Packing a cooler is easy, right? Toss your food and drinks in, put the heavy stuff on the bottom, throw in some ice, and you’re all set for a day out! Actually, there are some food safety tips you should keep in mind when you’re packing that cooler up for the day. The good news is, it’s still pretty easy!
Coolers need ice to stay cool. Okay, so that was pretty basic. But there are a few different types of ice you can choose from!
- Crushed ice helps to get things cold fast. But it also melts quickly, so it’s not the best choice for keeping your food and drinks cool for a long time.
- Ice cubes are a good alternative to crushed ice. But they also melt a little on the fast side, so save these options for shorter trips. The nice thing about crushed ice and ice cubes is that they can fill in small spaces between your items and help them stay cold.
- Ice packs can stay cold for a very long time. These can be a good option for longer trips.
- Ice blocks are great. They stay cold for a very long time. But it is sometimes hard to find a “block of ice.” Make your own – the day before your trip, fill some water bottles or clean milk jugs with water (just be sure to leave some space for the water to expand). Freeze them, and you’ve got homemade ice blocks, that will double as drinking water later in your trip!
It’s best to keep one cooler for your drinks and a separate cooler for your food. (If you have a long trip planned, bring along a third cooler to store extra ice. You’ll need it to refill your drink and food coolers!) Drink coolers tend to get opened a lot more than food coolers. Every time you open a cooler, the cold air rushes out. The longer a cooler is kept shut, the longer the things inside will stay cold.
- Chill your drinks before putting them into the cooler. This will help them to stay colder longer. You don’t want to “use up” your ice just to get that bottle of water cold!
- Place the drinks in the bottom of the cooler, then put your ice on top. Ice cubes or crushed ice will fill in the spaces between your drinks. Ice packs or ice blocks can sit next to or on top of your drinks. Remember, cold air travels down, so keep your cold sources on top of the things you want to keep cold!
So we’ve got a separate cooler for food. Perfect! Now how do we pack this one?
- Pack foods roughly in the order you’re planning to eat them. Heading off for a 3-day weekend? Keep the food you’ll eat on day 3 at the bottom of the cooler, and the food you’ll eat on day 1 at the top. This means you’ll be digging around in your cooler – and letting the cold air out – a lot less.
- One exception to that rule is to pack raw meat, poultry, or seafood at the bottom of your cooler. These foods could leak, which could contaminate your cooler. If they are at the bottom of the cooler, they are less likely to drip and contaminate the rest of the food in the cooler. So get your marinades all set, pack the meat in leak-proof containers, and load them into the bottom of your cooler!
- Chill food before packing it into your cooler. Just like with the drinks, you don’t want to “waste” your ice to cool down the food that you could have chilled in the refrigerator.
- Pack your food in leak proof plastic (or glass) containers, or use waterproof zip-top plastic bags. This will keep any food from leaking out of your containers, or from melted cooler water from leaking into your food.
- Pack the ice on top of the food.
Keep Your Cooler Cold
Lots of ice is key to keeping your cooler cold (like we talked about in the “ice” section above). So is keeping the lid shut as much as possible (like we talked about in the “beverage cooler” section). But what else can we do to keep the cooler cold?
- Don’t start with a hot cooler. Many people store their coolers in the attic or the garage. It can get hot in those places! Bring your cooler into the kitchen the day before you plan to use it. Let it “cool down” to room temperature, and give it a good wash before you pack it.
- Keep your cooler full. A full cooler will hold its temperature longer than a partially-empty cooler. If your cooler isn’t quite full at the beginning of your trip, top it off with some extra ice.
- Keep the cooler in a cool space. Instead of hauling the cooler in your trunk, keep it inside your car (if you have the space). When you’re outside, keep the cooler in the shade instead of in the hot sun. At the beach? Bury the bottom of the cooler in the sand and shade it with an umbrella.
- Insulate the cooler. This might sound silly – more insulation on the thing that’s already insulated. But keeping a blanket, towel, or tarp on top of your cooler can help to trap more cold air inside.
- Don’t drain the cold water. If you’re using loose ice, you’ll eventually end up with water in your cooler. Well guess what? That water is ice cold! It will help keep your cooler cold, so leave it in there! When you’re ready to add more ice, it’s time to drain any water.
- Monitor the temperature. You have an appliance thermometer in your refrigerator, right? Toss it in your cooler for the weekend! Your cooler should stay at or below 40 degrees Fahrenheit.
None of that was very hard, was it? It just takes a little extra thought (and maybe one extra cooler). But it’s worth it if it can keep your family safe from food borne illness! No one wants to go on vacation and come home with food poisoning! Check out other food safety tips from me here on Real Farmwives, or over on AgriCultured. For more information on food safety in a cooler, read these posts from FoodSafety.gov and HomeFoodSafety.org.
Have a great cooler season!