How to Pack a Healthy Cooler

Learn How to Pack Up a Cooler With Healthy Snacks

How to Pack a Healthy Cooler

Whether you are heading to the beach or gearing up for a weekend at the ballpark, packing up a cooler with your snacking and meal essentials is a crucial step so that you aren’t so hungry that you have no choice but to eat park or fast food. And if you are going through the steps to plan for healthy eating for your family, you want to ensure your food’s safety by following the suggestions below.

Prior to Packing Your Cooler:

  • Cool your cooler. If your cooler has been in the attic or garage (or anywhere warm), bring it inside to cool it off the day before you plan to pack it.
  • Clean your cooler. Who knows what was in your cooler last or if it got washed. Use warm water and dishwashing soap to give the inside a good scrub to clean out any potentially hazardous organisms that could be lurking.
  • Use leak-proof containers for your food. This keeps melting ice from entering your food containers and ruining your hard work and delicious food.
  • Cool the food that will go into the cooler. Adding warm or room temperature food to your cooler reduces the life of your ice and warms up the cooler.
  • Packing raw meat? Invest in a second cooler for raw meat to ensure no contamination. If you can’t do this, pack raw meat at the bottom of your cooler.
  • When do you want to eat that? Plan when you’ll eat your foods so that you can pack them in reverse order, with the last foods you’ll eat packed at the bottom of the cooler. This keeps you from having to dig deep into the cooler, most likely having to remove foods on top, thus those foods are no longer being cooled.
  • Packing lots of drinks for your trip? If you are packing lots of drinks such that you’ll have to frequently open your cooler, consider packing a small cooler with drinks instead. Another thought is to have an insulated cup filled with water for everyone at the start of the trip to allow you to avoid opening the cooler. Why not also keep hydrating foods handy?
  • Keep a thermometer inside your cooler. To ensure that your food stays safe, use a thermometer to make sure that the temperature remains at or below 40 degrees Fahrenheit.

What to Pack in Your Cooler

  • Plenty of water. We like to bring (or stop at a store to buy once we’ve reached our destination) gallons of water to refill reusable insulated water bottles, and we keep one in the cooler at all times.
  • Plenty of fruit. Look for what's in season and get it prepped for travel. For our last trip, I found a beautiful pineapple that we cut up and took along. It was fantastic to have as a poolside snack.
  • Raw vegetables. Whether you bring several raw vegetables and dip or maybe a pasta salad with lots of vegetables, bring vegetables to balance out the meals or to snack on. Hummus is a great option to use as a dip for the vegetables or to add to whole grain crackers.
  • Breakfast on the go. An easily transported and eaten on the go breakfast is an egg baked with spinach in a muffin tin. Simply crack an egg on top of a few spinach leaves in a greased muffin tin and bake at 350 degrees for 15 minutes. You can make as many as you’d like, wrap them individually in plastic wrap, freeze them, put them into a plastic bag, then add them to your ice chest. We serve them with some of our fresh fruit, a few whole wheat crackers (or mini muffins) and milk. Another favorite is a hard cooked egg. Prior to a trip, making whole grain mini muffins gives you the option to add them to a breakfast or to use as a snack. Muffins freeze well to put in the cooler as well.
  • Snacks. Plan for snacking in the car and while at the beach, the ballpark, or wherever the road takes you. What can you pack?
    • Individual bags of fresh fruit
    • Mini muffins that you’ve baked and frozen
    • Homemade snack bars, like granola bars or energy bites.
    • Cheese sticks or other individually wrapped cheeses.
    • Hummus. You can portion out individual hummus servings if you’d like.
  • Milk, cheese, yogurt. For milk, try packing a half gallon carton(s) of organic milk to make the best use of space. You can always buy more milk if necessary. Packing cheese sticks and other types of easily portable cheese works well for travel. Something we enjoy at the ballpark are parfaits. You can bring along a large yogurt in your cooler, then for each day of ballpark play or beach fun, you can portion the yogurt into small reusable containers. Add some fresh fruit if you’d like and bring along granola in a baggie to toss on when it’s time to eat.
  • Meals on the go.
    • Tuna salad or chicken salad. This is a great one for the first day or two. Just keep it in the cooler until it’s time to eat it.
    • Baked chicken wraps. Try baking chicken (or turkey) in your favorite way prior to the trip and cutting it into strips.  This freezes well, especially if you freeze the strips side by side on a baking pan so that you have individual pieces and not a chicken blob.  Then put all of your strips into plastic bags in the portions that you’d use for one meal. You can use it in a wrap along with your other favorite wrap ingredients. We like to bring along lettuce and cherry tomatoes, as well as a light Caesar dressing that we use sparingly, to make chicken Caesar wraps. Another way the kids enjoy it is in a wrap with a slice of provolone, spinach and cashews.
    • Nitrate-free deli meat to make deli meat, cheese and roasted red bell pepper wraps.  Other favorite fillers include spinach or other greens, pickles, and/or nuts.
    • Think of any cold items that are essential for other meals, such as jelly for your peanut butter and jelly or mustard for a sandwich so that you can pack that too.

Remember to keep the lid of your cooler closed as much as possible. And when you take foods out of it, keep them out for a maximum of two hours or for one hour maximum on days where the temperature is above 90​ degrees Fahrenheit. A good rule of thumb is to have your food out of the cooler as little as possible.

For cooling your food in your cooler, try laying a freezer bag filled with a layer of water flat in your freezer to freeze before your trip. You can make as many of these “ice blocks” as you need for your cooler.

If you can, bring a minimum of two coolers. A larger rolling cooler can transport the bulk of your food and can be kept in your hotel room, and a smaller one with a shoulder strap can be used to pack for a morning or afternoon at the park or beach. If you’ll be out for a whole day, you may need your larger cooler. 

Non-cooler Staples to Pack

  • Bread/whole wheat tortillas/whole wheat crackers
  • Peanut butter or other nut butters
  • Honey
  • Snacks that don’t need to be in the cooler, such as snack bars, individual cups of applesauce, fruit pouches, and individual portions of nuts and dried fruit.
  • Apples
  • A small container of dish soap
  • Plastic bags to pack snacks and lunches as needed
  • Knife.  A non-disposable knife may be handy for cutting apples or other items that would be difficult to cut with a plastic knife.
  • Three-compartment lunch containers. These containers make on-the-go meals so much easier to eat for kids. They are simple to wash in your hotel sink to reuse over and over.
  • Paper products/plastic utensils and anything else you need for serving

More information about packing up healthy food for your child athlete, if you are attending a sporting event, can be found here. Another great resource, titled 7 Nutrition Tips for Young athletes, may also help you with your food planning.

The above suggestions are for when you will not have the time or the amenities to cook. If you’ll have an oven, grill or crock pot and would like to cook, feel free to pack some frozen casseroles, frozen and ready to dump into the crock pot meals, or foods for grilling. Super Healthy Kids is an excellent resource for recipes and ideas for a healthy child and family, including recipes for foods and snacks that travel well. Going out to a restaurant is definitely an option too, but with proper planning and cooler packing, you can save restaurant eating for when you would like to go, rather than out of necessity because everyone is hungry and cranky.

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