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How to Pack a Cooler the Right Way

Sunny summer weather calls for having picnics and throwing barbecues, which means transporting perishable foods from the store to the outdoors. CommonGround farm shares food facts and offers tips on how to pack a cooler safely, ensuring that foods don't go bad.

Whether transporting food in a picnic basket or a cooler, you always have to be mindful of the temperatures so that perishable foods do not go bad. Registered dietician and Maryland CommonGround volunteer-farmer Jennifer Schimdt says there is one way to pack a cooler safely—and it starts with ice.

Grilling Cartoon

“Heat rises, so be sure to put ice on the bottom of the cooler and pack it tightly around food so perishable items can stay cool,” Schmidt says. “Most foods need to be kept below 40 degrees Fahrenheit to avoid spoiling, so ice is necessary.”

For caterer and Ohio CommonGround volunteer-farmer Kristin Reese, summer food safety continues at the grill, making sure food is cooked to the right temperature.

“It is so important for burgers and other grilled meat to be cooked internally when it’s hot outside,” she says. “The proper internal grilling temperatures range from 145 degrees Fahrenheit for beef and pork, to 165 degrees Fahrenheit for poultry.”

Reese also suggests placing leftover or unused meat back into the cooler right after you have finished.

CommonGround offers mothers and other consumers a connection to farming and facts about food. Here are five tips on how to pack a cooler so your foods do not spoil.

1. Frozen and Refrigerated Foods Last Longer
Pack perishable foods, like meat and chicken, directly from the refrigerator or freezer. Schmidt says that frozen food acts as another cooling block, helping to keep the cooler temperature lower for longer. Frozen foods also reduce bacterial growth on the food and unnecessary dripping inside the cooler.

2. Pack Separate Cooler
When traveling long distances, be sure to pack two separate coolers. Fill one with food and the other with drinks. Reese says this allows a consistent temperature to remain in the food cooler and perishable foods will still be fresh when it’s time to eat. Sometimes she freezes bottled drinks for the drink cooler. To maintain cool temperature, open and close the cooler lids quickly and store them under a shady spot.

3. The Safe Zone
Discard any food that is left out for more than two hours. If food is left out any longer it is at risk of increased bacterial growth. If temperatures are above 90 degrees Fahrenheit, one hour is the maximum time a product should sit out.

4. Correct Wrapping and Placement Does the Trick
When transporting food in a cooler with meat or vegetables, wrap food in plastic sealable bags to catch any spills or drips of juice. Schmidt says when raw meat is not covered, it can leak to the bottom of the cooler or potentially drip on other foods and cause contamination. She adds that if you have to pack meat and vegetables in the same cooler, pack meat products on the bottom.

5. Don’t Forget Clean Utensils
Cooking utensil safety is just as important as your food. To avoid cross contamination, use different utensils for cooking and cutting meats and vegetables. Schmidt suggests keeping utensils clean by storing them outside of the cooler in a bag or wrapped in a clean kitchen towel. Use moist towelettes to clean hands between handling different foods or playing outside.

All food safety facts are provided by the United States Department of Agriculture.

This article is courtesy of CommonGround, a grassroots movement to foster conversation among women on farms and in cities about where our food comes from. Learn more about CommonGround at

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