How to Pack a Cooler with Your Favorite Dairy Foods
There is something magical about eating outdoors. Whether at the beach, the park, or your own backyard, packing a picnic to share with friends is a rather fun endeavor. Nothing ruins the party quite like soggy, water-logged food, though. That’s why it’s important to learn a few easy cooler hacks to guarantee your favorite foods always arrive in their most delectable and safe form – no matter where you take them.
To pack a cooler with a delicious, healthy and safe meal in mind, here are a few guiding principles to ensure your food is just as good as the experience itself.
Step 1: The Cooler. Before packing anything, you want to make sure you have the right cooler for the job. The thicker the walls, the better insulated your cooler will be, meaning it will do a better job keeping foods cooler longer. The lid should also be well-insulated.
Once you’ve selected your cooler, make sure it is clean before adding anything to it. Scrub with hot, soapy water to ensure a safe start.
Step 2: Plan Your Menu. Although this may seem like an unnecessary step, it can help streamline the process of packing. Not only that, but it’s a surefire way to make every meal matter, even those eaten away from home. When planning, be sure to keep nutrient-rich foods in mind and have a good mix of fruits, vegetables, dairy foods, whole grains, and lean proteins added in. A plan can also help you pack your foods in order of use. This will reduce the amount of times the cooler is open, keeping the cold air inside longer.
Worried about leftovers? Planning just the right amount of perishable foods to take can also help ensure you don’t have to worry about whether or not foods will arrive safely back home. After estimating the amount of food to be kept cold, pack an insulated cooler with sufficient ice to keep food at 40°F or below to prevent bacterial growth.
Pro tip: Pack perishable foods right from the refrigerator or freezer into the cooler to further maximize their longevity.
Step 3: Milk and Other Beverages. After adding a thin layer of ice on the bottom, pack beverages first, especially if they are perishable beverages like milk. This will keep them cool and refreshing.
Pro tip: Consider packing two separate coolers, one for drinks and another for food. This way, if you are reaching for more than one bottle of milk, you will minimize the amount of time the food cooler is opened, letting out some of that cold air.
Step 4: Meats and Poultry. Cooking meat on the grill? Chilled or frozen meat should also be packed in the bottom of the cooler, preferably in an air-tight container to avoid cross-contamination from any meat juices. I recommend packing each item you bring in an air-tight or water-tight container to further minimize cross-contamination and prevent contact with melting ice water.
Pro tip: Meat and poultry may be packed while still frozen so it stays colder longer.
Step 5: Fruits and Vegetables. After beverages and meats are packed, fruits and vegetables should come next, after an additional layer of ice. These foods should also be packed individually in air-tight containers. Not only will this prevent food from becoming water-logged, it will also provide an extra layer of protection from cross-contamination. Before packing your fruits and vegetables, it is also important to run them under tap water and then dry before packing in the cooler.
Using individual containers can also help you reign in portion sizes, ensuring proper portions of your favorite foods are enjoyed but not overeaten. It’s a fine line, I know!
Step 6: Extra Snacks! Packing a cooler often means you are headed to the park or beach for an extended length of time, and you may want to pack more than just a meal. Snacks should go on top for easy access. Consider cheese and individual yogurt containers in addition to the fruits and vegetables you packed. Pair these up with your favorite whole grain crackers or nuts and it’s almost like a portable cheese board, perfect for any occasion no matter where you are.
Pro tip: With the exception of cottage cheese, most cheeses taste best when served at room temperature. This means you may want to remove cheese from the cooler a few minutes before serving. And yes, a cheese board is an awesome way to kick off a summertime picnic.
Step 7: Layers and Layers of Ice. To seal in the coolness, be sure to add a layer between each layer of food. You will also want to add a layer to the top of the cooler, ensuring there are no open gaps for warm air to get to. A full cooler will maintain its cold temperature longer than a partially filled one. If your cooler isn’t all the way full, pack the remaining space with more ice.
Step 8: Keep it Closed. Try opening your cooler as little as possible. This way, all the cool air stays in and your food stays chilled until it’s time to eat.
When transporting the cooler to the park or beach, put it inside the air-conditioned car, not inside a hot trunk. At the picnic, keep the cooler in the shade for further insulation. Be sure to return chilled foods to the cooler right after serving and replenish the ice if it melts. Leftover perishable food is safe only if the cooler still has ice in it.
No matter where you choose to eat this summer, packing your cooler for success will ensure your meal is delicious, healthy, and safe.
Want more tips on how to keep dairy foods safe and ready to eat? Here’s what you need to know.