I like to watch movies when I'm flying to help pass the time. Recently I was on a trip engrossed in The Martian featuring Matt Damon when I realized something was missing from my movie experience...
A Huge Bucket of Popcorn!
Then I wondered... is popcorn even allowed on flights?
It’s a problem we all face at some point in our travels. What food items can we take through airport security? Security rules have changed often in recent years. And whilst most of us are very aware of the strict requirements for liquids, we are much less clear about food.
In this short guide, i'll explain what can and can’t pass through airport security. What exceptions are there for special items such as baby food and medication? And what else you should be aware of when travelling with food?
As many of you know, I love to pack as light as possible for travel. Every trip is different though, and there are times even my minimal packing list includes food items. There are so many reasons we may want to take food on board with us when we fly:
Airports have an ever increasing security process. This may help keep us safe...
... but it’s still annoying when we have to waste time returning to the desk to check in a bag we can’t take through security.
Or worse, we have to throw away valuable banned items at the checkpoint. You can avoid these problems by knowing the rules and preparing bags in advance!
Let’s start with the simplest area – liquids. You will be familiar with this as it is always well highlighted at airports. Only containers of liquid up to 100ml (3.4 oz.) are permitted through airport security. You know the drill by now. You need to place these together in one clear plastic bag.
When it comes to food, the leading rule is – if it is like a liquid, these same liquid rules apply. So foods such as jams, pastes, spreads will not get through unless they are in 100ml or less containers. If the food is solid (think cakes, biscuits, fruit etc.) then it is fine to pass through security.
Of course, things are slightly more complicated. How do you decide for example what food items contain too much liquid?
The TSA control airport security in the USA. They provide a summary list on their website of food items with liquid restrictions. And they also specify the food types which will be fine to pass through security.
Fine To Pass Through Security
Foods With Liquid Restrictions
For further checking, you can make use of a tool from TSA to search for a specific food item (or any other item!) you want to check. This is very comprehensive!
The TSA rules of course are in force at all US airports. The rules in many other countries are very similar. The liquid restrictions have become standard around the world. There may be differences in some countries though. So you should check with airports or airlines for international destinations.
You can check UK regulations here
And for Hong Kong here.
You should also be aware of any extra rules imposed by your airline. Remember airlines will count any food carried on as part of your carry-on allowance. Airlines don't give extra allowance (of weight or second bags) for food items!
Airlines do not usually restrict further taking food on board. None of the main US based airlines do, but check if you are travelling in other countries.
Yet, airlines do not allow you to consume your own alcohol on-board for safety reasons.
So leave that bottle of Absinthe behind! This includes all US based airlines. Security will allow those miniature bottles through. But airlines may not allow you to consume them on the flight!
Whilst the airport security rules are very strict, they are thankfully practical too. If you need to take medication on board, this will the TSA permits this. In fact it is “recommended” by TSA. I always suggest people bear in mind here the possibilities of lost checked in baggage. Make sure you have any important medication with you!
You can take whatever medication you need on board with you. Medicine in solid / pill form of course is fine. If it is in liquid form and you need more than the permitted 100ml security will allow this too.
There's also no need to keep your medicine in a plastic bag. Just approach security staff to show the medication. Keep it smart. Make sure the amount you take is reasonable for your use, and keep it in labelled medicine bottles. This is not a TSA rule but several US states and other countries insist upon it.
You can read full coverage of medication rules, and TSA contact details, on this blog.
If you are travelling with a baby or a young child you can also bring food in containers larger than 100ml. This applies to baby food, breast milk and milk formula.
As with medication, there is no need to keep these products in a clear plastic bag. But you must declare them to the security staff, and are subject to separate checking.
Taking your food on board the plane may be no problem, but don’t forget customs rules for your arrival country. Lots of countries have strict rules about what food items you can bring in. Lots of countries forbid fresh foods. For example fruit, vegetables, meat, fish, seeds, and nuts.
Of course, if you are taking food on board to eat this is not a problem. But, if it’s a gift for someone else or you are taking it home with you make sure it you can legally import it. You won’t just have this food taken away if you get this wrong. You also risk delays at the airport, and possible fines for breaking regulations. If you want to test this theory try smuggling a Kinder Surprise Egg into the US.
You can usually find the rules on the government or airport websites of your destination. For example:
For travel to the UK the rules you can find the rules here:
The rules for arriving into the USA from another country can be found here:
You need to declare fresh fruit, vegetables, meat, flowers or animal products. And some countries ban them altogether.
I hate to even mention checking luggage on this site as an option but...
Don’t worry if you can’t take your food on board, there are much less restrictions on checking it in.
TSA permit you to pack any amount of food in checked luggage. But again, make sure customs will allow this on arrival for international travel.
TSA do restrict alcohol amounts in checked luggage. For standard spirits (between 24% and 70% alcohol) the limit is 5 liters. Drinks with higher than 70% alcohol content are not permitted. And there is no restriction below 24%.
You can read full details of these rules here:
Packing food well in your carry-on bag is important. It can prevent it getting damaged in an often tightly packed bag.
Also, it is a TSA requirement that food is packed securely enough to....
“avoid spilling during the screening process and damaging security equipment and other passengers' belongings.”
Items such as sandwiches, rolls or hamburgers are fine as long as you package them well. Food items may also be subject to additional screening by TSA staff. So having them easily accessible is a good idea!
Whenever I take food on board I like to make use of a strong, sealable plastic box. This keeps my food intact and will meet any TSA requirements. You can pick up suitable boxes cheaply in most supermarkets.
If you are looking for something, I have a couple of recommendations:
Saving space is a huge priority of mine, and these collapsible food boxes are an appealing option.
I use them for my paleo salads! It helps me keep on my diet even when I'm traveling.
And I also want to mention these options for carrying liquids. You can take “liquid food items” as well as toiletries, gels etc. as carry-on in bottles up to 100ml. This Silicone Travel Bottle Set is a great option for that.
You could even fill one of them with your favorite jam or marmalade if you can't live without it!
There is no problem taking food onto your flight whether it is to eat on board, or take to your destination. If you follow these simple guidelines you'll be fine:
And of course if you are taking food on board in your carry-on bag then make sure you pack it sensibly. Keep it safe but of course, minimize weight and space. If carrying on food regularly make sure to check out my recommended packing options!
P.S. I'd never actually eat a big bucket of popcorn while on a flight! I'm not that evil!
The following sources were used in constructing this advice: