Traveling With Food – Packing The Cooler

Whether you’re just going on a road trip with a couple of friends or a weeklong camping trip with the family, keeping your food “refrigerated” and drinks chilled is one of the most important parts of any trip.

By Jimmy Kennedy
Cook Ambassador

Whether you’re just going on a road trip with a couple of friends or a weeklong camping trip with the family, keeping your food “refrigerated” and drinks chilled is one of the most important parts of any trip. An organized cooler that is smartly packed will make for a much more enjoyable trip in many ways.

First of all, it’s a good idea to get yourself a good Roto-Molded cooler. These coolers, Yeti, Grizzly, Engel and others, are more expensive but are built to last a lifetime, keep ice frozen for a week or more and are as tough as nails. Most of them also offer a lifetime warranty. I was hesitant at first to purchase one of these new and improved models, but more than a little happy that I pulled the trigger. I have a couple now, and I use them for camping as well as catering and feel I have actually saved money by not having to buy as much ice. They have also saved me time and peace of mind, whether I’m using them for camping or for business.

It’s important to keep food safe by being held at the appropriate temperature. You can always tolerate warm drinks if you have to, but eating food that hasn’t been held safely is a whole other ball game. It’s recommended that foods be held at 40 degrees or lower and this can easily be done with a little preplanning and good packing.

To get started, make sure you’re starting with a clean cooler. A day or two before your trip give the cooler a good cleaning, inside and out, by rinsing it out with a garden hose or sprayer, then clean with soap and warm water, then finish up with a gentle bleach solution. Leave the cooler open to air-dry, and you should be good to go for several trips. The day before or morning of your trip make sure you “temper” the cooler before you load it. In food terms, tempering just means bringing two liquids close to the same temperature before you combine them. Such as when adding stock to a roux or milk to a cheese sauce, this applies to packing a cooler as well. If you start with a chilled cooler, your food and drinks will stay much colder much longer. The best way to do this is to just simply put a bag or two of ice in the cooler, shut the lid and let the ice do the work. You may be able to reuse some of the ice but it’s well worth the sacrifice even if it melts and you’re not able to use it.

Before you go, mealprep as much as possible. Cutting vegetables ahead of time is a great example. Photo

If you have the time, it’s a good idea to plan out the menu, especially for a multiday trip. This will help with shopping, preparing and packing the cooler. Once you have your menu and have done your shopping, spend a few hours the day before your trip prepping as much of the food as possible. I like to get rid of all the store-bought packaging, which has a tendency to get wet and just make a mess. Prep the meals as far ahead as you can; cut the vegetables, portion meat and repackage everything according to a meal plan. I like to use reusable, sealable plastic bags and/or Tupperware type containers with locking tops. Refrigerate all of the food and drinks you plan on packing overnight if possible. Packing already cold food in a chilled cooler goes a long way. If it’s a long trip, you can also freeze some of the food you’re planning to use late in the trip and pack near the bottom of the cooler.

Layer the bottom of the cool with frozen ice packs or frozen food.

Wait to pack the cooler until it’s time to leave for your trip. If you have the room, it makes a lot of sense to have one cooler designated for food and one for drinks. If not, that’s fine too, just keep drinks to one side and on top. To get started on the actual packing of the cooler, it’s best to layer the bottom of the cooler with frozen ice packs, frozen bottles of water or frozen food. Cold air falls but having freezer blocks on the bottom will retain a colder temperature for much longer than just ice. Pack any food you have frozen first along with any frozen water bottles if you used them.

If you don’t have a separate cooler keep the drinks on one side and food on the other.

A standard term used in restaurants, as well as other businesses, is the FIFO (first in, first out) method of storing food or controlling inventory. With packing a cooler, it’s the opposite, FILO: first in, last out. Simply put, pack the meals you plan on using last first and work your way with the packing until you have what you plan on using first conveniently packed on top. This will help your food stay organized and much cooler since you won’t have to dig around in the cooler looking for something.

It’s best to remove vegetables from the packaging and put them in storage containers.

When the cooler is packed, use loose ice to finish the job. The ice will stay frozen much longer if not exposed to air, so make sure you get every nook and cranny of the cooler completely covered with the loose ice. If you have a large, heavy cooler, this can be done once it’s already loaded.

Use loose ice once the cooler is packed, making sure all the space is filled to help the ice to stay frozen.

Once you are at the campsite or wherever your trip destination may be, place the cooler in a shaded area or a place where it will not receive direct sunlight. Now it’s time to think of your cooler as your home away from home refrigerator and start enjoying your trip with some cold drinks and memorable meals.

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