Are you heading to the beach or planning a picnic in the park? If so, you are probably using a cooler to tote along food and beverages for your outing. Coolers help to keep your food and drinks cold, but did you know a cooler also keeps your family safe from foodborne illnesses? The number of people that get sick from foodborne illnesses increases during the summer because of the many outdoor activities involving food.
Follow these tips on packing a cooler and keeping food chilled so you can enjoy your summer fun without the worry of foodborne illnesses.
It starts with the cooler.
- If your cooler has been sitting in a garage or basement over the winter, bring it into the house a day or two before your outing.
- Clean the inside with hot, soapy water, rinse and spray it with an equal mix of water and vinegar.
- Leave the lid open so the inside can dry completely.
- Pre-chill the cooler by filling it with ice or ice packs a couple of hours before you are ready to pack it. This helps to ensure that your food stays colder longer.
Packing your cooler correctly.
- Ice blocks are best for keeping food cold. You can purchase ice packs or make your own by filling containers like plastic bottles with water and freezing.
- Place ice in the bottom of cooler and pack perishable foods on top. Place items in the cooler in the reverse order that you will use them. Pack foods directly from the refrigerator.
- You can even freeze some foods, like juice boxes, milk and meats so they thaw in the cooler.
- Fill in the gaps with reusable flexible ice sheets or small water bottles.
- Wash fruits and vegetables before packing so they are ready to eat when you arrive at your destination.
- Keep meat and poultry separate from fruits, vegetables and salads that you serve raw. You may consider a smaller, separate cooler for your meats. Pack all meats in airtight bags or leak-proof plastic containers to prevent cross contamination and messy coolers.
- Remember foods like lunch meat, cooked chicken, potato and pasta salad need to stay cold in a cooler.
- Since people will be having drinks all day long, it may be better to pack a separate cooler for drinks. Pre-chilling or partially freezing drinks keeps them cold even longer. Place drinks in cooler first and then place ice packs on top.
Safety tips for protecting your family and friends.
- Don’t forget a thermometer. One of the best ways to keep your food safe is to make sure the temperature inside the cooler is below 40°F. Instead of guessing, tuck an appliance thermometer inside the cooler for a foolproof reading.
- Cold escapes every time you open the cooler so keep these times to a minimum.
- If grilling is in your plans, pack a food thermometer to be sure you cook food to the proper temperatures. If you are not sure what temperature, check out foodsafety.gov for guidance.
- If possible, keep the cooler in the front of the car when traveling where it is air-conditioned instead of the hot trunk.
- Find a shaded area to keep your cooler and cover it with a heavy beach towel or blanket to protect it from the heat.
- Be sure to use a cooler that is the right size for your needs. A full cooler stays colder longer than one that is half-full.
Food safety is important all year long but foodborne illnesses increase during summer months due to poor handling. Enjoy your summer fun by using a properly packed cooler to keep food safe for your family. For more information on food handling tips in the outdoors, check out the Food & Drug Administration’s safe handling tips.