Cooler Cheat Sheet

Learn how to pack a healthy, delicious picnic, no matter what the day has in store.
Cheat Sheets

Where are you going this summer with your trusty cooler, and how many bad things are you going to cram into it? It's easy to grab a bag of chips and a can of soda for that day at the beach or outdoor concert, but our nutrition and cooler experts tell us that there's a better way to plan a day's worth of snacks and drinks.

"It's absolutely possible to pack a healthy, well-rounded meal in the cooler," says nutritionist and recipe editor Leslie Fink, MS, RD."Coolers are portable refrigerators so virtually any food you can eat cold has potential to be great out of your cooler.

"When I go to the beach, I pack a fabulous three-course lunch in a cooler filled with ice packs," says Fink. "The same rules apply as for any other meal: think whole grains, lean protein, a little bit of healthy fat, lots of fruit and veggies, and water. In a separate container, pack some healthy, non-perishable snacks like roasted almonds, pretzels and baked chips. Even cold pizza and gazpacho will do. Aim for a meal that gives you a burst of quick energy from carbohydrates and then longer-term energy from protein and some healthy fat."

Fink's favorite cooler lunch is a turkey wrap made with a whole wheat tortilla spread with honey mustard and layered with thinly sliced Fuji apples, cucumbers and smoked gouda cheese. She pairs it with carrots and hummus, fresh fruit salad and a little something sweet like bite-size brownies or mini chocolate chip cookies. Other great options include:

  • a lean ham or roast beef sandwich with a little hummus, avocado, black bean spread or oil and vinegar.
  • hard-boiled eggs with whole grain crackers and fresh fruit.
  • cold chicken with vegetable-pasta salad.
  • cold turkey meatloaf and grilled vegetables.

Kathleen Zelman MPH, RD, LD, spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association, WebMD's director of nutrition, and co-author of numerous books including A Harvest of Healing Foods, packs enough to keep her palate pleased on every trip.

"I'm fond of packing grain medleys, bean salads, fruit, veggies, chicken breasts, and salsas," Zelman said. "There really is no reason not to be able to keep any of this food cold because you can freeze your juice or water bottles and let them serve as both beverages and cooling elements."

And speaking of drinks, Fink has a simple mantra: "Water, water, water." Juice and soda are fine in moderation, but bear in mind that caffeine is a diuretic and can cause you to lose fluid so go light on the iced lattes. Flavored seltzer always makes a better choice than sugary or caffeinated sodas. And sure, toss in a few light beers if you're so inclined — "Just make sure to keep hydrated with lots of H2O," says Fink.

Cooler packing tips
Sofia Romano has a cool job. As the manager at (designer of trendy and useful coolers) she tests new and unique ways to put food on ice, and while minding her PointsPlus values, she brings a cooler everywhere she goes.

"I can't imagine how anyone lives without a cooler," Romano said. "I pack mine right, and eat great while my friends indulge in some way-over-my-PointsPlus target (albeit sometimes delicious) fast food." How she does it:

Sofia's Tips:

  • Keep it cold. Take food straight from fridge to cooler.
  • If the cooler is half full, put some ice in a baggie or use frozen water bottles to fill it up. “Space allows air to circulate which will not keep your food as fresh.”
  • “Loose ice is damaging to soft side coolers; go with plastic or use ice packs.”
  • Cold air travels down, so place beverages in the cooler first and what should not be frozen on top.
  • Don't stash your cooler in the sun, or in a hot car.
  • Packed correctly, beverages should stay cold for two to eight hours depending on how you pack and how much ice you use. Food, not so long.
  • A cooler is not meant to re-chill food that has remained at a temperature of 40°F or above for one hour or more. Only food that has remained at safe temperatures should be placed back into the cooler.
  • Fill ‘er up: A full cooler will maintain temperatures longer than a half-empty cooler.
  • Coolers can be used for cooling AND keeping foods warm. Use warming gel packs and stuff kitchen towels around dishes.
  • There is an art to packing: put the hard, cold stuff on the bottom, add ice, then the squashable stuff at the top.

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