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

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.
  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.)
  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!
  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.
  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.
  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.

Top 5 Camping Foods

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.
  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.
  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. :)
  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.
  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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121 thoughts on “Real Food Tips: How to Pack a Cooler (Safely)”

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  1. We just purchased a cooler that plugs into the car’s cigarette lighter. We don’t camp, but pack a cooler when we take long car trips. I’m looking forward to not having to continually replace melted ice.

  2. Curious about opinions on cooking in aluminum foil packets… I have heard that this is not a safe/ healthy choice?

    1. Amy Taylor (comment moderator)

      Hi there. Lisa does not use foil for cooking very often. There is research that has concluded that foil is safer for storage.

  3. I freeze our hamburgers, hotdogs and sausages in food saver bags, and then put those bags in ziploc as back up. I also pre-wash and prep lettuce, peppers and onions and put them in the vacuum seal bags. they lay nicely at the top of the ice chest and take up less space.

  4. I found zip lock bags or food save bags work the best. Freeze everything in them nights before departure….they aid in keeping each other frozen / cold.

  5. We freeze water bottles to use as ice. When it melts, we have water…and no mess in the bottom of the cooler. We also use plenty of containers / bags to separate foods.

  6. A dayear ahead of time you can put ice, that you have at home, in the cooler, and cool it down. Like you said a lot of people have their coolers in the garage or basement. After washing it, put lots of ice in it, jam pack it with ice, then on the day of departure from home, your cooler will already be cold. Put frozen cooked and raw meat in bottom of cooler, top with ice and then top with cooling racks, the kind you put baked goods on. On top of the cooling racks you can place your butter, and other things that are not water tight or the containers are questionable. Try to freeze as much as possible at home before putting in the cooler. As it will stay frozen longer.

  7. Hey Lisa – I linked to your page, hope it is ok – please take a look at my TailgaterBox when you have time – I think you would love it! Thanks for this article, great tips.

  8. I agree with the Lock nLock, I love mine and I not only use them for camping. I have them in my cabinets for storage of all of my gluten-free items that I want to keep separate. My hubby has always complained about pineapple juice leaking out of whatever container he puts the pineapple in, until I gave him a small LNL and now he’s hooked too. He uses them in his bike bags and trail packs because he knows that they are sturdy and he’s not going to have a mess. I bought a couple sets off Groupon a few years ago and I’m realizing that I should have bought more when I had the chance :) Have a Blessed weekend all- Hug a Vet and take a moment to remember those that gave it all for our freedom.

  9. That super cold water from melted ice is better than actual ice at keeping things cold. My husband scolds me if I dump it out – because I too hate everything wet, but he’s right. Everything stays much colder in that ice water,

  10. Holy Wow. There are a LOT of camping tips out there!
    My most tried and true method for packing coolers is super simple:
    Use One Gallon Sized WATER jugs. Toss them in your freezer and freeze them solid for a couple days, then pack them into the bottom of your cooler. Toss one of those nifty “ice mats” on top of all the food, and you are all set. This way, your food won’t get wet/soggy (you can avoid the cross contamination concerns this way as well), and once they do melt, you have fresh, cool, clean drinking water! A Note about this method: DO NOT USE OLD MILK JUGS. The textured nature of these types of jugs leaves small pockets in which particles can become trapped, thus harboring bacteria and making them unsafe for reuse. And no, it doesn’t matter if you clean them out well with bleach.
    As far as toting water for 5 for a weekend, I strongly recommend getting a 5 gallon collapsible water container. It’s plastic, BPA free, doesn’t take up a TON of space and likely won’t shatter if it falls off of a table ;).