Friday, October 30, 2009

The Pink Cooler

Recently, I've been doing a fair amount of traveling, and every time I go through security with my pink cooler, I get questions from the TSA workers, and am often told they need to do a search of the cooler. I don't mind, because I've learned how to pack my food according to FAA regulations.

FAA regulations around bringing food on airplanes? Well, not quite. What I'm referring to are the carry-on regulations for liquids and gels. Bottles of 2 oz or smaller of liquids or gels are allowed; however, anything larger than that instantly becomes the property of TSA. Which means if, for some reason, you forgot to move your can of Spike energy drink from your cooler into your suitcase, the TSA will become the proud owner of said can of Spike (I hope the Miami TSA workers enjoyed it!).

Did you know that peanut butter is considered a liquid? Yep. Found that one out first-hand at the Bozeman, MT airport on my way to the NPC California State show. Two weeks earlier, I had flown to San Francisco to compete at the Contra Costa show (where I subsequently won the overall and took home a full-size sword. Getting that home is another story for another day), and didn't have any problems with the small Tupperwares of peanut butter in my cooler. The TSA worker I ran into on my way to LA was not about to let me transport the very dangerous, very liquidy peanut butter to California, though. She informed me that since it was a liquid, I needed to either go check it or throw it away. The offending peanut butter was an $8 jar of salt-free natural Maranatha peanut butter. It was neither cheap nor easy to find. I knew I wouldn't have a car in LA, so I was concerned about trying to find my way to a store that actually carried natural, salt-free peanut butter. As I scraped the Tupperwares clean and handed the jar over to the TSA worker, I nastily informed her (through the tears streaming down my face) that she better enjoy that jar of PB, since it's difficult to find and very expensive. She pretended like she actually cared (didn't do a very good job, though), and then asked to see the plastic silverware set I had in the top of the cooler. She very nearly took my plastic knife away, despite more tear-filled pleas. She finally relented and let me through security.

Lessons learned:
  1. Check PB in suitcase, or prepare to find a store at your destination.
  2. Always smile and be polite to TSA workers.
  3. TSA workers are oblivious to tears and hysterics.
 I now travel sans PB, and every time that TSA worker sees me, she smiles and asks if I have any PB. Apparently she either remembers me as The Girl with the Pink Cooler or The Girl who Freaked Out and Cried over Peanut Butter. Regardless, I'm now memorable to the Bozeman TSA workers.

So if my pink cooler doesn't contain PB, what does it contain? Simply put, all the foods I need for the entire trip, including travel back home. I cook all my food in advance of my travel, weigh everything, and package it for each day. Ziploc baggies are easier to pack than bulky Tupperware, so I put everything in either tin foil or baggies, and then put each day's food in one gallon-size baggie. I write the day on each bag, and the time on some of the smaller items so I eat them at the correct time (ie I may have different amounts of oatmeal, so I write AM and PM on the different baggies).

My cooler always contains one plastic spoon, knife, and fork, 2 plastic plates, a plastic cup (for protein shakes), a handful of napkins, and extra baggies in all sizes. I always make sure I have at least 2 gallon-size baggies for ice, because water from the ice melting will leak out of the bag and get everything in the cooler wet if I don't put the first baggie in another baggie.

But wait ... if TSA security doesn't allow liquids or gels, how do I keep my food cold? Since TSA took possession of my (really nice!) gel ice packs several years ago, I learned some airport secrets.
  1. Pack food as the last thing before leaving the house. This doesn't mean I don't have it ready (it's all prepared the night before travel); it means I pack it in my cooler the minute before I walk out the door.
  2. Always smile and be polite to TSA workers (see #2 Lessons Learned).
  3. Buy bottles of cold water after going through security to keep food cool on a short flight.
  4. Get ice at bars. Bartenders are most agreeable and don't give me the odd looks the McDonald's workers give me when I ask for ice.
Once I get to my hotel, the first thing I do is put the food in the mini-fridge. If there isn't a mini-fridge available (I always ask for one when I book the room), I change the ice in the cooler. Yes, it IS possible to keep food cold in a cooler for up to 4 days. Just change the ice twice a day and the food stays cold. I also locate a microwave (again, I request one when I book the room). ALL hotels have microwaves. I've actually walked into a hotel kitchen and asked a worker to please heat up my hamburger at 5 am. (He gave me a funny look, but I smiled and thanked him a lot). I've also heated up my food in the employee lounge at one hotel because that was the only microwave in the building.

So as I'm getting ready to travel in a couple days, I need to make sure I get to the grocery store and get everything I need. I can also pick up a couple things when I get there. Hope these tips help!

Happy Travels! :)


  1. many times i get strange looks about mrps i havein my carry timethey thrrew away my 13.oo hair gel but let my travel companion on with police issue mace....and a small box cutter. apparently my gel was more detrimental to national security. makes you wonder doesnt it? all i have to say is its all a joke there are many ways to get weapons ect onto planes. but thats scary.
    great job planning ahead!!!


  2. I had a similar experience with my jar of peanut butter----and I made such a fuss that they put it through a bomb detection device and on I went!
    I plead "medical emergency!"