When the weather gets warmer it's a sign to start spending less time inside and more time outside. It’s the time of year when we start preparing our favorite summer snacks and meals that only feel right in warm weather. The biggest bummer one can experience while enjoying gorgeous weather is reaching into a meticulously packed cooler only to find melted ice and spoiled food. It's important to pack a cooler the right way as food can easily be contaminated by bacteria. Food that is meant to be cold but ends up warming from the hot temperatures outside can lead to foodborne illness. Bacteria will grow at a rapid rate between 40°F and 140°F, known in food safety as the "danger zone." If the outside temperature reaches 90°F, items can reach that danger zone much quicker if not properly packed.2 Portable coolers are a great way to ensure you stay hydrated and nourished while taking day trips or spending time outdoors. When packed correctly, they can keep your food and beverages at 40°F or below so it doesn’t risk spoiling or causing any harmful food illnesses!
How to Safely Pack a Cooler in Warm Weather
A full cooler is a happy cooler. Did you know that a full cooler would maintain its cold temperature longer than one that is partially filled?2 The extra space that may be left can actually accelerate the rate in which the ice will melt and raise the internal temperature. Once done packing, fill the remaining space with more ice to prolong your coolers cold temperature!
Be mindful when filling ice boxes with raw meat, poultry, or seafood. Raw foods can contaminate ready to eat foods by cross contamination. Cross contamination is the unintentional transfer of microorganisms from one food item (or person) to another food item, most commonly a ready to eat food. Cross contamination can cause foodborne illnesses that in some cases can even be fatal to some individuals!3 If packing raw meats, use a separate cooler for just the raw meat items, or place meats in secured containers so there’s no cross contamination with ready to eat foods. Make sure to place your ready-prepared foods at the top of your cooler. Try storing these foods that are ready to be enjoyed in watertight containers to prevent any contact with melting ice water or other contaminants. It’s best to pack your cooler from bottom to top in this order per food safety regulations as well as to protect yourself and those you love from foodborne illness!
Don’t risk guessing if a food item is safe to eat or not if your cooler seems to have warmed up. While packing, include an appliance thermometer in the cooler to make sure it reads 40 F or below! Ensure your food stays colder longer by also packing perishable temperature sensitive items directly from the freezer or refrigerator into the cooler. This tip is important specifically for raw meat items. Packing them while still frozen can ensure they will stay out of the danger zone!
Tips for the Beach
Try to designate a separate packed cooler for just beverages. At the beach it's easy to become dehydrated and in need of fluids frequently. If you’re with a group of friends or family, this cooler will most likely be opened more frequently allowing the warm air contact with the inside of the cooler. Minimize the risk of food items melting by having one cooler containing only beverages that are made available for everyone to enjoy and stay hydrated!
Want to make the most of your beach day by prolonging your cooler’s cold temperature? Partially bury your cooler in the sand! This will minimize the surface contact of the cooler to the hot air and temperatures extending the cold packed items! You can even pack an extra blanket designated to cover the cooler to keep it out of direct sunlight. Have an extra umbrella you’re not using? Make it useful by having it serve as a source of shade for your icebox!
Plan on spending the whole day soaking up sun? Prepare two coolers of food items! One cooler used for immediate food use such as snacks or lunch to be enjoyed a few hours into your beach stay. The second one used for other perishable food items that will be enjoyed after lunch to ensure it stays closed and as cool as possible, prolonging the safe temperature of your food.
What to Pack for the Perfect Day Trip
Once the weather gets warmer it's easy to become dehydrated due to the summer heat. Remember to take breaks and hydrate yourself before even feeling thirsty. Packing appropriate beverages can ensure you are staying hydrated and will reduce the risk of heat exhaustion. Water will almost always maintain your hydration during heat exposure outside as long as you consume snacks and meals to replace salt that is lost through your sweat.5 Contrary to what many may think, you may not necessarily need sports drinks to replenish yourself. If drinking adequate water and snacking on fruits and other whole grain snacks, you will adequately provide the needed nutrients lost while sweating. The over consumption of sport drinks will add unnecessary calories and added sugars to your diet.
Eat your water! Yes, eat your water! Though drinking water is a necessity in warmer climates, much of the food we consume actually contains water that will help keep you hydrated with bonus added nutrients. Watermelon, strawberries, cantaloupe, peaches, oranges, cucumbers, lettuce, and so many more fruits and vegetables are composed of large percentages of water along with vitamins and minerals to keep you and your body happy and healthy all summer long.6
We all hope this summer brings exciting new adventures and lasting memories. Take these tips with you to keep your food cold and your days warm and sunny!
- Zhang S.; 2021. https://unsplash.com/s/photos/cooler-picnic. Accessed April 15, 2021
- Check Your Steps! Chill: How to Pack a Cooler to Prevent Food Poisoning. Usda.gov. https://www.usda.gov/media/blog/2011/07/26/check-your-steps-chill-how-pack-cooler-prevent-food-poisoning. Published 2021. Accessed April 15, 2021.
- Food Safety Program, For Processors and Distributors Fact Sheet. Gov.mb.ca. https://www.gov.mb.ca/agriculture/food-safety/at-the-food-processor/food-safety-program/pubs/fs_7.pdf. Published 2021. Accessed April 15, 2021
- Heat Stress: Hydration. Cdc.gov. https://www.cdc.gov/niosh/mining/UserFiles/works/pdfs/2017-126.pdf. Published 2021. Accessed April 15, 2021.
- Food Data Chart - Water. Apjcn.nhri.org.tw. http://apjcn.nhri.org.tw/server/info/books-phds/books/foodfacts/html/data/data2b.html. Published 2021. Accessed April 15, 2021