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What Groceries You Can—And Should—Take Home from Traveling

Stacey Ballis

If you are like me, one of the best parts about travel is learning about new foods. I love to explore other cultures through their markets and restaurants and grocery stores. If I have one day in a foreign city, you can bet that I will hit a grocery store before a museum.

I am always coming home with my suitcase full of foodie souvenirs. This is instinctive to me, but I have had many friends ask me how I do it, which is when I realized that some of the things you can (and should!) bring back from your travels are not necessarily intuitive. So, I thought I would give you some of my tips and tricks for traveling with food and ensure that your next return home is with culinary treasure.

It Depends On How You're Traveling

Before you start buying edible souvenirs, let’s take a closer look at your mode of transportation and limitations. If you are driving, you don’t really need me to tell you what to bring back, just load a cooler in your trunk for any perishables and bring back everything that suits your fancy. Train travel is equally limited only by your ability to schlep.

Make Sure It's TSA-Approved

But planes are the usual way we are getting from place to place, and you are either checking luggage or not. If not, then anything you are carrying on has to fit the rules, especially about liquids etc. So keep away from oils, vinegars, honeys, jams and the like, and keep anything you can at three ounces or fewer. But do your bag with spices, dried goods like pastas or beans or grains, and excellent packaged snack foods, not to mention confectionary and chocolates.

Avoid Fruits, But Go Wild With Cheese

All fresh fruits, vegetables, and meats are a no-no. But did you know that vacuum-sealed cured meats and cheeses are okay? Yep. And which is better, in Europe, pretty much any cheesemonger or charcuterie store has the equipment to seal them up safely. These items are also safe at rational room temp (74 degrees or lower) for up to a week, so they will safely make it from your hotel fridge to the airport and back to your home if your total travel time is less than 24 hours.

If You Check a Bag, You Can Bring Wine

For checked luggage you are pretty much only limited by weight restrictions. For most international flights this is two bags of 50 pounds each in economy, 70 pounds each in business or first. (I will often try and upgrade my return flight with miles to business class for the extra 40 pounds. Not kidding.). Regardless, you want your treasures home safe and your clothes unsullied, so I recommend both Wineskins and Jetbags. Wineskins are thick plastic padded sacs designed to safely transport wine in your checked luggage. The one-use bags seal with serious adhesive, so in the rare case of breakage, they contain the liquid, but I have never had one break. They are good for wine, liquor, olive oil, vinegar, and any other bottle of yummy you find on your travels. Jetbags are reusable long ziptop bags lined with essentially diaper material. They are designed to both pad against breakage, and to absorb any spillage that might occur. They are great for jars of mustard, pickles, jam, honey, etc. I also travel with a stash of regular ziptop bags to use for spices or other items I would not want loose in my suitcase.

Think About What You Can Get Locally

So how to choose what comes home? For me, this is all about either access or cost. If I can get the same thing at home, thank you online shopping, for not an egregious amount more than when I travel? I wait and buy it at home. If it is totally unavailable at home, or is half the cost, then I add it to my travel stash. Spices that are specific to the local cuisine are always lovely. Condiments that you fall in love with, and local ingredients that you don’t think you can source at home are all good choices. Things that come in attractive reusable packaging don’t hurt, I have all sorts of cans and bottles and jars around my house that serve as everything from tasting spoon holders to bud vases that are just interesting shapes or have cool graphics and used to hold food.

Watch: Food and Beverage Hacks for Airplane Travel

I love to bring home the kinds of things that lend themselves to inclusion on a casual gathering with friends, small snacks, interesting cheeses, good charcuterie. Some recent fab finds were duck skin cracklings in London and one inch long dried sausages in Paris, both perfect for porch rosé with pals. Some really interesting British vodka made from milk and a olive oil pressed with Sicilian grapefruit, and dried candied hibiscus flowers also made the cut.

Eat Your Goodies!

The last rule of traveling with foodstuffs? Make it your business to eat or use within two months of your return, unless you are saving something for a specific holiday or special occasion. There is no worse feeling in the world than throwing away expired treasures. We will not speak of the terrible canned foie gras disaster of 2015. You are not attempting to create a museum of food in your pantry, and the Queen is not going to arrive unexpectedly. Eat the delicious stuff, use it up, and make plans to go back to get more.