10 Tips for Packaging and Transporting a Thanksgiving Feast

Here’s how to hit the road with your holiday feast.
Careful planning and packing can go a long way.
Careful planning and packing can go a long way. / GMVozd/E+/Getty Images

A lot of people hit the road on Thanksgiving, whether they’re driving across town or making an hours-long trip to see friends and family. Traveling can be even more stressful if you’re commuting with a feast in tow. To prevent spilled dishes and spoiled perishables from ruining the meal, check out these tips for safely packing and transporting food to Thanksgiving dinner.

1. Use Rubber or Silicone Lids

If you don’t already have rubber lids, consider investing in some. These can be a complete game-changer for those who need to transport sloppy food like soup or mashed potatoes. Pyrex dishes typically come with a silicone topper, which is said to be indestructible and moisture-tight. This will let you easily seal casseroles and other goodies for the duration of your ride.

If you don’t have a rubber or silicone lid, you can also secure your dish by placing foil or plastic on top of it, then wrapping rubber bands around the whole dish. This is less secure than a reliable lid, but it should help to minimize spills. 

2. Use Individual Containers or Muffin Tins for Finger Food

stack of muffin tins and cupcake liners
Muffin tins are good for more than just muffins! / Iain Bagwell/Photodisc/Getty Images

If you’re in charge of Thanksgiving appetizers and have a bunch of tiny finger foods you need to transport, plastic storage containers or other common baking dishes will be helpful. Food-safe storage bins can easily contain snacks and treats that aren’t particularly fragile. If you need to separate snacks, you can use a muffin tin (this will also provide them with a little bit of extra protection). If you end up using a muffin tin, you’ll just place your treats in each pocket and cover the whole dish with tin foil and rubber bands. 

3. Bring a Box

Boxes can provide extra support and protection during transportation. You can pack other containers within a box, and surround them with towels to keep them from sliding around. (You could also use a shallow laundry basket to the same effect.) Because desserts are typically more delicate than other foods, a boxed setup is ideal for these tasty treats. And if you’re extra worried about keeping your dish intact, you can always get a custom carrier that’s built to encase and protect your desert.

4. Use a Zippered Carrier

An insulated zippered carrier is a great item to have on hand. In addition to helping stabilize the temperature of your food, it will also help keep everything contained—so if a spill takes place, it won’t get all over your car. These carriers also help keep containers of food from sliding around. 

5. Store Ingredients Separately During Transit

If you have time to prepare some dishes at the place you’re heading to, consider packing ingredients in separate containers. This will help prevent crunchy toppings from getting soft or mixing into the dishes they’re meant to garnish. For something like a salad, this is a great way to keep lettuce from getting soggy. You can wash, chop, and package each ingredient in a bag or container, making sure to also pack any dressings or herbs as well. Then toss everything together after you’ve arrived.

While it’s possible to safely transport a cake or other dessert that’s fully assembled, you’re less likely to damage those fragile or softer pieces if you store them separately and carefully put them on your dish once at your destination. Simply pack your frostings, ganaches, and whipped toppings separately, then decorate your sweets at the site of the feast.

6. Freeze Delicate Food

woman serving herself a slice of pumpkin pie
Make sure it’s fully thawed before you serve it. / Grace Cary/Moment/Getty Images

Another great transportation hack is to freeze the food prior to your departure. That way, your pumpkin pie won’t melt in the car and the frosting on your cupcakes will have a better shot at staying solid. 

7. Use a Cooler If You’re Traveling a Long Ways

If you expect to be driving for two hours or more with perishables, you need to bring a cooler. According to the USDA, leaving perishable food in a temperate environment for more than two hours increases the likelihood that potentially harmful bacteria will multiply. Keeping your food cool during your travels can reduce this risk. To save on the cost of ice, freeze a few water bottles the day before your trip, then use those to chill your food when it’s time to go. 

8. Use Bungee Cords or Tape to Keep Your Lids On

If you’re traveling with a crock pot or a similar vessel, consider fixing the lid in place with a bungee cord or some heavy duty tape. This can help contain your food even during bumpy stretches of road. 

9. Line Your Trunk with a Yoga Mat 

Lining your trunk with a yoga mat will help keep your food from sliding around during any sharp turns or sudden stops. If you don’t have one handy, look around the house for something else with a grippy, non-slip surface.

10. Don’t Partially Cook Your Turkey

Frozen Thanksgiving turkeys
A poorly cooked bird is dangerous. / Justin Sullivan/GettyImages

If you’re in charge of providing the turkey, you need to make sure you’re transporting it correctly. Don’t plan to start cooking the bird at home and finish at your destination: This isn’t a sufficient way to kill off the bacteria that can cause food-borne illnesses [PDF]. It’s best to cook the meat at the place where you’ll be eating. To transport a frozen turkey, pack it in an insulated cooler and store it in the coldest part of your car.

A version of this story originally ran in 2022; it has been updated for 2023.