sure, the TSA will make you take off your shoes and unload your carry-on, but you can still bring food with you and make the people who cooked it very happy. (Or at least relieved that it’s out of their hands.)

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Just about anything can go in a checked bag. Whether anyone will listen to your protests that you don’t want your clothes to smell like green bean casserole depends on them. Just make sure all that food’s sealed up tight in a bag or container that won’t leak. Plastic bags are easier to fit into luggage, but experts say that if the bag gets wet, the food inside will start to marinate. You should probably avoid vacuum-seal bags, though. “If they alarm,” says the TSA website, “the TSA officer may need to open them for inspection.”

There are three exceptions to this checked bag rule: first, alcohol stronger than 140 proof. That will be taken from you no matter where it’s packed. Second, fresh fruits and vegetables if you’re flying to the U.S. mainland from another country or from Puerto Rico, Hawaii, or the U.S. Virgin Islands. And, finally, cooking spray. Who knew?

Carry-on bags require a bit more planning. All solids are okay. This goes for both domestic and international travel. Liquids, on the other hand, have the same volume restrictions as shampoo and other toiletries: Any container with more than 3.4 ounces or 100 mL of liquid in it will need to be checked or else it will be confiscated. Anything creamy, like dip or Brie, counts as a liquid. Think of it this way: Mashed potatoes are okay. Mashed potatoes mixed with gravy so they maintain a relatively solid consistency are okay. More than 3.4 ounces of gravy by itself is not okay.

However—the TSA has no rule about how many 3.4-ounce containers you can carry with you. Which is something to bear in mind when you’re debating how much extra cranberry sauce you’d like to bring home.

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You can also bring frozen food with you, although if you bring gel packs, they must be frozen absolutely solid. Because otherwise they’ll turn into liquid, and you know what that means...

Then there are the utensils and appliances, because sometimes it’s impossible to avoid going home with one of those (especially after the major gift-giving holidays). You can carry on a blender, if the blades are removed. You can carry on a grater, but you’ll have to check all your knives, except for the dull plastic ones (and wrap them up so they don’t accidentally cut baggage handlers). You might be able to carry on a microwave or a mixer, but check with the airline about size and weight restrictions. Pots and pans are allowed in carry-ons, except for cast iron skillets, which must be checked. But waffle irons and tortilla presses are fine.

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If you have doubts, TSA is there for you. “For items not listed here,” says the website, “simply snap a picture or send a question to AskTSA on Facebook Messenger or Twitter. We look forward to answering your questions, from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. ET weekdays; 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. weekends/holidays.”

Or you can say the hell with it. As the photo above attests, the airport is hellish on Thanksgiving weekend and you don’t need to complicate matters with food you don’t want. Convince someone to drop you at a firehouse or a church or a homeless shelter on the way to the airport and give that stuff away.

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About the author

Aimee Levitt

Aimee Levitt is associate editor of The Takeout.