As a full-time college student balancing multiple jobs in the fitness industry, I’ve done my share of traveling and eating on the go. My jobs have mainly been across the east coast and have not required much air travel. That being the case, I’ve gotten pretty good at living out of my car and being on the road. As opportunities have opened up I’m finding myself needing to travel by air a bit more often.
Between my own interest in how to go about maintaining my bodybuilding lifestyle along with numerous clients and friends having similar questions regarding air travel and dieting, it seemed like a great time to explain the in’s and out’s of traveling by air while navigating the countless TSA regulations on food and beverages in order to maintain your diet and keep the gainz coming.
Traversing the Terminal
The first challenge is preparing your meal(s) as you wait at the airport for your plane to depart. Since it’s customary to arrive at an airport a few hours early in order to get through security, find your gate, and allow extra time for any problems, you may find yourself needing to eat before even getting on the plane. Like most things in fitness, there’s almost always more than one way to get the job done.
#1 Meals on Wheels - Dat Dere Meal Prep
Some people will have whole-food source meals pre-packed and kept in their carry-on so they can pull them out during the day as they wait for their departure. Something as simple as chicken, sweet potato and broccoli could be kept chilled in a small lunchbox and eaten cold. I personally avoid this method — one reason being that many airlines often charge extra for carry-on luggage.
This probably sounds cheap considering the charge can be as low as $20-30, but to me, if there are other ways to get the job done that can save me from spending money, it’s wiser to save the money for something more important. Another negative to doing this is the extra space required for storing your pre-flight meals on top of having to worry about keeping them chilled to prevent spoilage. For other people, more convenient and less space-consuming options may be preferred.
#2 The Shakedown - Meal Replacement Shakes
Prepping whole foods meals has worked for many people that I have talked to, but in my opinion the absolute easiest, most convenient, and space saving option would be just to have some meal replacement shakes prepared in small plastic containers. I like to just have a few containers filled with Core MRP in my backpack — which I always carry on as my personal item.
By doing this I save a ton of space for work-related items like my laptop, chargers, etc. This also saves me from having to worry about keeping food from spoiling or eating cold food. Instead, I just pull out my shaker cup, fill it with water from a nearby water fountain, throw in my powder, and I’m good to go with balanced meals that will tide me over until I land.
#3 Board With Bars - Protein Bars, That Is
Another convenient option would be to bring protein bars along for the flight. Just like MRP powders, a quality protein bar can be a really easy way to get in a small meal’s worth of calories.
My only issues with protein bars are that they have the potential to melt in your bag and that it is hard to find high quality protein without a lot of fillers. However, this may still be a more appealing option than a shake to some since chewing calories is often more gratifying than drinking them.
Packing meal replacement powders and protein bars is a convenient and space-saving way of getting in your nutrition and protein.
#4 Chill Out Bro - Use the Correct Freezer Packs
If you do decide to bring a carry-on cooler in order to ensure you have all your meals on hand, you’ll want to make sure you use the right freezer packs. After talking to several people about this, it seems that your best bet is to use frozen bags of vegetables. When frozen vegetables thaw they obviously don’t become liquid but instead are just thawed out veggies.
When traditional ice packs thaw however, you’re left with a bag of water which will likely be confiscated by the TSA since the water in the ice pack will exceed the 3.4 ounce liquid limit that the TSA has in place. Using frozen vegetables avoids the chance of having nice freezer packs thrown away, and also leaves you with vegetables you can eat later on your trip. After all, you’d rather freeze your peas than be told to “freeze” by a TSA officer!
#5 Liquid Limit - Know the 3-1-1 TSA Rule
Ah yes, the liquid limit. The TSA’s limit on liquids has caused many a person to lose their beverages, dressings, contact solutions and more when they passed through the security checkpoint. Well, now you can avoid these losses by following the 3-1-1 rule set up by the TSA to help passengers prepare accordingly and avoid losing valuables.
The 3-1-1 rule is this: All liquid containers inside carry-ons or personal items brought on the plane must be kept under 3.4 fluid ounces. All those containers should then be placed into a 1 quart bag; and each passenger can have a limit of 1 bag. By keeping all of your carry-on liquid items in one clear bag, it allows the TSA officers to quickly scan your liquids, saving you and the rest of the passengers time and stress.
Simply reading this rule can cause some digit distress, so an example may make it easier to visualize. Say a bodybuilder is taking a week’s vacation with their family and they decide to bring a carry-on cooler filled with meals for an eight-hour flight. A bodybuilder not knowing this rule may bring a full bottle of A1 sauce for their steak, a bottle of low-fat dressing for their salads, and some other condiments for their sandwiches — subsequently having them all thrown away for being over the 3.4 ounce container rule.
Now, knowing the rule, that bodybuilder would instead get some small containers that will hold 3.4 ounces or less of each condiment. Then place those miniature bottles inside a clear, one quart bag that can be easily passed by security and used on the flight.
#6 Water You Gonna Do?
You may be wondering what the heck you’re going to do about your water for the day. I mean, 3.4 ounces is just not going to get the job done! Thankfully this is easy to get around. I’ve found the best thing to do is bring something like a 32 ounce water bottle that I can carry with my backpack. Since fluids over 3.4 ounces won’t make it through security checkpoints, I’ll just empty if before passing through. After getting to the other side I’ll fill my water bottle up at a nearby water fountain before getting on the plane (acceptable by the TSA).
Don’t worry about finding a fountain — there are always some near the bathrooms of the terminals. Those of you that like to carry gallon jugs around with you every day may find it easier just to leave it at home and bring along a big water bottle. I’ve never tried to bring a gallon jug but I can imagine it would cause a lot of questions and issues that could be easily avoided.
Check Yourselves, Before You Wreck Yourself
There are a lot of ways an athlete can bring food onto a plane in their carry-on, but some things are better left in a checked bag, stored elsewhere on the plane, in order to make sure they aren’t thrown away. This also saves room in your carry on for more important items.
#7 Bag It - Stuff Your Vittles in Resealables
If you're interested in carrying cereal or oats onto the plane an easy way to save luggage space is to put them in resealable, plastic bags rather than trying to carry on full containers. This allows you to put portioned out meals in the gaps between things like clothing. One word of caution: if you decide to bag cereals it may be wise to consider how full your checked luggage is first. I can say from personal experience that cleaning out luggage from a popped bag of oats or Cheerios is no fun.
Going the plastic bag route will definitely take some strategizing to prevent busting bags but is still a good option when saving space is a must. Another option that would prevent a potential mess, while it would take up a little more space than plastic bags, would be to use small plastic containers to hold your cereals or other small items.
#8 Scale it Down - Bubble Wrap Your Food Scale
A food scale is a necessity for any physique athlete, but traveling can get any athlete nervous after seeing how luggage is typically handled by airport staff.
Since food scales can have their calibration messed up fairly easily, and a broken scale could mean dieting disaster when traveling to shows or other events, I've begun wrapping my scale in bubble wrap before packing it away in my checked bag. This has gotten my scale through some tough trips both in the air and on the road.
#9 Jarring Information - Some Items to Leave at Home
On the TSA website it's mentioned that jams, jellies and butters are allowed in checked luggage. That may sound like a good idea but from personal experience I'm not sure that I would suggest it.
I once packed a jar of cookie butter (heaven in a jar) in my checked luggage, but when I landed the heat from the environment along with the heat from the plane’s holding area had melted the cookie butter and left it with a really weird consistency. Unless it was necessary, this type of item may be better left at home purchased upon arrival to prevent anything from getting wasted.
#10 Waving Goodbye to Lost Gainz - Microwave Them Chickens
I got this idea from one of the winningest natural bodybuilders in history and the president of the American Natural Bodybuilding Federation, Kent Bierly. When cooking on the stove top or in the oven isn't an option, or you just want to multi-task, cooking raw chicken in the microwave can be a great option. Just throw a few pieces in a plastic container, cover while leaving room to vent steam, and microwave for 8-12 minutes, flipping halfway through for even cooking.
This sounds really simply and it is, but it's something that I had never thought of that is great when I'm on the go or traveling. This is helpful since most hotels have a microwave that can be used when you’re away from your full kitchen. You could purchase canned chicken or other meats, but I prefer to avoid canned meats since the sodium is almost always sky high and the quality of meat is often low.
Cooking chicken in the microwave can be a great option. Just throw a few pieces in a plastic container, cover while leaving room to vent steam, and microwave for 8-12 minutes.
#11 Producing Good Results - Avoid Packing Produce
This one probably goes without saying, but waiting to buy produce until you’ve landed can save a lot of headaches. Whole fruit can be brought on board or checked in luggage but the likelihood of it staying in tact through the trip is slim.
#12 Containing Your Excitement - Bring Extra Tupperware
Another simple tip, but something that can be easily forgotten, is to bring Tupperware containers for the food you buy and prep once you arrive. Whether it’s chicken, produce or other foods, it’s be nice to have some containers to keep it all in and not have to rush around to buy some during the trip. Plastic containers can easily be stacked together to fit into luggage.
Clear for Takeoff
None of this information is groundbreaking stuff, but a list like this would’ve been very helpful when I started flying for work. Hopefully these tips will prevent any mile-high mishaps from occurring and allow you to keep on rocking your diet no matter where you’re heading. Now…not even the sky is the limit!