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Posted on Jan 3, 2008 | 79 comments

Avoid airline food, pack your own bento lunch

Avoid airline food, pack your own bento lunch

My husband, my three-year-old son and I went on a multi-city vacation in December, so of course I brought along gear to pack bento lunches for our flights and day trips. Nowadays airlines in the U.S. are offering less and less in the way of meals, instead selling nasty carb-loaded “snack box” meals full of pretzels, crackers and processed cheese. Those things are loaded with preservatives and aren’t particularly delicious or satisfying — better to bring your own food and be in control of your own destiny. I get a kick out of pulling a proper meal out of my carry-on bag, quieting my son while making my seatmates and the flight attendants jealous. But there are some tricks to packing an appealing airplane lunch that’ll pass through airport security and still taste good. (Click to read the full post…)

Bento lunch gear to bring on a family vacation (unpacked)

  • Disposable lunch for plane tripSave space with your containers. Choose a disposable container if you’re packing a meal to send away with someone else, or if space is at a premium and you won’t be packing any additional meals. Or choose a collapsible sandwich case or a multiple-tier bento box that nests (JList sells some here) into itself when empty so that you can save space in your luggage, and use them throughout your trip. For our family trip I brought along the gear in the photo above; it looks like a lot, but it didn’t take up much room in my luggage because the boxes collapsed and nested. (Click any photo for details and a larger view.)

Bento lunch gear to bring on a family vacation (packed)Although the Laptop Lunchbox was designed to fit perfectly on an airplane tray table, I find it a bit large and unwieldy when traveling (your mileage may vary). Give me a container that I can collapse after I eat, and I’m happy. Another upside of collapsible containers is that you can whip one out of your bag to pack up leftovers from a restaurant meal and store it in your hotel room refrigerator, saving you money on lunch the next day (even if you’re not flying). I especially like the collapsible sandwich cases because sandwiches are widely available and easily packed on the road when I’m away from my kitchen.

  • Think about security restrictions when choosing your food. Cut food into bite-size pieces as necessary beforehand as your knives won’t make it past airport security, and avoid large quantities of liquids or gels. To be safe, this means skipping the soup or curry, and packing small amounts of condiments (under 3 ounces) in a separate 1-quart plastic bag to speed your passage through security. Remember that you can always pick up little condiment packets from airport restaurants after you’ve gone through security! Leave the yogurt, applesauce, and juice boxes at home. I had juice boxes confiscated on this past trip as TSA determined that my three-year-old is no longer an infant. It’s been fine at other times, so be prepared to lose questionable items (Bug was so sad watching his juice boxes being thrown away by security — learn from my experience!). The most current U.S. guidelines for carry-on items are here, but check your own country’s air travel authority for local laws.
  • DIY oshibori and casesDon’t forget the accessories. Bring along a few sauce containers, food dividers, reusable silicone baking cups, or travel utensils if you think you might pack meals on the road or for the flight home. If you’re packing something messy and a regular napkin won’t cut it, consider bringing along disposable wet wipes or even a damp oshibori hand towel. You can make your own on the cheap with common items like a wet paper towel in a plastic baggie, or a reusable baby washcloth inside a travel soap case (see my oshibori how-to).
  • Lunch wrapped in cloth napkinUse multitaskers. Use a cloth napkin or dishcloth to wrap your bento box, keeping your lunch secure and giving you a nice placemat or napkin to use during your meal. I use the simple Otsukai Tsutsumi wrapping style shown on this illustrated how-to wrapping chart to wrap flimsy disposable containers so they can be thrown into carry-on luggage.
  • Contain the smell. You’ll be eating in close proximity to others; be considerate and think about how your meal will smell when you open it on the plane. Read my tips for packing smelly foods if you’re going to pack things like tuna fish or garlic.
  • Don’t overpack food for international travel. When traveling internationally, it’s safest to either finish your lunch on the plane or throw away any fresh leftovers before going through customs. Customs officials generally aren’t amused if you forget to declare fresh fruits or meats in your luggage — once I absentmindedly lost an orange and a hard-boiled egg this way in Costa Rica. Familiarize yourself with the laws of the country you’re going to beforehand so you don’t get caught out.
  • Don’t overpay for airport drinks! Bring along an empty water bottle and fill it from a water fountain after you’ve passed through security. This is when those individual packets of powdered drink add-ins come in handy — throw a few of these in your carry-on and you’re independent!

Here are some sample bento lunches I’ve made for plane trips (click on any for details):

Disposable lunch for plane trip Lunch wrapped in cloth napkin

FURTHER READING:

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  1. @54 from Tracy: Thanks, Tracy!

  2. @55 from dejikowaffo: I got my disposable containers at Ichiban Kan and Daiso, but maybe others can chime in with additional resources.

  3. @53 from Dryope: I would think it would depend on when you were going to eat (how helpful an ice pack would be). If you wanted to eat a perishable meal in the first third of your flight, go ahead and use an ice pack and insulated lunch bag (or thermal lunch jar, just be prepared to show/explain the jar in security).

  4. I just wanted to follow up on Sarah’s reply @51. I went to the SkyMeal’s website that she provided and sent them an email asking about going through security with ice packs. Here is the reply from Richard Katz at SkyMeals:

    “We do use ice packs in the cooler bags. According to reports from our customers, they pass through security most of the time. Our best guess is that it’s because they are solid when taken through the check point. Once in a while, they are confiscated. At that point however, they have done their job. Even without the ice packs, the food should still be fresh throughout the duration of your flight. Since you know when our food is prepared (not until you order it) it will certainly be fresher than anything you might pick up at the terminal.”

    Thanks for providing this link, Sarah.

  5. @60 from Wendy: Yes, Bug would be fine for a while, then remember what had happened — sob quietly for a while, saying, “I so sad they took my juice away!” He even wanted me to go hit them (!), prompting a talk about hitting not being a good thing to do (um, especially with airport security. Want to see Mommy taken away in handcuffs?).

  6. I love reading your blog! I’ve avoided packing foods on flights because of the restrictions, but I’m going to try next time we head cross country!

    Oh – a note about things like tuna? Some people are extremely sensitive even to the smell. I would stay away from allergens that tend to strike many. I nearly killed someone this way once :(

  7. @63 from Alida: Excellent point about avoiding the really nasty allergens — let’s pack peanut-free airplane bentos, folks! Thanks for the feedback.

  8. this has been a fascinating blog entry to read. with all the restrictions lately, i haven’t tried to pack a meal to take with me on the plane. that is why it is interesting to read about so many other who have. does security ever say anything about the bentos that folks have packed? i’ve tried looking for restrictions about bringing food from home for a long flight, but can’t seem to figure any of the rules out. i’m just worried about packing a bento for the plane and it getting thrown away.

    any feedback would be appreciated! thanks!

  9. OMG! This is great! Wonderful tips! My 4.5 year old is picky when it comes to eating airplane food. I usually bring along tons of snacks, but never really a good meal. Now, I have some awesome ideas for our next plane trip!
    Thanks!

  10. @67 from jas: I haven’t had any problems except for juice boxes, but maybe others can weigh in.

  11. @68 from Manuela: Glad you’ve found something that’ll work for you!

  12. @69 from psulinkie: Your airplane bento sounds like it was much better than the inflight options — I bet you got a kick out of pulling that out of your bag in your seat! Glad you didn’t have any security issues.

  13. @73 from Cathy H: You’ve pointed out a truism — I hope that this site helps people with the basics of how to pack a bento lunch, and that everyone is inspired to use the foods that work for them personally (vegetarian, gluten-free, lactose-free, diet, vegan, soy- or egg-free, etc.).

  14. no offense but i used youre idea not olny did the food taste nasty it looked horrible every body gave me dirty looks becouse they lost there appteite when they saw it i ended up eating the airplane food which was tasty and i was in ecomey

  15. @75 from travel air flying: If you’re looking for advice on how to improve your packing for airplane meals, let me know exactly what food you packed, how you packed it (containers, etc.), and what the problem was when you opened it to eat. Then I’ll have better information with which to help you.

  16. My family and I recently traveled across the continent by air. Since I had read this blog, I packed some lunches. I didn’t want to risk having my bento boxes confiscated, and I wanted to reduce the amount of stuff we had to carry, so I packed everything in sandwich baggies and brown lunch bags. Pretty far from a bento box, I know, but the concept still worked. :)

    I just wanted to let you know one “tip” that worked for me. Since we were going to be in the air for more than 5 hours, I knew we’d have time for frozen food to thaw. The night before, I froze about 20 whole strawberries (washed and cored). I used those like ice cubes to nest into the salads (greenleaf lettuce, baby spinach, currants and slivered almonds). By the time we got around to the salads, the strawberries had thawed. In the meantime, however, they had helped to keep the salad fresh and TSA had nothing to say about my frozen strawberries!

  17. @77 from neverenoughjam: I like the idea of frozen strawberries as edible ice packs & gap fillers! Reminds of a Good Eats show where Alton Brown froze whole (washed & cored) strawberries in a cooler of dry ice. He said that because they froze so quickly in dry ice, there was less cellular damage and they didn’t suffer as much when defrosted (i.e. not soggy). I’d love to try that out one of these days when I get my hands on some dry ice.

  18. Juice boxes…what about freezing, using as an ice pack, then it’ll be drinkable. Would TSA confiscate in it’s frozen form?

  19. I just wanted to tell you your water bottle idea saved me on my most recent trip! Yesterday, I flew from PHL to YWG and I packed along a disposable water bottle (in case I had to abandon it at customs) and a pink lemonade packet. People kept asking me how I got lemonade!

  20. thanks for the tip, our airplane food sucks, i once got poisoned from it i stayed 3 days in bed

  21. Great Idea, I am overweight and the offering on the airlines are ghastly; carbs, sugar and process junk.I do not know what your responders are reading but most arilines are still serving junk.

  22. I love the envious looks when I pull out our bento lunches on flights.

    For utensils we have minichopsticks and BAMBOO spoons and knives. The spoons are a bit shallow for soup (which I don’t bring on flights anyway) but work well for most everything else and the bamboo knives spread and make cuts in softer food easily. If I think I really need forks I get them at one of the restaurants inside security.

    Love all the ideas here!

  23. I’m a little late, so apologies in advance if this has already been addressed — but according to TSA rules, gel packs are NOT allowed for food purposes, unless you have an infant or child: “Frozen gels/liquids are permitted if required to cool medical and infant/child exemptions. Frozen gels/liquids for any other purpose are not permitted.” http://www.tsa.gov/311/311-carry-ons.shtm

    I’m still curious about using frozen juice boxes or other frozen foods (frozen peas?) ;o)

  24. Greeting,
    This was a great lunchinabox.net forum. I needed to find something for my Homework and This site helped me out so much! Thanx alot!!!!

  25. Just an introduction. Glad to be here, I’m new. Saying hi to all you all. ;)

    SLK

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  28. What an excellent idea! I never would have thought of disposable containers…totally makes sense.

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