How to Keep Your Cooler Cool

Use these outdoor food preparation safety tips

Man carrying cool box

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When the weather heats up, we head outdoors in droves, enjoying picnics, cookouts, boating, hiking, and many other outdoor activities.

The great outdoors presents a number of food safety hazards, though, which are only magnified by the hotter temperatures. The most basic food safety challenge is keeping cold food cold. For short outings, using an insulated cooler or ice chest is a great way of doing just that.

Inexpensive and lightweight, foam chests do a good job of keeping food cold. The main drawback is that they break fairly easily and aren't likely to last very long—especially if you're roughing it.

Coolers made of plastic, fiberglass, or metal are sturdier and can take more of a beating, but they can definitely weigh you down, especially when they're full. There are a number of these types of coolers that are equipped with wheels, which makes transporting them less of a chore.

Cooling the Cooler

If you want to keep foods cold, you're going to need to start by getting the cooler cold, and keeping it cold. The best and cheapest way of doing this is with ice. And remember, block ice stays cold much longer than cubes of ice. If you can't obtain blocks of ice, try this:

  • Fill plastic bottles with water and freeze them to form blocks of ice. This technique can be superior to ordinary ice because when the ice melts, the water remains inside the bottle instead of melting all over the inside of your cooler.
  • Frozen gel packs are also a good, reusable alternative, but they're much more expensive when compared with the frozen bottle method.

Packing the Cooler

To ensure that your food stays cold as long as possible, keep it in the refrigerator until the very last minute before you leave home. Then, when you're ready to hit the road, pack food right from the refrigerator into the cooler.

Some guidelines for packing the cooler:

  • Practice "LIFO": LIFO stands for "last in, first out." In other words, the first foods packed should be the ones you expect to use last. That way you won't have to go digging through the cooler to find the items you want. The first foods you use will be right on top. That saves you from having to take items out of the cooler just so you can get at other items.
  • Pack it cold: Wherever possible, fill the cooler with foods that are already cold or frozen. That enables the cold from the frozen food to help chill the other items in the cooler.

Keep Your Cooler Closed

The best way to keep the cooler cool is keeping it closed as much as possible. One way to accomplish this is to use separate coolers: one for drinks and snacks and another for perishable items.

Also, keep the cooler out of the sun as much as possible; covering it with a blanket can provide further insulation. If you're at the beach, you can bury the cooler part-way in the sand and shade it with a beach umbrella.