Real Food Tips: How to Pack a Cooler (Safely)

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After years and years of weekend camping trips I honestly can’t believe I am just now figuring out there is a proper way to pack a cooler to ensure food safety (and avoid food poisoning). So today I want to share these newfound, valuable tips because, when the precautions are so easy, why not be safe instead of sorry? Surely I’m not the only one that has been living in the dark on this topic.

It all started on our camping trip this past weekend when I opened our cooler to find that ice had melted and leaked (potentially contaminated cooler water) into the container holding our caprese pasta salad. That salad took me a long time to make from scratch…and I wanted to eat it! Melted ice has leaked into containers on us before, but it only seemed to happen with a few questionable leftovers that were still in the cooler after returning home – not a brand new dish we hadn’t even eaten yet! So I turned to my facebook community for some important advice – eat it or toss it? And after sifting through more than 1K responses to this question, and using my brain a little, I realized we need to make some serious, yet simple, changes before ever packing up the cooler with a weekend’s worth of food again! And just for the record – we tossed the [what would have been delicious] pasta salad so we learned our lesson for sure.

How To Pack A Cooler

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Cooler Packing Tips

  1. Start With A Good Quality Hard Cooler.
    High quality, thick-sided, hard coolers are better at insulating and keeping your food cold than the soft-sided alternative. So when it comes to packing perishables for an extended period of time (or when it’s extra hot outside) skip the light-weight insulated bags and go for something sturdier instead. For example, my daughters’ school lunches are fine in an insulated bag with several ice packs sitting in the air conditioned school building until lunchtime, but when I recently sent my 6-year-old to an outdoor camp in the middle of our hot Carolina summer they recommended a personal-sized hard cooler to ensure the food stayed cool enough in the heat.
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  2. Wash Your Cooler Before Packing It.
    I am sure we’ve washed our coolers at some point in their decade+ lifetime, but, admittedly, not that much. And like most people we store our coolers in our garage, which is steaming hot in the summer and therefore a breeding ground for bacteria. So rather than taking any chances, it’s always best to start your trip off with a cooler that has been given a nice little bath with some warm, soapy water. (I would also recommend washing it after you get home from a trip as well – especially if you were transporting raw meat.)
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  3. Pack Raw Meat [And Beverages] Separately.
    After the first facebook commenter shared the advice to pack raw meat in a separate, smaller cooler my first thought was – duh. So if our big cooler with the pasta salad would have been clean AND was not sharing space with any raw meat (which – for the record – it was) then that cooler water wouldn’t have been so terribly frightening after all, although I am still not sure if I would have eaten it. :) Also, if you are able to pack beverages in another separate cooler this will reduce the frequency of opening the food cooler, therefore keeping it…cooler!
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  4. Store Food In Leak-Proof Containers.
    If you still don’t like the possibility of cooler water seeping into your food (like me) you can always just pack your food in containers that won’t take on water no matter what. Taking this precaution will relieve me of my constant (self-imposed) duty to ask my husband if he’s drained the melted ice out of the bottom of the cooler before adding new ice. So for that reason alone – I am sold. After doing a decent amount of research (including testing some other supposedly “leak proof” containers that weren’t) I just purchased some leak-proof “Lock & Lock” containers from Amazon and can’t wait to try them out on our next trip. Also, don’t forget that if canning jars are sealed tightly they are leak-proof as well so depending on what you need to pack (and how you feel about bringing glass) those would be another great storage option. Have you found a good, reliable leak-proof food storage container for your camping foods? I’d love to hear what brand containers you have tried in the comments.
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  5. Don’t Pack Room Temperature (or Warm) Items.
    When packing items like bottled water or freshly made – and still warm – slow cooker baked beans make sure everything is cold (or in the case of raw meat, it could even be frozen) before adding it to the cooler. Room temperature or warm items will only make the ice in the cooler melt faster.
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  6. Monitor The Cooler Temp With A Thermometer.
    A recommendation on the government’s food safety website states, “an appliance thermometer takes the guesswork out of knowing your food is safe to eat. So put one in your cooler, and make sure it reads 40 °F or below.” So if you really want to be certain you aren’t screwing anything up this would be something to consider.

So the moral of the story is this - it’s better to be safe than sorry. And funny enough, I was really sick on a camping trip once and now I will forever wonder if it was due to some food mishandling in the cooler! Never again now that we are going to change our ways. But before I let you go I thought this would be a good time to share my current top 5 favorite foods to bring with us camping…while it’s on my mind and all.
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Top 5 Camping Foods

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My Top 5 Favorite Foods To Pack In The Cooler for Camping

  1. Grill Packets.
    Spend time preparing these meat and veggie packets in advance for a super easy dinner. Plus these tasty packets have the added bonus of being able to cook right in the campfire (preferably on prepared charcoal) if your campground doesn’t come equipped with a grill.
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  2. Appetizer Trays.
    I love to repurpose our divided, BPA-free, leak-proof lunch containers (by Ziploc) as little camping “snack trays” as well! The possibilities are endless including fresh sliced veggies, dips like hummus or homemade ranch, whole-grain pretzels, roasted nuts, diced cheese cubes, grapes or apple slices, and olives. Once you go through all the effort of setting up camp you’ll appreciate this ready-to-go snack before having to start the fire or grill for dinner.
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  3. Scrambled Eggs and Organic Bacon.
    The trick here is to break open and scramble (and season) the eggs in the advance so they’ll go right from a (leak-proof) tupperware container to the pan with no mess. We also have a little camping tradition of cooking the bacon first so we can scramble the eggs in the bacon grease for added flavor. We now call these “camping eggs” and look forward it. Trust me, you won’t want to be stuck with boring bowls of cereal when you suddenly smell your campsite neighbor frying up bacon and eggs. :)
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  4. Slow Cooker Baked Beans.
    Few things “taste” like camping more than homemade baked beans. Make these in advance and heat them up on your camp stove for a delicious addition to your lunch or dinner.
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  5. Burgers and Dogs.
    What is a camping trip without traditional fare of grass-fed hamburgers and organic hot dogs (with whole-wheat buns and organic ketchup of course!)? Just because you are avoiding highly processed food doesn’t mean you have to miss out on any of the fun. :) We like to “prepare” our burger patties in advance so we can mix in seasonings, diced onion, and sometimes grated cheddar cheese – yum. Or you can always just melt some homemade pimento cheese on top while they are cooking. No matter what you can’t go wrong with this option!

We’d love to hear your cooler stories and favorite camping foods in the comments below…please share.

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100 comments to Real Food Tips: How to Pack a Cooler (Safely)

  • Meagan

    How long do pre-scrambled eggs stay good before you need to cook them up? It sounds like a great way to save time and mess at the campsite!

  • Angie

    I just started reading some of your blog posts, so forgive me if someone has given you this idea before. When we pack a cooler, instead of ice, we use old OJ containers or two liter bottles filled with water that have been frozen in our deep freezer. They stay frozen a long time vs. regular ice. When we return home, I wash them off and stick them back in the deep freeze for another time.

  • Judy

    We are serious BEACH campers. we use the 2 liter bottles with frozen water, on the bottom of the ice chest, at the end of the trip, we use the melted fresh water to rinse with before we leave. All meat, is packed in vacuum sealed bags. we only use the LOCK & LOCK containers for everything else. We also have a separate chest for drinks “ONLY” because it is opened a lot more than the food chest. We also freeze all of our bottled water before hand, which also helps. We also save those brown paper bags from the grocery store, (the ones you get to keep you cold stuff cold till you get home) we lay these out flat across the top of our food and drinks for extra insulation, they really do help!

  • Melanie

    I always buy dry ice for camping. Put 2 large chunks in the bottom of the cooler & lay an old towel on top. Then put a bag of ice on top of that. My milk stays so cold it is almost icy!

  • t mite

    use half gallon milk jugs frozen nothing leaking and can use water later after it melts’

  • Kari

    Do you know where the lock and lock containers are made? I can’t seem to find the info but they do sound great. I am having a hard time finding containers made in the USA.

  • […] How to Pack a Cooler by 100 Days of Real Food […]

  • Dawn Hiser

    I have always been camping since I was about 3 years old. The most handy and safest way to guard your food from contamination either from dirty ice water or other sources. I vacuum seal everything!! I got a car adaptor for our trips and it has become the best thing I have ever taken camping. It is the type that has 2 electrical sockets and plug-ins for cell phones, tablets and so on. I started vacuum sealing everything that goes in the ice chests, freezing whatever I could. The only bad thing about doing that was you had to open the package at some point, making it hard to keep safe. One day while packing for our trip it hit me, why not take the sealer with us. It is small enough to not be a hassel and then we could reseal any packages we needed to. It turned out to be fantastic!!! Not only did everything stay fresh and dry, but it also made every part of cleaning up and keeping things organized a breeze. The rest of the family and friends even used it for sealing up fish bait, electronics that they were taking in the boats and many more things. It even helped to keep the bugs out of our camp. I found out that if you use the vacuum bags to freeze water for your ice chests, the bags are thicker and the ice lasts longer with no air inside. It has been such a better experience camping that I will never go camping again without taking a vacuum sealer.

  • Hi! We are going on our first camping trip this weekend and I was wondering how long the grill packets will keep before you cook them.

    • Amy Taylor (comment moderator)

      Hi Sarah. Sorry, we can rarely answer questions in real time. How was your trip? The packets are fine for a weekend trip as long as they are kept cold. ~Amy

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