When it comes to airport security, it’s not always clear what you can and can’t bring into a plane. This is especially the case for food and beverages since there are many different types of special rules. In this article, I will cover the main TSA food rules and discuss which food items you can bring on a plane. I’ll cover some of the more basic food items and also those special restrictions for things like baby food and alcohol.
Can I bring food on a plane?
Yes, you can bring food and liquids onto the plane with you but there are many restrictions to be aware of.
Bringing food and liquids purchased post-security
We’ve all been there. Strolling through the airport, stopping to pick up a sandwich, when all of a sudden you hear your plane is boarding…. Your immediate reaction might be to panic and start stuffing your pie hole — but you don’t have to!
That’s because you can bring food and drinks onto the plane that you purchased after going through airport security so long as there is room for you to store them.
A couple of tips….
I always try to make sure that I have room inside my carry on bag for the food I am bringing on a plane just in case they consider it as an additional carry-on item/personal item.
Many airlines won’t consider a small amount or “reasonable amount” of food to be a carry on so you could board with a personal item, carry-on, and a small bag of food.
In fact, here is what Delta states:
The following items do NOT count as personal items (they’re freebies):
- A jacket and/or umbrella
- Food or drink purchased after clearing the security checkpoint
- Duty-free merchandise
- Special items like strollers, child restraint seats or assistive devices such as wheelchairs or crutches
So as you can see, food and drink purchased in the airport after security is not considered a personal item (or carry-on).
But don’t push it because if you’re carrying an excessive amount of food, airlines might find that to be unreasonable.
Also, try to be considerate about other passengers when it comes to the more pungent types of foods — there’s nothing worse than being stuck next to someone working on a footlong tuna sandwich the whole flight.
Bringing food and liquids through TSA security
When it comes to bringing food through TSA airport security, however, things are a little bit different.
For the most part, you can still bring many types of food items through airport security so long as they are properly packaged. However, some food items have some very specific restrictions and I will discuss those in this article.
Also, TSA recently announced that they were having issues with food items cluttering up their x-ray images. As a result, you may be asked to remove all of the food/snack items from your carry-on luggage. This means that you should take an extra effort to properly package and store your food items so that they are easily retrievable from your luggage.
How can you do this?
Place food in a separate compartment in your bag or try to wrap it up in a bag or store it in a container that can be taken out quickly.
When passing food through the x-ray machine, set your food in its own bin or bowl. But be careful. Take extra effort to keep your food from being exposed since airport security trays carry more germs than toilets. Also, don’t worry about the effects of the X-ray scanners because supposedly they don’t affect your food quality.
Common foods allowed
TSA has published a list that provides some guidance on what foods are allowed and what foods are not. Here is a list of common foods that are allowed through airport security. This is not a complete or an exhaustive list and so there may be plenty of other items that you can bring.
- Solid cheese
- Solid chocolate
- Coffee beans or ground
- Cooked meats, seafood and vegetables
- Dried fruits
- Fresh eggs
- Solid pet food
- Pies and cakes
- Solid foods
- Spices (dry)
- Tea (dry tea bags or loose tea leaves)
Keep in mind when you are bringing these items through security, you want to make sure that they are properly packaged. For example, if you are bringing a cake through airport security then you want to make sure that that cake is in a container that can be closed (and preferably sealed).
Non-solid food items
Things start to get a little bit tricky when we start talking about non-solid food items. If you are not bringing solid food through the airport security line then chances are the TSA liquid rule will apply to your food.
If you need a refresher for the TSA 3-1-1 rule then here it is:
You are allowed to bring a quart-sized bag of liquids, aerosols, gels, creams and pastes in your carry-on bag and through the checkpoint. These are limited to travel-sized containers that are 3.4 ounces (100 milliliters) or less per item and they must be placed in “comfortably” in one, quart sized, clear plastic, zip-top bag. Comfortable means that the bag will seal without busting at the seams.
You will have to remove this bag from your luggage unless you have TSA Pre-Check, which is a great program that allows you to get through airport security much quicker.
So the question is whether or not your food constitutes: liquids, aerosols, gels, creams and pastes.
Foods that fall under the liquids rule
Here is a non-exhaustive list of food items that will fall under the liquids rule:
- Liquid chocolate
- Creamy dips and spreads
- Mashed fruits such as applesauce
- Jam and jelly
- Maple syrup
- Oils and vinegars
- Peanut butter
- Wet pet food
- Salad dressing
- Salsa and sauces
Basically anything that is usually poured, scooped, squeezed, slurped, or mashed will be considered a liquid for TSA purposes. Things get a little bit less clear when you are talking about solid foods that have these liquid like substances on or in them.
For example, if you were trying to get through with a stack of pancakes that had butter and syrup poured or soaked on them, it’s not clear what TSA would do. My guess is they would say that the syrup and butter would be a liquid and therefore subject you to the 3-1-1 rule but it will likely depend on the quantity of the non-solid substance.
So my advice would be to try to avoid having toppings and other condiments on or in your solid food items. This might mean scraping off a little bit of extra jelly here and there but at least you will be able to take your meal with you on the plane.
Special food items
Below is a list of special food items that are allowed but usually require some sort of additional restrictions.
Alcoholic beverages are allowed through airport security but it depends on the size of the beverage. If you are bringing alcoholic beverages through security then they will be subject to the 3-1-1 rule. This means that you can bring in mini bottles of alcohol but they must fit in the quart-sized bag (mini bottles of liquor are 1.7 ounces).
Any amount of alcohol greater than 3.4 ounces must be packed in checked baggage.
There is also an additional restriction based on the alcohol content of the beverage for checked bags. Alcoholic beverages with more than 24% but not more than 70% alcohol are limited in checked bags to 5 liters (1.3 gallons) per passenger and must be in unopened retail packaging. Alcoholic beverages with 24% alcohol or less are not subject to limitations in checked bags.
Here are some ranges for the alcoholic content of some common beverages:
Alcohol Percentage Content
- Vodka | ABV: 40-95%
- Gin | ABV: 36-50%
- Rum | ABV: 36-50%
- Whiskey | ABV: 36-50%
- Tequila | ABV: 50-51%
- Liqueurs | ABV: 15%
- Fortified Wine | ABV: 16-24%
- Unfortified Wine | ABV: 14-16%
- Beer | ABV: 4-8%
- Malt Beverage | ABV: 15%
Alcoholic beverages with more than 70% alcohol (over 140 proof), including grain alcohol and 151 proof rum are not allowed on the plane.
Keep in mind one very important FAA regulation:
§135.121 Alcoholic beverages.
(a) No person may drink any alcoholic beverage aboard an aircraft unless the certificate holder operating the aircraft has served that beverage.
You are technically not allowed to drink your own alcoholic beverages aboard the aircraft unless the “certificate holder operating the aircraft has served that beverage.” This means that you could request a flight attendant to serve you your alcohol and be compliant with this regulation. There is no guarantee that they will say yes, but at least you would be drinking it legally if you did it this way.
Baby food is allowed through airport security when brought in “reasonable quantities.” You will likely be forced to remove these items from the rest of your carry-on items.
The big question here is what is considered a “reasonable quantity.” Obviously, that opens the door for subjective interpretation. It seems that the TSA agents will consider the length and duration of your trip when determining the reasonableness. So, for example, if you are on a two hour trip they will consider how much food your baby would need for two hours.
This has led to some issues in the past. One reason why is that some parents are extra cautious when flying with their kids and will factor in potential delays and things of that nature so that they are well-prepared. This has led some couples to bring more baby food and formula than TSA believes as necessary.
My advice would be to bring as much as you think is necessary for your baby, but be prepared to justify yourself to a TSA agent on why your amount of baby food or formula is a reasonable amount. The worst that could happen is they require you to throw some of it out and you can always file a complaint later if you think that they were being unreasonable.
Baby formula is allowed through airport security when brought in reasonable quantities. You will likely be forced to remove these items from the rest of your carry-on items.
Breast milk is allowed through airport security when brought in reasonable quantities. You will likely be forced to remove these items from the rest of your carry-on items.
Fresh fruits and vegetables
Fresh fruits and vegetables will be allowed but you need to be very mindful of your destination.
Passengers flying from Hawaii, Puerto Rico, or the U.S. Virgin Islands to the U.S. mainland cannot take most fresh fruits and vegetables due to the risk of spreading invasive plant pests. You can visit the U.S. Department of Agriculture website for more information.
You also need to be very mindful about traveling to international destinations with fruits and vegetables and other perishable items. You will need to declare these items most likely and some items will be prohibited.
Fresh meat and seafood
Fresh meat and seafood is allowed. However if you are bringing them frozen or with an ice pack then you need to make sure that the ice remains in a solid-state. If the ice is partially melted, TSA will probably not allow you to bring the ice through. This means that you need to really time your trip to the airport so that these items are brought directly out of the freezer and you arrive at the airport shortly.
The same rule as above applies to other frozen foods. If you are going to bring anything frozen through airport security that ice or ice pack must remain in a solid-state. If something turns into a slushy type of state, then that will likely be considered a liquid and be subject to the 3-1-1 rule.
Ice cream is allowed to security when it is brought through in its solid state.
A live lobster — yes, a live lobster — is allowed through security and must be transported in a clear, plastic, spill proof container. A TSA officer will visually inspect your lobster at the checkpoint. TSA recommends that you contact your airline to determine your airline’s policy on traveling with your lobster before arriving at the airport.
Protein or energy powders
Powder-like substances greater than 12 oz. / 350 mL must be placed in a separate bin for X-ray screening. They may require additional screening and containers may need to be opened. TSA encourages you to place non-essential powders greater than 12 oz. in checked bags.
If you have gone through all of the rules, and you are still unsure about whether or not your food item is prohibited through airport security, you can simply contact TSA.
For items not listed here, snap a picture or send a question to AskTSA on Facebook Messenger or Twitter. They state that they are available from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. ET weekdays; 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. weekends/holidays.
It is somewhat surprising that TSA allows you to bring it in so much food through airport security. But for those people who are on a budget or like to trim expenses, bringing food through airport security can be a great way to save money. Just make sure that you are aware of the restrictions on certain foods and you should have a smooth experience.
Daniel Gillaspia is the Founder of UponArriving.com and creator of the credit card app, WalletFlo. He is a former attorney turned full-time credit card rewards/travel expert and has earned and redeemed millions of miles to travel the globe. Since 2014, his content has been featured in major publications such as National Geographic, Smithsonian Magazine, Forbes, CNBC, US News, and Business Insider. Find his full bio here.