Packing the Cooler for Your Local 4th of July Events
Your cooler is like your home away from home when you're on a holiday outing — or at least a kitchen away from your kitchen. It holds your food and drinks and keeps them at the right temperature, but how can you arrange it so that it also holds dinnerware and other items you'll need for your picnic? We've got plenty of tips and ideas to help you pack and haul what you need without getting bogged down. In addition, we'll let you know what types of food and beverages fit best into a hard-sided cooler without getting squished.
Get a set of wheels: Your items will be easier to tote along if you have a wagon or wheeled utility cart that holds your large-capacity cooler and has room for a few bags, cans, blankets, and other supplies for your outing. If you prefer to rely on just a cooler, opt for one with wheels and we'll tell you how to hack it so it carries more than just food.
Invest in cooler accessories: Manufacturers of hard-sided coolers know that the real estate inside is limited, so they've created an ecosystem of nets, baskets, dividers, shelves, and even cooler lighting to help you make the most of your mobile fridge. This one time investment pays in return when you can take food on the road with you and avoid the high cost of eating out along the way.
- Nets and baskets (think freezer-style baskets) help you compartmentalize dry goods, bags of sunscreen, utensils and dinnerware items, and food containers.
- Thin dividers don't take up much room, but they're highly functional. Some also double as cutting boards.
- As an extra cooling tool, invest in a thermal insulated carryall tote to pack last-minute items you can't fit into your cooler.
Opt for disposable dinnerware: Here's when paper plates, paper cups, and plastic utensils can save the day. They're lightweight, already packaged so they can't get wet, and once used, you'll free up space to bring home leftovers. If you run out of paper plates, eat salad-type foods and snacks like fruit chunks and chips out of cups. Kids love cup dining and it'll keep (most) food from falling on the ground.
Focus on finger foods: Of course you'll have napkins, but bringing items that you can eat by hand makes your outing easier. Finger foods include chicken wings (which taste great hot or cold), kebab skewers, chips, dips (such as hummus, salsa, and guacamole), and sliced veggies.
Pack individual serving sizes: Though it may seem the opposite of economical, bringing individual servings of foods like hummus and guacamole can actually save you the cost of throwing out partially used containers of food. Consider the snack-sized versions of these. Just open what you need as you finish one container and bring home the rest of the unopened portions.
Fill up on sturdy sandwiches: Save the soft bread for home and go for submarine rolls or a loaf of crusty French or Italian bread for picnic sandwiches. Here are some quick ways to whip up a gourmet-style sandwich that'll withstand the trip inside the cooler:
- Pesto loaf: Spread a layer of pesto on the inside of a loaf of crusty bread. Layer it up with thin slices of fresh mozzarella cheese, hard salami, and sliced plum tomatoes. Cut the loaf into single servings.
- Artichoke loaf: Brush the inside of a crusty loaf of bread with either olive oil or pesto. Layer it with salami, your favorite cheese, carved turkey, sliced tomatoes, greens, and marinated artichokes. Finish the stack with a layer of basil leaves. Cut the loaf into individual servings.
- Red pepper loaf: Brush the inside of the loaf with olive oil. Then stack it with roasted red peppers, sliced red onions, torn basil leaves, sliced olives, mozzarella cheese, fresh sliced tomatoes, cooked ham, and salt and pepper to taste. Cut to size.
Bring a drink dispenser: Though it's optional and probably won't fit into a cooler, a drink dispenser can save you from hearing how thirsty everyone is once all the packed beverages are long gone. You can easily refill it with water for the trip home or bring along powdered drink mixes to make up a batch in a pinch. A plastic dispenser filled with lemonade or picnic punch mix will satisfy everyone on a hot 4th of July outing. To make a picnic punch that won't spoil and can hold out for hours, mix together the following:
- 8 cups cranberry juice (or any of the cranberry juice combinations, such as cranberry-tangerine, cranberry-apple, cranberry-strawberry, or cranberry-raspberry)
- 3 cups pineapple juice
- 3 cups orange juice (no pulp)
- 1/4 cup lemon juice
Keep a bottle of ginger ale chilled in the cooler and add it to the dispenser once you're setting up your spread at your destination.
Pack like a pro: Every inch counts in your cooler, so consider these tips. Remember that you're starting from the bottom of the cooler and packing up to the top.
- Beverages should line the bottom if you're taking only one cooler. The drinks stay chilled longer at the bottom and won't squish your food.
- Now, add in a layer of ice.
- Next, pack any frozen perishables like frozen meats for the barbecue. These will defrost on the way to your outing. This is also the layer where you'll pack dairy-based salads and desserts.
- The top layer can hold any soft item that squishes easily, such as burger buns.
- Add more ice and ice packs on the sides and around the food.
- Remember to double bag everything, even if it's already packed in an airtight container, to keep food dry and away from melted ice.
If you're going to the beach with your cooler, here's a tip from the Foodsafety.gov site: partially bury your cooler in the sand, cover it with blankets or towels, or protect it from the sun with an umbrella. It's always best to have a separate ice chest dedicated for drinks if you have the space. That way, your main food-filled cooler stays closed and remains chilled longer.