10 Things You Didn’t Know About…Packing a Cooler
Sure, you can just toss your hamburger patties and potato salad into the cooler, throw in some ice and hope for the best. It’s summer after all! Who wants to spend time in the kitchen fretting over how best to pack the cooler when there’s so much relaxing to be done? The beach is calling! Let’s go camping! Who wants to head out for a picnic?
But you know who’s not relaxing this summer? The cooties. Yes, they’re real. We’re talking about the kind of bacteria and what not that can turn your long-awaited road trip into one speeding ticket after another as you race to the next rest stop. Face it, nothing spoils a vacation like a case of salmonella.
That’s what coolers are all about, of course — keeping your food chilled and safe to eat. (Well that, and keeping your beer cold. If you’ve ever spent eight hours driving to your favorite campground only to discover that the last site available is behind the pit toilets and that you forgot your tent stakes to boot, you’ll know how important it is to have recourse to cold beer.)
And really, you don’t need a PhD to pack a good cooler. About ten handy tips should do it. Download our How to Pack a Cooler packet.
Cold foods stay, well, colder longer — always pack your cooler with food or drinks that have already been chilled in your fridge for at least several hours.
A full cooler stays colder longer, too. Pack your food in layers as much as you can, filling in the empty spaces around containers with ice and reserving more ice for the top (cold air travels down). A “cool” trick? Freeze small water bottles then use them to fill tight spaces, which not only gives you the equivalent of vertical ice tubes, but you’ll eventually have ice-cold water as well.
Think about the order in which you’ll need to access whatever is in your cooler. Pack items you’ll want later toward the bottom and items you’ll want sooner toward the top.
Like your fridge, your cooler should stay below 40˚F if you’re hauling perishable food. If you’re going to be relying on your cooler for an extended amount of time (road trip, camping), it’s a good idea to toss in a fridge thermometer so you know how cold your cooler is.
Even at 40˚F, your cooler can’t re-chill food that’s been left out too long back to a safe temperature. A good rule of thumb during hot summer months: if it’s perishable and it’s been out of the cooler for an hour or more, toss it.
Partially burying yourself in the sand or beneath a layer of towels might not help you cool off at the beach, but it’ll help your cooler stay cold. (It should go without saying that you should keep your cooler out of direct sunlight, too — ice lasts up to twice as long in the shade.) For long road trips, wrapping your cooler with a blanket or sleeping bag will also help insulate it.
Block ice melts more slowly than ice cubes, which is good if you’ll be using your cooler overnight.
You want all foods to be in separate watertight containers. This minimizes the risk of cross-contamination … and the risk of waterlogged potato salad.
If you’re transporting uncooked meats or seafood, think about packing them in another cooler entirely (you can pack frozen meat — just make sure it has time to thaw depending on your destination). This, too, will minimize the risk of cross-contamination, and it’ll likely keep the meat colder longer (since no one will be tempted to open the cooler for, say, a can of soda).
Don’t drain melted ice water until you’re ready to pack in more ice. Ice water will keep food colder than empty air.
Are you in the know? From boiling an egg to cooking rice, check out all our “things you didn’t know” articles!