For a lot of Thanksgiving travelers and hosts, there’s a mutual, perhaps unwritten, agreement: The out-of-town guests travel, and the hosts handle the cooking.
For plenty of others, though, it’s not quite so straightforward. This means you’re likely to see a fellow passenger toting a turkey or pie while preparing to board the flight home for the holiday. And, of course, we expect to see plenty of passengers flying with leftovers on their way home.
That also means the Transportation Security Administration can expect to see a much more eclectic assortment of carry-on items as staff prepares to screen millions of travelers over the coming days. In both 2021 and 2022, the agency’s top day for passenger checkpoint throughput was the Sunday following Thanksgiving.
It makes the TSA’s job all the more challenging as its staff navigates what’s sure to be massive crowds this year, too.
“It’s weird, but sometimes we will see turkeys at security checkpoints,” TSA Southeast spokesperson Mark Howell told TPG.
If you’re among the travelers hoping to do a little meal prep at home before flying, there are some things you need to know, whether you’ll be waiting in the standard line (arrive early, if so) or have TSA PreCheck.
3-1-1 applies, as always
As is always the case, the TSA’s 3-1-1 rule governs what can and can’t come on the plane. It means that each liquid you bring through a checkpoint must be in a 3.4-ounce or smaller container, all containers must be placed in one clear quart-size plastic bag and each passenger is only allowed one plastic bag.
Even on a normal travel day, the prohibited items pile up — quite literally — in plastic bins near checkpoints.
Most travelers know they can’t bring a huge bottle of sunscreen in their carry-on luggage. However, the composition of Thanksgiving entrees and side dishes can get a bit confusing when it comes to 3-1-1.
Reward your inbox with the TPG Daily newsletter
Join over 700,000 readers for breaking news, in-depth guides and exclusive deals from TPG’s experts
Bringing Thanksgiving food on a plane
Let’s start with the obvious here: You have to follow 3-1-1 whether you’re bringing on a mini bottle of toothpaste or your family’s famous Thanksgiving stuffing.
“Your solid food, your cakes and pies are going to be OK,” Howell explained.
That means you’re good to bring a turkey, ham, chicken or something of the like. TSA and U.S. Food and Drug Administration advise that you give special attention to packing and storing perishables.
We say “special attention” because the steps you take to ensure your food stays cold through your journey can become a common pitfall.
Any ice packs you use must stay frozen as you make your way through the checkpoint.
That goes for that frozen turkey you bought at the grocery store, too.
“Sometimes, if it’s half melted, and there’s liquid in there, there’s an issue,” Howell said. You’ll want to leave it in the freezer right up until you leave for the airport, in that case.
On the other hand, stuffing, macaroni and cheese, casseroles, pies, pastries and fresh fruits and vegetables are generally safe bets to bring through the checkpoint.
Items you can’t bring
With many other classic holiday dishes, you’ll want to consider the ingredients before you try to carry it on, and in some cases, it’s a pretty obvious “no-go.”
“If you can pump it, pour it, spray it or spread it and it’s more than 3.4 ounces, then it should go in your checked bag,” Howell said.
Many items can get through, along with spices. You need to check canned fruits and vegetables.
Gravies, sauces, jams, jellies, wine and spirits will need to go in checked luggage. Just be sure to wrap and pack items carefully to avoid a mess in the event a fragile bottle breaks.
Luckily, if you’re unsure what food can come with you on the plane, the TSA has a helpful “What Can I Bring?” feature. Type in your item, and you should be able to find out if you can carry it through a checkpoint or if it should be checked.
What foods can you bring through TSA?
With respect to Thanksgiving, here is a full rundown the TSA has shared about foods that are and aren’t permissible in carry-on baggage.
Thanksgiving foods you can bring through a TSA checkpoint
- Baked goods, pies, cakes, cookies, brownies
- Meats, including turkey, chicken, ham, steak (frozen, cooked or uncooked)
- Stuffing, cooked or uncooked
- Mac and cheese
- Fresh vegetables
- Fresh fruit
Thanksgiving foods you can’t bring in your carry-on bag
- Cranberry sauce, homemade or canned
- Beverages like wine or Champagne
- Canned fruit or vegetables (since there’s typically liquid in the can)
- Preserves, jams and jellies
If your item falls into the “no” category for a carry-on bag, you should still be able to pack it in your checked luggage. This is a good time to use those free checked bags and other airline credits available on that travel credit card in your wallet.
Every time the TSA catches a prohibited item while scanning a bag, it causes a delay at the checkpoint. During what’s expected to be one of the busiest weeks of the year, those delays can add up.
Whether you plan to pack a bottle of hair gel or your family’s traditional Thanksgiving casserole, consider whether the size and composition of your item make it eligible to pass through security.