How to Keep Food Safe in a Cooler
Video and photo by Michaela Parker and Susan Collins-Smith
Summer weather has arrived and that has lots of people bound for the outdoors. Whether your family is headed to the park for a cookout, the beach for vacation, to the lake for a day on the boat, or on a day trip to explore our state, you’ll likely be taking a cooler.
You’ll want to take some steps to ensure your food doesn’t spoil and your family doesn’t get sick.
- Pack refrigerated and frozen foods into the cooler just before leaving the house.
- Use plenty of ice or gel packs and fill the cooler completely full. Pack any remaining empty space with more ice or ice packs. Open the cooler as few times as possible to keep it cold longer.
- Place an appliance thermometer in the cooler to be sure cold foods are kept at 40 degrees F or below. Bacteria that cause food-borne illness grow rapidly between 40 degrees and 140 degrees F.
- Pack raw meats and seafood in sealed containers or zip-top bags at the bottom of the cooler so any leaked juices don’t get on other foods in the cooler. Frozen meats and seafood will help keep the cooler cold longer.
- Consider taking two or more coolers depending on the type and length of your outing or vacation. One just for beverages, which will be opened frequently. Another for foods that will be eaten while traveling to your destination. And maybe another for foods that will be cooked or eaten later in the vacation.
- Return perishable foods to the cooler within 1 hour if the outside temperature is 90 degrees F or above. Put perishable foods into a cooler within 2 hours when the temperature is below 90 degrees.
- Help keep the cooler cold longer by placing it in the shade if possible. If you’re at the beach, keep it under an umbrella, partially bury the cooler in the sand, and cover it with some thick towels or a blanket.
If you’ll be cooking meat or seafood on your trip, take along a food thermometer. If you don’t have one, you can buy one for about $10. It comes in handy at home, too.
Our Extension publications 3046, “Food Safety at Barbecues and Picnics,” and 3328, “Tailgating Food Safety,” provide more information about how to keep food safe in a cooler and during outdoor outings.
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