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University of Minnesota Extension

Packing the cooler for a road trip

I'm going on a vacation and I'm not afraid...afraid of getting sick from a food related illness, that is. Planning is the key to food safety so you don't get sick during your trip. You need to decide what you are going to eat; how you're going to cook it; and what equipment you'll need.

With a little planning and preparation, you can do some fine dining just about anywhere -- parks, roadside rest stops or in your car. Keep food safety in mind when packing the cooler.

Cooler packing tips

  • Pack foods directly from the refrigerator into the cooler. Start with cold or frozen food. Juices, meats, even milk, can be placed in the cooler in the frozen state to help keep the rest of the food cold. It will thaw in time for serving.
  • Keep meat and poultry separate from foods that will be eaten raw. Use a separate cooler or place them in a leak proof container or bag.
  • A full cooler will stay colder longer than one partially filled.
  • Use the right size cooler to meet your needs.
  • Remember, foods like lunchmeats, cooked chicken, potato or pasta salads need to be kept in a cooler. Keep the food at 40 degrees F or colder.
  • Pack your cooler with several inches of ice or use frozen gel-packs, frozen juice boxes or frozen water bottles. Block ice keeps longer than ice cubes. Use clean, empty milk or water jugs to pre-freeze blocks of ice.
  • Store food in watertight containers to prevent contact with melting ice water.
  • If the cooler is only partially filled, pack with more ice or with nonperishable food like peanut butter, jelly, and hard-like cheese.
  • Keep the cooler inside the car where it's air-conditioned and not in the trunk.
  • Cover it with a heavy bath towel for further insulation.
  • Limit the times the cooler is opened. Open and close the lid quickly.

Suzanne Driessen, Extension educator

Reviewed in 2021

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