Know the Rules, and Pack Wisely
Traveling with young kids is rewarding but definitely has its challenges, especially when they're tired, cranky or hungry. Having food to offer keeps them both satisfied and happily distracted, which is a double win for a prepared parent. There aren't a lot of restrictions on what you can bring with you, but there are a few, and it's important to know what they are. Otherwise you might have to leave your carefully packed travel treats at the gate, and rely on the airline's meager in-flight snacks. That's a prospect to make even the shortest of flights feel like an eternity.
Snacks, Nibbles, Munchies and Lunches: It's Pretty Much All Good
The good news is, most of the foods you might want to bring along for you and the young 'uns are perfectly fine with the Transportation Safety Administration. Wrapped or bagged sandwiches, snack bags of nuts, vegetable sticks, fresh and dried fruit, cereal and candy—for those moments when a shameless bribe is called for—can all come with you through the security screening line. So can commercially packaged snacks from pretzels to energy bars. That provides plenty of options, whether you're looking for a filling in-flight meal or a quick distraction for bored, restless kids.
Don't Run Afoul of the 3-1-1- Rule
Where you might run into trouble is with the 3-1-1 rule, the same one that applies to your shampoo and conditioner. Food products that take the form of liquids, pastes or gels also have to be in packaging that's 3.4 ounces or smaller, fit into your single quart-sized bag along with your personal care products, and fit into your one carry-on bag. That restriction applies to a lot of healthy snacks that are parent standbys, including peanut butter, hummus, creamy cheeses (hard cheeses are fine), yogurt, gelatin desserts and pretty much any kind of dip your kids like. You can still bring them, but be sure to pack them in the most space-efficient way possible. It's a really, really good idea to practice fitting everything into that 1-quart bag, too. If you bring a gel pack to keep perishable foods cold, it has to be completely frozen when you board. Otherwise it also has to meet the 3-1-1 rule, and you'll probably wind up leaving it behind.
Stuff For the Baby Gets a Pass
If you're traveling with a baby, the TSA has good news for you: The 3-1-1 rule doesn't apply to pureed baby foods, breast milk or formula. You can bring them along in a second bag and pass it through security separately. TSA staff may open one package and squeeze out a few drops for testing, or might just X-ray it to be sure it's what you say it is. Either way, you're allowed to bring what the TSA calls "a reasonable quantity" of your baby's foods through the checkpoint. Obviously that's an imprecise measure, and the judgement of the TSA agent on the scene will prevail. If you're toting hungry twins, for example, you can reasonably expect a generous allowance.
Pro tip: You don't have to have the baby with you to take advantage of this, which is great if you're traveling with your toddler, but pumping for the infant.
Some Other Things to Think About
At times, your food-carrying plans might go beyond a few snacks and extend to bringing home a lobster from the coast or a few pounds of your Uncle Ernie's homemade brats from Wisconsin. The TSA is okay with live lobsters as long as they're packed properly, but your airline might not be, so check ahead of time. Other perishable foods can go in your checked baggage with gel packs or properly vented dry ice to keep them cold. Traveling internationally adds another level of complication. Check with your destination country's customs website to see whether there are restrictions on the foods you bring in, and do the same with the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service when you return home.
Fred Decker is a trained chef and certified food-safety trainer. Decker wrote for the Saint John, New Brunswick Telegraph-Journal, and has been published in Canada's Hospitality and Foodservice magazine. He's held positions selling computers, insurance and mutual funds, and was educated at Memorial University of Newfoundland and the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology.